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“I have no use for destroyed houses, I need people and their stories”

Ukrainian documentary photographer Oleksandr Chekmeniov talks about residents of the Donbas and the causes of today’s events in the eastern regions
14 October, 10:51

Oleksandr Chekmeniov is a documentary photographer, belonging to a rare profession in Ukraine, laureate and winner of European and international photo exhibitions, and author of two books, Donbass and Black-and-White Photo. He is now preparing to release another one, about people of the Euromaidan, with the date set for the end of 2014. His images offer a portrait of the entire Donbas. Photos that are included in Donbass were taken back in the early 1990s and indicate the reasons for the humanitarian disaster that is happening in the region. No Cabinet and no president has managed to solve this problem. These pictures show the lives of ordinary miners from Luhansk region who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of coal.

Chekmeniov has taken an interest in the Donbas in part because he is a native of Luhansk region. His parents and friends are still living there. “My grandmother, who was born in western Ukraine, broke the law to have her age, then just 15, raised by two years in her ID, allowing her to go to work. She was then sent to push mine carts. They had to lay her off after some time, though, as she began to cough up blood,” the photographer told us.

“My parents understand what is happening. They are now almost 70. They live in Kamiany Brid district near Stukalova Balka. All my relatives lay buried in the cemetery of the town of Metalist, and Kamiany Brid district, where my childhood home is still standing, is next to Metalist,” the photographer said.

Your photos, in fact, documented reasons for today’s events...

“That is right. I photographed the Donbas for 15 years. Everyone said, ‘Oh, yes, the Donbas, Chekmeniov, well done.’ But a lot of photos stood for a lot of stories that are lost in the modern digital world. I really do not care about being a prominent photographer, I am concerned about my works and their characters, but no one notices them. I was able to publish the book in Germany, and had to import it illegally into Ukraine. It was not welcomed here. I think it would be good to do a traveling exhibition, show photos in different regions of Ukraine, as it would introduce people to what was really happening in the Donbas over all these years.

“I recently had visitors from a distant Russian province, they saw this book, closed it unable to browse to the end, and started crying. They could not understand how these poor people risked their lives daily and lived under such conditions.”

What was the public’s response to your photos then, and is there any interest in them now?

“Now there is no response at all. I became the photographer of the year in 2014, because I held an exhibition about the Donbas. I was given a cash prize and a glass bowl. But that was it. There was nothing more, no further exhibitions. I   can say that the meeting at Donetsk’s IZOLYATSIA Foundation, that I had two years ago, was not too popular either. I brought a few dozen books, but they have remained with me by and large. During the discussion, there were about 20 people in the room. That is, they [Donetsk residents. – Ed.] were not interested, they knew it all already.

“The whole point is that no one is interested in showing this perspective on the Donbas. I had two cases in which MPs of two opposing factions, including the Party of Regions (PoR), stated their desire to allocate funds for the development of this project, but did not do it. After all, I could publish the book even before 2008. We then tried to contact president Viktor Yushchenko’s inner circle and ask for help from him. Viktor Topalov MP then expressed a desire to help. He swore to do ‘everything for the Donbas,’ but as soon as we were all prepared, he said he was ‘not about politics.’ The PoR, too, proved too afraid to publish it, and said that the book could be understood in different ways, and it would be to their disadvantage. They offered me to add their opening remarks to the book, but I refused, because in this case, the whole idea of it would have changed.”

Still, there are several photo projects picturing the Donbas. For example, one by Viktor Marushchenko...

“I respect Marushchenko, he helped me in 1999-2000, when he sent my application to the International Photographic Competition in Switzerland, where I won. We pictured the same houses. He acted as a camera photographer, filmed everything from over the shoulder and left. He did a very thin book, more like a brochure. Therefore, it seems to me that his work did not come out as strong as it could have.”

Now to the matter of IZOLYATSIA. In the beginning, when the foundation was just seized, there was a video on the Internet where a terrorist militiaman commented on the photos of Borys Mykhailov, saying that they were corrupting the population...

“My personal opinion is that a humanitarian disaster was staged for a reason. It was created as an excuse for the ‘friendly’ Russian troops to intervene. I am most afraid of it. People talked about this a lot in Luhansk. The reasons for such conversations were many. One of them was that Serhii Kravchenko, a former mayor of the city, and Oleksandr Yefremov, an MP of the PoR faction (now member of the Opposition Bloc) and a former governor, were going about wearing pro-Russian symbols, St. George’s ribbons. Luhansk region has really suffered a disaster. However, it does not matter for these people. They are clearly at fault here. After all, when police and security service offices were ‘seized,’ loyal people of the oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Oleksandr Yefremov, were the first to enter the buildings. It seems to me that at an early stage of the conflict, Luhansk could be retaken very fast. Why this did not happen is another matter.”

How great is support for the militants among the locals?

“There is no support whatsoever. Recently, my friend called me and said that his home had been hit by a shell. I asked him whether he had brought his fishing rods out of it beforehand. ‘Of course, I moved my family and fishing rods out first,’ he said. For instance, according to him, the terrorists wanted to position a few Grad rocket launchers at a residential area in a village, the residents tried to remove them, cursed them in pure Russian, but the terrorists refused to go away, demanded money and threatened people with weapons. Since then, there has been no support for them in that locality. By the way, people are angry at our troops too. After all, they fire in response to the militants’ shellings, and often know well where this response lands.

“You know, we have a very tough people. I visited Mykolaivka near Sloviansk, where people are rebuilding everything on their own, without waiting for municipal and regional authorities to come to their aid. It is that way in Semenivka as well, which was also severely damaged. My artist friend told me the story of him sitting down with his friends to watch the soccer World Cup finals just as Grads launched a hellish shelling. They could not watch their soccer, as reception problems were just too much. Even so, one of them found a way out readily, offering them to move to his house in another area. So they did. Such cases were numerous. I   asked: ‘Why are you this way?’ and got answers: ‘You know, we are just tired. Tired of everything.’”

What have you recently filmed, and what projects are you preparing?

“I am now preparing a new book, which will be launched in Germany. This book is about the Euromaidan. I think it was a very important stage, the starting point of changes in this country. There is no way back anymore. I took pictures of people, I am interested in that very thing. My photos are now on display in Europe and North America.”



The Day presented at the Publishers’ Forum in Lviv a book about the Euromaidan created by our photographers...

“I like it. The more books, the more different views, the better. Works of art have lives of their own, and if they are interesting, they will live for a long time. Books remain in history.”

Have you ever wished to film a project about the war in the east of Ukraine?

“I was there. The magazine I work for commissioned me to tell the people’s stories. I brought back about 20 photo stories then. Unfortunately, only five of them have been published. In order to create a  separate book, I need more stuff. For example, I was filming in a hospital lately, but I took only one picture for my own use on that day. When filming for a magazine or newspaper, I can shoot a lot, but just one picture might be for my own use. After the liberation, I want to go and see my home, to visit my friends, who have lost their cars and had their homes damaged. For me, that is the real story, from start to finish.”

What is photography for you now: work, art, or something else?

“I live it, that is all. Even though I    might have taken a single shot on this or that occasion, it is enough to give me the strength needed to go on living. This is not a publication in a magazine, or a performance in any other media. Personally, I ascribe great importance to the solo exhibition which is scheduled to be held by the end of the year at a German gallery, where I exhibited Donbass. The book’s release is the next step, with Yurii Andrukhovych having promised to write the text for it.”

Has not Andrukhovych made repeated statements in favor of abandoning the Donbas, believing that Ukraine will develop faster and better then?

“I hope that my book will make him change his opinion.” (Laughs.)

What was the Euromaidan’s contribution to your life, except for the photos?

“I have befriended those who were there all the time. I met them often later on, already outside the Euromaidan. I began to establish what they were, who they were without masks and balaclavas. Using this knowledge as the basis, I did a project involving a few pictures of people at the Euromaidan in the revolutionary time and the same people without masks in everyday life. I met about a dozen such participants of the Euromaidan. Two of them fought near Luhansk. One man went to war in late July or early August. Another one has died... Nonetheless, he is pictured, masked, in the project. Photos are supplemented by texts. This project has been well appreciated by Time magazine of New York. An exhibition of these photos was held in Hamburg as well.”

We have talked about the humanitarian and cultural catastrophe. How, in your opinion, should this issue be resolved?

“First of all, the people should get enough to eat. We should block the Communist Party and the PoR’s influence in these regions, because it is they who inhibit the development of these regions. Only then we can turn to other things. We are now talking about the Donbas, but is the western Ukrainian situation actually not disastrous as well? There are no real jobs there at all. After all, it is impossible to live on 1,000 hryvnias a month.

SLOVIANSK, SUMMER 2014 / Photo by Oleksandr CHEKMENIOV


For instance, my mother is worried that because of the war her seedlings are gone, but I say: ‘Mom, the seedlings are of no significance, the only important thing is that you are safe.’ And she responds: ‘You know, son, what a loss it is for me, for I grew them with my own hands.’ It is this way because everyone tries to save every penny. Businesspeople and politicians benefit from keeping people in poverty. For example, my father worked all his life at a plant, and then retired. When Davyd Zhvania became the owner of the plant under Yushchenko, men wept seeing its structures sold for scrap iron. When some PoR members took control of the plant, they went even further by selling every last bit of it. Therefore, I believe that we need to break this vicious circle, to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. After all, do you remember how people from the whole USSR came to work at the Donbas enterprises? Everyone knows that the Donbas has money, but this money is held by very few people, who have intentionally put the rest in such a position where they cannot raise their heads, and think only about ways to secure their survival. What culture can exist under such conditions? I know several people who attempted to develop culture industry in Luhansk by creating gallery spaces, but they have all failed and returned to Kyiv, because working with people like Yefremov, for example, is just impossible.”

The Donbas is very often associated exactly with this oligarchic clan...

“The oligarchs benefit from this situation. They use it to force autonomy for themselves, even as they callously disregard other people’s interests. Look, after all, we, too, have been talking about politics rather than about photography.”

Is not photography actually inherently political?

“No, of course, they are different. Photography is a document of an era and its events, it is a kind of chronicle. No one has yet made a film about illegal mines, for example, which could have become such a chronicle. After all, this stuff is very topical, and there were times when it was a business of the masses. People brought coal home in wheelbarrows, excavated slagheaps. I looked at it and thought that it all would end soon, cease to be that way. It mostly happened so as well. I constantly think about it, but I cannot film it on my own. I suggested it to my friends, but nobody has done it. Therefore, there are German, French, Austrian and other movies about the Donbas, but no Ukrainian ones. For example, Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (Austria-Germany, 2005) explores the topic of manual labor in the 19th century. It was filmed in five countries: Ukraine, China, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan. The Ukrainian scenes took place in Donetsk in a closed mine, serving as the first part of the film. The issue of illegal manual labor in Ukraine has been revealed to the whole world. This film has received quite a few international awards.

“I know that all these oligarchs will sink into oblivion in time. Only the books and movies will be left, to tell the next generation about us. The more such works, the more will remain in the collective memory. After all, when I come there, I cannot film everything. I start to talk to people, but it does not work.

“I often hear: ‘What is the purpose of your filming us? We demand an explanation before allowing you to proceed with filming.’ It was this way on a defunct army training ground in the town of Zhovte, Luhansk oblast. It could be reached only by a ferry. The whole town lived off the old shells. I then said that I would like to film it as part of history, for it would disappear soon. My interlocutor laughed, and said that the metal stock will last for one more year. He allowed me to film, but asked me to delay releasing the pictures for a year, being afraid that some outsiders would come and take the metal. There had been an attempt before, but the people had defended their metal. I said then I was taking pictures for a book, and indeed, this picture got into the book which was then being compiled by Pavlo Hudymov. The latter chose that photo personally. My character was 26 or 27 at the time of filming, he was pictured tightening the screws. I shared a train compartment with an unfamiliar girl a few years later. Totally by accident, I had this book on me, and she asked my permission to browse through it. When she opened the page with this photo, she began to cry, and then asked me what kind of picture it was and where was it taken. I told her that it was taken in Zhovte, Luhansk oblast. It turned out that he was her brother, who died in the meantime. She said that she had only his childhood photos left, she had not seen him and had not known what happened to him for a long time. I printed out all takes of the photo I    had for her. She thanked me by writing a poem. This is just one case, while every picture tells someone’s story. Of course, I will never know many of them.

“I also remember how I filmed a woman with three young children in 1994. Her husband, the sole breadwinner, died shortly before the shooting. I then pondered the issue for a long time, worrying about her fate. Later on, I heard a man coughing, again on a train, and he sounded like a miner with black lung disease. I approached the man, he began to speak, and it turned out that he was from Luhansk and a neighbor of my character. I asked what had happened to that family, how they made their way in life, and he answered that the children grew to become gangsters.”

How are you going about the photographing process?

“There are at least two ways. One is when you stay unnoticed, and press button as soon as the right picture emerges. Any continuation is then totally up to the character, even though I try to convince them to talk. Another way requires hanging out with them for a long time. I needed at least half an hour of talk to one person in Semenivka and Mykolaivka. Some took as much as an hour to take just one picture. During our stay there, only two people came up to me and invited me to their homes to show the destruction. I always had to make excuses and assure them that I was an honest man, and no footage would be released without their consent. They feared that their real life and their problems would not be shown. Meanwhile, I have no use for destroyed houses, I need people and their real stories. Nothing can be done unless you are opening your stories and your very soul to the character. I have a picture where people stand posing against the backdrop of their destroyed homes. They could not stay cheerful for long, and started crying soon. I could not shoot this latter scene.”

Do you have any photographing taboos?

“I do not want to photograph aggressive and negative people. I do not want to channel this negative thinking via my pictures. You see, we do not appreciate the art of photography. Nobody wants good shots, you just need to be able to press the button. It is even worse in the Donbas, where a publication in Luganskaya Pravda used to be the greatest thing that could happen to a photographer. I arrived in Kyiv in the 1990s, and took my first job with Den. I understand how one must shoot for magazines and newspapers, but people are always posing in my photos. I have liked such pictures since my childhood years. I remember when the paper was just being launched, they released a large advertisement in the subway, and I, having just moved to Kyiv, entered Vokzalna station, took a seat in the car and saw my picture on this advertisement. I remember that this picture showed a poor, toothless man, who still laughed and enjoyed his life. I have never seen this advertisement again, but it has become symbolic for me.”

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