Styrannya

If you had to choose a single photograph to represent a loved one what would it be? How would you make this choice, especially if you might never see them again? When people go missing in war, a sense of urgency overrides this choice. Styrannya is the Ukrainian word for erasure and attrition. This project looks at and responds to what happens when photos representing loved ones go out into the world amid panic and desperation and are lost.
 
In mid-March 2022, I began encountering photographs in my social media feed I had not seen before. At first glance, they were ordinary snapshots of ordinary people that any friend could have shared of family life. The captions, however, revealed that these were calls for help by friends and family desperately searching for loved ones who had disappeared, mostly from the Mariupol region of Ukraine.
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Reuters reported In November 2022, that at least 15,000 Ukrainian civilians had gone missing since the start of the war [1]. However, they stated that this number did not include the Mariupol area,  where perhaps 25,000 additional people might have gone missing,  a figure impossible to verify under Russian occupation.
 
Notices for missing people are not a new phenomenon. However, it was unsettling to see them appear on my screen in real-time from an active war zone, intermixed with the prosaic contents of my daily feed. There was a cognitive dissonance I found hard to process.
 
How could I engage with these photos and be of some use before the person I was looking at was lost forever to the never-ending scroll? In addition to the person going missing, I felt a secondary loss occurring. Photos replaced photos and it was impossible to remember the faces, let alone do anything constructive.
 
My initial response was to screen-capture the photographs of these individuals as they appeared on my phone to prevent them from being swept into the ocean of data oblivion. I decided that these digital images needed to be made physical, taking up space in the real world and not easily deleted. Through an exposure of the photo on my phone screen, the image is frozen within the silver grains of photographic paper. Simply printing the screen captures as of the social media posts was not enough. These images are ultimately about this group of people and not the situations in the shared photographs. While printing, the photographs were tightly cropped to the individuals, transforming the image from snapshot to portrait. Processing chemistry is hand-applied and allowed to intermingle and leave marks, performing a dual function of developing the print and conveying a photographic sense of loss and violation.
 
Within the screen-captured images were fragments of captions written by those searching. Later in the project, I did an experiment of compiling these together into a long document. Through this, I realised the power and importance of these words. They conveyed a sense of what was happening on the ground to this population, largely missing in reporting the war from this area.
 
I have no means of knowing what happened to these individuals. They may have been located the next day or may still be missing. We still know very little about what happened in this part of Ukraine. It is essential for me that the ordinary people impacted by this war are remembered; that is why I have made this project, utilising photography to respond to the call of the photos I saw passing by me on my phone.​​​​​​​

1) Deutsch, A., ‘More than 15,000 people missing in War in Ukraine, says official’, Reuters [website], 24/11/2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/more-than-15000-people-missing-war-ukraine-says-official-2022-11-24/, (accessed 20/07/2023)