Styrannya

The moment I heard the news of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine on the morning of February 24, 2022, I immediately knew that this was one of those moments that occasionally happens throughout our lives when the world changes. Different from Russia’s opportunistic snatching of Ukrainian territory in 2014, this was Vladimir Putin’s full-on attempt to turn back the clocks and begin rebuilding the rusted empire that crumbled with the Berlin Wall while manufacturing a patriotic distraction for a Russian public increasingly weary of him.

Like many in Canada, I grew up connected with the culture and traditions handed down by family who emigrated. My grandparents from Ukraine began a new life in Canada around 1930. I suspect that Canadians with Ukrainian ancestry would agree that Russia’s invasion two years ago, along with its revisionist rhetoric – straight out of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, was not only an attack on the geography of Ukraine but also an assault on a fragment of us.

I found the imagery that emerged in the days and weeks after Russia’s invasion difficult to digest. Views of missiles impacting apartment buildings that could have been in any city of the world, the skeletal remains of destroyed shopping malls, bodies of those who didn’t manage to get away in time laying next to their roller suitcases, and blocks and blocks of houses reduced to rubble. The images could have been straight from a dystopian science fiction film, but this was our new reality today in Europe.

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In the midst of this was the ruthless destruction of Mariupol. A city with a pre-war population of 425,000, systematically levelled before the world’s eyes. I recall footage taken from the turret of a Russian tank that casually travelled along a residential street, shelling every intact house it passed. Then there was the theatre used as a shelter for the local population, with the word “Children” clearly marked on the ground in Russian so it could be seen from the air, destroyed by a bomb dropped from a plane – cynically driving home the point that Russia doesn’t care about (Ukrainian) children. An extra brutal punishment seemed to be directed at this Russian-speaking community that refused to welcome their “liberators” with roses. Almost as suddenly as the war started, news from this city stopped. As the foreign press fled, a steely silence descended with the full grip of Russian occupation.

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, primarily from the Mariupol region of Ukraine.

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. 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 in a darkroom, the image was frozen within silver grains of photographic paper. Processing chemistry was then 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. 

It’s important to distinguish that this work is not journalism but the response of a visual artist. I do not know 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 war are remembered.

Published in Canada's Globe and Mail

To mark the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Globe and Mail newspaper ran a two page spread of Styrannya in it’s February 17, 2024 issue.

The online piece can be viewed here. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-styrannya-a-photographer-memorializes-ukraines-lost/