If you’ve been down in The Old Bookstore any time in the past week, you will have noticed a new photography exhibit entitled “Heroyam Slava!” (“Glory to Ukraine” in English), which opened on Thursday, April 6. In fact, the photos are impossible to ignore, their vividness strikes you, the scenes photographed are charged with deep grooves of emotion. Certain photographs seem to shout while others let echoes and eerie silences hang in the rubble or on the faces of those deeply affected by the war.
I spoke to the curator of the exhibit, Igor Martiniouk ’24 [Disclaimer: Martiniouk is Photography Editor for The Miscellany News] while looking at the photos. Martiniouk first explained how his own Ukrainian heritage and his interest in photojournalism merged into a sense of obligation towards curating this exhibit. “I was in Mariupol seven months before the invasion, to see what has happened to the city since…I felt that it was my duty, my obligation to raise awareness,” he said. His gathering of the photos from various photojournalists on the ground was so straightforward that it surprised me at first. “I just DM’d [the photographers] asking for permission,” he admitted. Clearly, traditional approaches to copyright and distribution don’t apply when the work being shown is this urgent with the intention to reach as many people as possible. “[The photographers] want people to know the truth, they want people to know what Russia has done, but also they want people to know what Ukrainians have been doing to fight back, to survive,” Martiniouk explained. “Seeing photographs [like the ones on display here] makes it hard for politicians and people with influence who could really make a difference to say ‘this didn’t happen,’” Martiniouk explained. It’s impossible to sever a photograph from its referent, as it acts as proof that resists Russian efforts to bury the scars of war.
I wanted to further pry an explanation from Martiniouk about the importance of photography and photojournalism in regards to the medium’s emotional, informative power. What narrative power does photography contain that other mediums may not? Martiniouk began by noting the ineptitude of pure statistics in regards to translating the effects of war that mark real people, not numbers on a page. “We read [statistics] and then move on,” he began. “When you have a photo in front of you it pauses time…You see the emotions people are going through. For me, photos fit stories into a more compassionate format.” We scanned the exhibition wall, locating in every photograph the vivid markings of the moment they captured. Before us lay a polyphonic display of actual lived moments and felt emotions—not simply a narrative in statistics ready-made for easy translation into historical surveys.
This diversity of wartime experience is essential to capture, lest we fall into single-story myths about warzones. “If you’re a journalist you understand that just showing one side, that won’t be journalism,” Martiniouk emphasized. I immediately thought of how news outlets feed us stories of war in the Middle East: all barbarity, death and destruction. If those are the only images we receive from warzones, we begin to forget that these places have not always been wracked by war. Further, the depiction of moments where everyday people (very temporarily) escape war gives us glimpses into what life can look like after war. The seeds for a better future are sown into the present moment—we just have to look where they’re growing. In regards to depictions of Ukraine as well as the Middle East, we must be exposed to a diversity of wartime experiences in order to avoid reducing our understanding of these places to simply unrescuable dystopias.
“People might even begin to think Ukraine is a hopeless cause,” Martiniouk warned. “Why should we invest in Ukraine?” people might think. Given how important international support is, Martiniouk strongly emphasized that people cannot begin to treat Ukraine as unsalvageable.
Amid the diversity of photographs that marked all aspects of life in a nation swept up into a defensive war, I could locate the rough sketch of narrative progression in the display. Generally speaking, the photos on the left of the wall read in dark tones, emotional and pictorial. There are scenes of gray rubble, busy figures tire while performing medical work, gray buildings emptied by bombs confronting an indifferent sky. In many of the photos positioned in the middle of the wall, vivid colors break through the concrete, the destruction. A girl rides a pink bicycle. A playground lives on and promises to be repopulated one day. War scars still mark the scenes, but there are sustained glitterings of what life looked like before, and what it will look like after the war. As I shuffled to the far right of the display, two colors began to dominate the amalgamation of pictures: blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The Ukrainian flag is touted like a battle standard, it’s wrapped around people’s shoulders like a blanket, it’s cried into like tissue paper. It does more than decorate the scenes in the final photographs: It unites them, allows them to feed off each other. Given the close proximity of all photographs on the wall, if you step back, you can begin to see a continuous swirl of yellow and blue migrate from picture to picture. The polyphonic approach to depicting all aspects of life in a nation under siege is admirable—and, as we have established, essential. And now, as my gaze collects the surge of blue and yellow at the far right of the exhibition wall, I look back and see a nation with its feet firmly planted in its own golden fields under its own blue sky.