New Contemporaries working in Ukraine: Publishing and disseminating documentary photographic practice from the New East

In today’s global economy, it is possible for photographic practitioners to have their work disseminated to a much wider audience through commercial print publications and online platforms. Printed materials and digital content provide an opportunity to become exposed to new cultures and gain an understanding of other societies undergoing fundamental changes. In recent years, there has been an increase of photographers working in the New East, the countries under the former Soviet Union. This rise in coverage could be a response to an attraction as photographers to the failings of other societies, whether this is seen in a negative or positive light. With the recent Euromaidan uprising and confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, comes numerous accounts and documentary series from western photographers working in Ukraine. Ukrainian practitioners are also turning to their homeland to create insightful personal stories. Mariya Ustymenko articulates this well explaining that, “the upside of coming from the outside to document an event or cover a story of historic or social value is that one has a fresh view and can consider the events in their global context. Making uninvolved reportage while being a participant who cannot step outside of the situation is a much more challenging task.”

Printed matter under the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union was subject to strict censorship making it virtually impossible to create any form of printed document as most material was considered to be anti-Soviet. Illegal Samizdat publications were the only alternative to state run media. Contemporary visual story- tellers now have the opportunity to share their narrative to far more people than the dissidents of the Soviet Union were able as Samizdat publications only being circulated to an underground minority. Despite this and the opportunities for mass distribution some practitioners are choosing unique ways to disseminate their work by using independent publishers, creating limited copies or books that are a work of art in themselves.

For six years, Ukrainian born visual artist Mariya Ustymenko has not returned to her homeland. Using analogue photography, she has created a wide range of work, although only one study has focused on her native Ukraine. Kievbound (2013) is an autobiographic body of work which reflects on the ‘coming of age’ in her home town of Kiev. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Ustymenko is focusing on a personal story rather than events shown in the media. She is interested in identifying how this work aligns itself with other work being made in the region. Ustymenko’s Kievbound was independently published by Oliver Udy, and was the first in Udy’s Antler Press Document book series. When making the work Ustymenko did not have the inclination to produce a printed publication, this developed much later.  “I think if I were to produce anything at that point in my life for public I would have taken an insider approach and aimed at a result similar to Balkan pank by Joze Suhadolnik published by Akina Books (2014).

At the time of producing Kievbound, Ustymenko did not concentrate on promoting her work, and did not attempt to share the work in her native Ukraine. Perhaps this is due to her personal relationship with Kievbound. This does not appear to be as a result of a lack of confidence in her work but more issues around Kievbound finding the right place for itself. If Ustymenko had considered printing Kievbound at the time of the work being made, she mentions that PhotoCult Festival or Chernihiv Fotofest may have been two platforms the photographer would have approached. Yet Ustymenko highlights her concern that Kievbound may not have been selected due to the personal themes that run through the work.

Ukrainian photographer Yulia Krivich takes a tremendously different approach. Yulia Krivich was born in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine and currently lives and works in Poland. Similarly to Ustymenko, Krivich has moved away from her homeland giving herself the opportunity to reflect on the country and its culture. Presentiment is an ongoing body of work, which looks upon young people and the uncertain realities of their being.” Krivich’s work comes from the recent issues Ukraine has faced and her ‘cultural impregnation’ is clear through the presentation of the work. When returning to her homeland she witnessed a change in society. Faced with the realisation that Ukraine was undergoing huge political upheaval, Krivich also realised that she has also undergone changes in herself in the period she had been away. These changes could be a result of the cultural norms put upon her from life in relatively westernised Poland. “I’ve registered the violent changes taking place both in my country and in me. This is a complex presentiment of a conflicted land lost in contrasts.”

Krivich’s book, Presentiment, a limited edition of 300 copies printed in four languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and English, published by the Polish organisation Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych (2015), is “less a record than an apprehension of the events currently taking place”. Ukraine has been in an unstable situation since the Russian annexation of Crimea in the east and the Euromaidan uprising of 2014. The work of Krivich is not focusing on the location itself but what is left of the Ukrainian identity. “Her photographs go through various states, sometimes contemplative and peaceful, sometimes charged with an underlying violence … armed men or a scar of an unknown origin.” Presentiment in the form of a book reinforces the fragile state of the Ukraine, Krivich does this by using newsprint paper that is loosely stitched into a hardbound cover. The pages unfold into large sheets of A3. The choices of design when making this book have produced a number of connotations which the viewer is left to unravel.

In contrast to these personal works, other practitioners from abroad have an ability to attract a broader attention as their social comment may be one which can be better related to. Both approaches can prove to have positive results, a good example of this is Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s Maidan, Portraits from the black square (2014), a series of portraits of protestors and mourners involved in the uprising against the Ukrainian government. Taylor-Lind’s photographs of the conflict in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, known widely as the Independence Square, takes a different approach to that of Marco Kesseler whose work ‘This Land Of Ours That Is Not Ours’ bristles with the tension of the barricades in the square. Unlike Kesseler, she does not let us escape the emotions of those pictured, the repetitive format of simple portraits against a black background force this upon the viewer. The concept of photographing protestors and mourners against a plain background is one that has the ability to allow us to really connect with the person in the image. By taking the subject out of context, we can gain a sense of the struggle they are experiencing on a much more personal level and how the impact of the uprising has affected so many Ukrainians. The struggle of the amateur soldier or the grief of those who have lost someone is tangible.

I can’t tell you how precious these images are to me, the people in them, the experience of meeting each fighter and each mourner. When I got home it became clear that the only adequate way to show this work was as a book – editorial is too inadequate, a show too transient.”

Taylor-Lind’s decision to resolve the work in the format of a book has been successful. By collecting these portraits into a sequence that has been bound in a hardcover with black cloth, Taylor-Lind creates a high quality publication that honours those who have suffered. The oversized book published by GOST becomes something to treasure.

Christopher Nunn is another photographer who has not focused on publishing his work widely. With the exception of his publication Holy Water, Nunn has shared little online or in print due to his concentration on developing as an artist. Instead Nunn has chosen to share excerpts of his work made since 2013 with a few platforms sharing interviews and features alongside a selected number of his images. These platforms include Ain’t Bad Magazine, This is Paper and FotoRoom. The publication of 500 copies of Holy Water by Village Press provides a unique insight into Nunn’s work in Ukraine.  ‘Holy Water’ is a collection of photographs in the format of a zine, in contrast to online platforms, where work is looked at and disregarded quickly, printed material such as this allows the viewer to take their time over each image and appreciate the quality of the work.

Specialist online content such as The Calvert Journal has started to gain prominence but is has a wider focus than being imaged based. Founded in 2013 by Nonna Materkova and Alexei Kudrin, it is a guide to contemporary culture in the New East featuring photography, art, architecture and writing. Based in London but with strong ties to the New East this digital platform is constantly evolving. Bringing together artists from across the region, it highlights “a rising generation of artistic talent, the New East is in the midst of tremendous change.” The Calvert Journal is quickly becoming a crucial source of information, offering a wealth of articles that let the reader into the complexities of the cultures which these countries hold. Despite the rise of interest in this geographic area, the New East “remains an underreported and unfamiliar part of the world to many.” The Calvert Journal’s aim is to begin sharing this with the rest of the world. The Calvert Journal also features the New East Photo Prize which only accepts submissions from eastern European photographers. This is a means to attract new talent and encourage the growth of photographic practice in the region.  The New East carries far more positive connotations than references to post-Soviet society. Despite Ukraine’s current economic, social and political problems it provides a way forward for new photographers to develop and break away from a very generic and vaguely uniform heritage of an identity.

The aim of this writing is to touch on the idea of the dissemination of documentary photographic practice, through do-it-yourself or independent publishers. It has become apparent that young professionals focusing their attention towards Ukraine and the former Soviet Union are moving away from the past and from traditional stereotypes but strangely the sharing of work is still small scale, not quite underground but only aiming to reach a certain niche market. Young creatives are choosing small scale publishing almost like the dissidents who needed the medium of Samizdat. With the opportunities and accessibility of the digital age and the new generation of ‘Digital Natives’ more and more people are able to be creative with printed matter. With that comes the increase of self-publishing.

Scarlett O’Flaherty