Arts & Culture

Arts & Culture: Alexander Chekmenev captures the lives of ordinary people resisting the war on Ukraine

ARLES, FRANCE — “Citizens of Kyiv,” a personal exhibition by Alexander Chekmenev, opened last July 5 as part of Rencontres d’Arles, one of the largest photography festivals in France. The exhibition featured a series of portraits of those living in Kyiv in the midst of Russia’s war on Ukraine, highlighting the resistance against violence and the hope for the country’s future that still lives on within the community.

One can feel an intimate connection with the subjects as Alexander has perfectly captured the perseverance and strength in each portrait. Each photo is also accompanied by the subject’s personal stories of how they’ve been living their lives and how that has been shaped by Russia’s unprovoked violence. From an ex-financial director who is now spending her days volunteering for a field kitchen to feed thousands of neighbors to a mother who was driven underground and has been forced to live in the subway because her heart condition makes it difficult to go back and forth when the air-raid sirens sound, the stories paint a diverse picture of what the life in Kyiv is like.

However, even with the varying personal stories and the photos that only show one subject each, a sense of community and solidarity with one another ties the exhibition together, highlighting the fortitude, righteous anger, pain, altruism, and even the fighting spirit in the city.

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“All around me was madness. It was shocking for me and other people. The fishermen who went out the sea came back and did not know the war had started,” Alexander commented during the exhibition’s opening. “I knew that 7,000 people followed me on social media and I wanted to take weapons in my hands. I realized my weapon is my camera.”

Alexander is a Ukrainian documentary and portrait photographer who is no stranger to documenting the tumultuous realities of post-Soviet Ukraine. “I started photographing mostly homeless and abandoned people since the 1990s,” he said, referring to his work chronicling the effects of the economical crisis after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “Now, most people have become homeless because of the war.”

His personal connection to the subject as a Ukrainian and as someone who has done similar projects featuring the lives affected by tragedies in the country showed not only in the effectiveness of the photos but also in the way he went about photographing the series — by making a connection and truly knowing these citizen’s stories.

“I used the same methodology I used when I photographed homeless people [back in the 1990s]. I made contact with people and then you become a volunteer,” he said. “You speak to people and normally it takes one hour. Sitting with a camera for hours, then I would shoot.”

The exhibition is part of Kultur Aktiv (Germany), an association that promotes the expression of freedom, social change, and intercultural and cross-generational togetherness through artistic dialogues.

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