Travelling around Ukraine with a camera: event report and audience reviews

August 1, 2015 • Articles, Past Events • Views: 892

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Text by Dasha Malyutina, followed by audience reviews

Photographs by Diana Mess, Still Miracle

On 16 July, Ukrainian Events in London organised an event at the Ukrainian Institute in London where Alex Haslam and Ben Robinson, two British travellers, photographers and former University lecturers presented their accounts of journeys across post-revolutionary and war-affected Ukraine, as well as series of photographs that each of them took along the way. What initially seemed like an opportunity for the audience to hear stories and see images of routinely experienced crisis and war, as perceived by two Westerners, turned out to be a challenging experience of navigating thorough, resisting, or getting carried away with two very different narratives.

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Alex Haslam started his talk with reminding the audience of the reasons and historical timeline of Euromaidan. This was followed by a thorough description of the routes and trains that eventually took him to Kyiv, and then a description of what he witnessed at the Maidan in April 2014. This was accompanied by a slide show (you can see some of Haslam’s photos on his Instagram account here) Finally, he attempted to compare the Maidan with the 2014 Hong Kong protests, concluding that both upheavals were initially motivated by economic reasons and mistrust of political elites.

The two presentations seemed to reveal very different feelings of the speakers. In this respect, Haslam’s account was a combination of confusion, detachment, and, at times, fear; in contrast, Robinson’s story was full of compassion, empathy, and hope for better future for the ordinary citizens of Ukraine.

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In May 2015, Ben Robinson (who has previously lived in Ukraine for 15 years) travelled to Zaporizhia, Berdians’k and Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine, as well as number of smaller villages that have been affected by the recent fighting. The photo project titled ‘Still Displaced’ is a result of his trips and communication with internally displaced persons (IDPs). The second speaker’s account was both informed and poignant; the photos conveyed a mesmerizing and eerie sense of the banality of the war and mundane materiality of trauma. Despite the tragic undertones of the stories heard from IDPs, Robinson stressed that he believed the current crisis still being part of the process in which the Ukrainian nation was rediscovering its identity and sense of belonging.

Current crisis is part of the process in which the Ukrainian nation is rediscovering its identity and sense of belonging. Ben Robinson

Robinson’s account was reflexive and preoccupied with ethical and emotional challenges of dealing with and portraying traumatic experience. He spoke about feeling more or less comfortable to take photos or talk to people in different circumstances, and mentioned the occasional awkwardness of their interactions, while stressing that the people were generally positive about talking to him. Feeling humbled after being allowed to observe small pieces of daily lives of these people was one of his impressions. This stance is also participatory: instead of passively absorbing stress, the photographer admitted that he was looking for the ways to be more actively involved, questioning himself about the possible ways of supporting the transition, apart from bringing humanitarian aid.

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During the Q&A session, the speakers were asked about their emotional experiences. Haslam admitted that although being nervous and scared in Moscow before heading to the Maidan, he was disarmed by the friendliness of the people in Ukraine when he got there. He mentioned that even his Ukrainian contacts from Moscow discouraged him from going to the Maidan, did not believe Ukraine was a ‘true country’ and did not identify with it. Robinson commented on the dangers of negative narratives produced by the Russian media. He stressed that loss of relationships and civility was one of the casualties of the war that contributed to reductive black-and-white images of the current situation. The war was also described as a test for the Ukrainian democracy, among other things, in a sense of testing its abilities to care for the most vulnerable citizens, and create social cohesion and a supportive community. While Robinson noted the areas in the East being sometimes void of this sense of community, he also stressed that seeing gradual change in terms of reforms taking place and community groups and volunteers taking responsibility gave him hope about the future of Ukraine.

Ukraine is not a place where people have been killing each other historically; but it is a European country with a large share of educated population, developed and functioning society. Chaos in such a country could only be created by outside forces and it is inherently wrong to call the ongoing conflict a civil war. Ben Robinson

Finally, while talking about the most effective ways of presenting the story of the ongoing war to the Western audiences, Robinson noted that a lot depended on the framing of the narrative: that is, a story of human suffering would be lost in the sea of stories from the likes of Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. Robinson suggested that it is important to stress that Ukraine is not a place where people have been killing each other historically; but it is a European country with a large share of educated population, developed and functioning society. Chaos in such a country could only be created by outside forces, stressed the speaker, and it is inherently wrong to call the ongoing conflict a civil war.

Audience reviews:

KATE, event participant, international journalist, Ukraine country brand (UK) coordinator

I appreciate attention and interest to Ukraine

When someone from abroad is trying to learn the history, culture and troubles of my country, I can only respond with appreciation and gratitude. Especially in the times of Ukraine’s current troubles. It was interesting to listen to both presentations, hear the thoughts about current developments in Ukraine, hear real life stories of those who suffered from war. I liked both presentations. First one had an interesting comparison of protests in Ukraine and those in Hong Kong. Second presentation showed very honestly real life stories.

ANNA, event participant

Ben did a great job telling stories of ordinary people

As somebody who works in the field of visual sociology and cultural ethnography I can only encourage the use of different types of narratives (verbal, visual, sound) in the presentation. Both presentations were well composed and enjoyable to listen. I think visual images certainly add extra level of detail, but they are in no way replace other types of information that people have access to (for example, maps, statistics, empirical research, media reports etc). In other words, all these things are complimentary to each other.

I think Ben did a great job. The stories of ordinary people is what constitutes the social. The complexity and emotionality of presented stories only prove how important is to reach out to the community life and to individual cases. By doing this we can get a much more varied and in-depth perspective on people’s motivations, expectations and evaluation of current events. It also reveals different ways of coping with the situation. I will follow Ben’s work with interest and will come to his future talks.

OLIA, event participant

Remarkable job by both speakers

First of all, please let me express my gratitude to the Ukrainian events in London project for this very interesting event. It was very exciting to see two speakers from absolutely different culture talking about the events in Ukraine. For me the speech of Alex Haslam was especially useful from the scientific point of view. I was at Maidan in Kiev and also have been following the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, but it has never occurred to my mind to draw the parallels. Alex has done a remarkable job and I hope more people will have a chance to listen to him. 

Regarding the photo-essay done by Ben Robinson… Being a Ukrainian myself, of course I know that there are people who live at the ATO area, that there are kids and elderly… But not many people have got the courage to go and see them. The true stories of the real people provided by Ben were hard to believe, and ‘too real’. You could see the pain in his eyes talking about his visit to Ukraine. IFor sure he has more pictures to show, and I hope he’ll have this opportunity soon.

KARYNA, event participant

I appreciate the courage

I believe the event was very positive for the image of Ukraine. I’m not that much interested in “get-togethers” with like-minded Ukrainians anymore, but such cross-cultural experiences are very interesting. It was a worthy initiative! It was really interesting to see how educated but not interested in politics foreigners – from Hong Kong, on top of that – look at the events in Ukraine. Curiously, one of the speakers has transgressed the preconceptions about dangers that were imposed on him by his Moscow friends, went to Ukraine and saw everything with his own eyes.

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