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“We can’t use the war to justify anything”: photographer Yevgenia Belorusets on documenting Ukraine's most vulnerable groups

Displaced persons, migrant workers and Roma – in Ukraine, there are whole communities whose lives remain unknown to society as a whole. RU

Christina Belous and Angela Belous, human rights activists from Sumnokuno Petalo, a Roma NGO in Ukraine. Photo: Yevgenia Belorusets. This month, Ukrainian photographer and writer Yevgenia Belorusets is publishing a new book on the stories of women whose lives are changing together with the country they live in. Happy Fallings describes events that took place in Donbas and in peaceful areas of Ukraine.

Your book combines fictional and real women’s stories, including stories from Donbas after the war started. Don’t you think that your readers, not knowing which stories are fictional and which aren’t, might doubt the veracity of all the stories in the book?

Readers have to constantly sense what is happening. Any document is partly a lie, and this is especially true of documentary photography, which only ever conveys a small part of reality. When we look at the world, we should, on the one hand, always believe a document, because this belief lies at the heart of our political position, our ability to act: we believe the document and it spurs us into action. On the other hand, we must, unfortunately, remember that any document is part of a subjective perspective on a situation, and may indeed be subjective to the point of absurdity.

Yevgenia Belorusets. Photo: IST Publishing / Facebook.My book mustn’t be seen as a reason for journalists to go off and investigate what happened, say, in the east Ukrainian town of Antratsit. It’s impossible to find anyone in the book who has told me any story: the names of all the people and places have been changed.

But isn’t it dangerous to raise doubts about the truth of documentary facts in today’s fragile world?

Of course it is, but this is a book of fiction. The aim isn’t to tell any real story, but to re-establish the right of suppressed, unseen and unheard stories to be told. I was interested to study those types of personal stories that are usually pushed to the margins – the stories about individual fates that are usually remain in the background. This idea is closely linked to Simone de Beauvoir’s bookThe Second Sex and women’s voices in general.

In Ukraine, the idea that there were people who felt no one listened to them was around for a long time. Sometimes they were even condemned for it.

Are you talking about Donbas?

Yes, I am. There was an idea that the fact that people in Donbas claim that they aren’t being heard – this is already a form of betrayal. I wanted to research this kind of betrayal. What did it mean to live with the idea that you weren’t being heard, that no one cared how you lived? This book is called Happy Fallings. It’s not called Documentary Research into Displaced Women Living in Eastern Ukraine.

Photo: Yevgenia Belorusets. All rights reserved.I am trying to look at a whole slice of reality that consists of various elements: people connected to one another but not seeing one another. They are people who have moved from Eastern Ukraine to other cities and are surviving there. The very type of survival they are experiencing bonds them together and links them to every other person in Ukraine who has tried to survive in another city. They are all in the same situation. And all their stories have remained untold. Anyone who tries to move around and live in different parts of Ukraine encounters enormous difficulties.

Does your current work still involve the Donbas?

I’m now involved in a new project connected with Roma communities in Ukraine, how these communities live in different areas of the country. I started with Toretsk, in the Donetsk region: people told me about this town and the heroic work being done by women in a Roma organisation that is trying to radically increase the number of Roma children going to school. They work and engage with families which are often totally illiterate.

Toretsk. Photo: Yevgenia Belorusets. I feel that illiteracy is the Ukrainian Roma community’s biggest secret: Ukrainian society in general is completely unaware of it.

But this isn’t the first time you’ve worked on Ukraine’s Roma community, is it?

No, it isn’t. I first got involved with Roma when I was working on labour migration in Ukraine. They were from Mizhhirya, a village the Zakarpattya region. I was involved in a large project about Ukrainian labour migration and photographed villages where men and women would leave their families to earn money in Europe and Russia. At that time, 70% of people went to Russia; I don’t know what it’s like now. Then they would return home and invest the money in their families. I left that job when the war broke out, but I’m thinking about going back to it.

How did you meet the Roma community there?

I went to Mizhhirya for a small photo shoot and discovered that there was a district there where Roma lived. The village head, whom I had met and who welcomed me to the village, told me not to go there under any circumstances, because they would “clean me out” and steal my camera and I would be lucky to escape with my life. He asked me not to go there, but I asked him to come with me to meet the Roma – if it was so dangerous, perhaps he could look after me. He categorically refused, which amazed me, and I decided to go anyway. These days I wouldn’t have any qualms, but back then I hadn’t any experience of working with Roma communities.

When I got to the Roma settlement, the inhabitants looked at me as though I was out of my mind – other people rarely went there. I was met with incredible hospitality. I met a family that was engaged in what we would call voluntary work; they were very poor but extremely religious and went around handing out religious books (there was an illiteracy problem there as well). This family provided dinner in their home for poor families three times a week, as well as lessons in reading and spelling. It was then I realised the extent of their isolation, as well as the fact that there was a community in the village that their neighbours had no idea about.

How did you then feel, as an artist working in this area, when Roma settlements in Kyiv were attacked earlier this year?

I was stunned by the Kyiv pogrom. It wasn’t even the consequences, however horrendous they were, that struck me, but the story of how it happened, the scenario itself. Some anonymous patriots and activists exploited the better-off members of Kyiv’s Roma community to put pressure on people living in the settlement and have it destroyed.

Roma settlement in Bereznyaki, Kyiv, 2017. Photo: Yevgenia Belorusets. All rights reserved.A well-known Roma singer would turn up, saying that everything was going up in flames and they should get out. Then these same patriots forced this singer, as well as other prosperous Roma and people living in the settlement, to hand over money for rail tickets, so that the Roma could leave. It was like the first stages of genocide, which is carried out by the local community itself: to destroy a Jewish community in the Second World War, you had to enter into communication with the head of the community, and promise the evacuation of the whole, or significant part of, community to safety.

This echo really struck me, and showed me how short the distance from civilisation to total barbarity is.

Are you keeping an eye on how society is changing and how it has reacted to these attacks?

Ukrainian society is very complex and diverse. It is genuinely multicultural, with a thousand different groups, but Roma somehow constitute a separate group within this space and are now gradually taking on the role of persecuted and misunderstood minority. It’s as though society doesn’t have the resources to avoid falling into this barbarous state, where there has to be one group representing something absolutely alien, unworthy of any sympathy. Various communities sometimes vie for this role.

"Survivor's Syndrome" - an action drawing attention to the threat that Ukraine's Roma communities face, May 2018. Photo: Aleksandr Burlaka. But there are also positive tendencies. There were volunteer organisations working with children in the Roma settlement, helping and fostering their integration. My problem and fear is that both tendencies exist side by side, but too often it’s the people whose mindset is stuck in the dark ages that win. It is they who were players in Kyiv’s political game, which created the conditions that ensured that the settlement no longer exists.

Do you think that this kind of city politics became possible thanks to the war?

The situation might continue and become more aggressive, or it might disappear during the war. But the point is that the war is undoubtedly having a strong influence on the Ukrainian public, making it anew. But whatever the narrative, how the war changes it – this is up to us. We can’t use the war as an excuse for anything.

Why does Ukrainian society find it so hard to define the people who carry out these attacks? They are often just described as “persons unknown”, “patriots” or simply “young men”.

Society doesn’t know what to call them. These are just random words that are used without thinking. Our political culture is still underdeveloped when it comes to defining the political spectrum, which starts on the left and ends on the right. Even our political parties are uncertain of where they belong on this continuum. We can only guess what they believe. The only word that has remained as a term of abuse since the Second World War is “Fascism”, but it is seen as just a generic insult deprived of meaning.

You and other artists organised an action to show solidarity with the Roma who were being expelled from their settlement. But not many people turned up. Have you found any explanation for this unwillingness of Kyiv residents to take part in your event?

It’s hard to say, predict or understand, but there are a lot of traumatic experiences in Ukraine right now. By the time Ukraine gained independence, there was already an idea that the country was a victim. An understanding of itself as a victim of aggression. And the war with Russia has intensified these ideas. It’s a question of recognising the full complexity of the situation and the negative actors present in Ukrainian society.

To find out more about Yevgenia Belorusets' work, visit her website here

 


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