Multifaceted Portraits of the War in Ukraine

"My purpose of creating this portrait of war was to transmit the things I saw and the words I heard to the viewers. I put effort in to 'understand' war and its rules. Then, quickly I learned that it is impossible to use rational perception in 'understanding' it."

© Wiktoria Wojciechowska, from the series Sparks. Trenches. Hirs’ke, ATO zone (war zone), Ukraine, March 2015. 

Wiktoria Wojciechowska is a photographer and visual artist. Her work has received numerous accolades, most notably the Oskar Barnack Leica Newcomer Award in 2015 and the first prize in the 2013 Photo Diploma Awards. She has also been awarded scholarships to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (2013/2014) and to participate in residency programs in both Beijing and Reykjavik. Her images have been exhibited widely in festivals across the world and published in The British Journal of Photography, Causette, GUP, ArchivoZine, Gente di Fotografia, L’Oeil de la Photographie, Leica Fotografie International, and The Guardian, among others.

She has just completed her project Sparks; a multifaceted depiction of contemporary war with a particular focus on the current conflict in Ukraine.

How did you begin to work on your project, Sparks?

The beginning for me was taking the decision to go to Ukraine: to face what is happening there. The decision came from a strong 'curiosity' which opposes fear. It took me a few months to feel strong enough to confront myself with people who really suffer and who have had their life was irrevocably changed by the conditions of war. It was my first time facing such a difficult subject. The people whom I met on my way were helpful guides: they created 'Sparks' by their words and experiences, which we shared.

© Wiktoria Wojciechowska, from the series Sparks. Chawa, 32, philosophy graduate, PR specialist. Picture was taken after he spent 6 months in the war zone, March 2015, Ukraine.

Why did you decide to create a multifaceted portrait of the war in Ukraine?

My purpose of creating this portrait of war was to transmit the things I saw and the words I heard to the viewers. I put effort in to 'understand' war and its rules. Then, quickly I learned that it is impossible to use rational perception in 'understanding' it. I chose to focus on symbols, on single sentences that my characters said, and on the deepness of their faces because I believe that the scenes that they have seen are reflected in them.

Multifaceted portraits started to create themselves because each person I met was giving me the tools to improve the 'recognition'. I started from the first meetings I had, which motivated me to work on archives of soldiers - this pushed me to go to the front line, and the closeness to the tools of killing made me feel the contrast between fragile carnality and the virtuality of killing. The process of looking for answers had built the project in the form of layers of 'understanding'. I hope more aspects of this work will be possible to show in the Sparks book which I am working on.

© Wiktoria Wojciechowska, from the series Sparks. Elf, 29, worker, amateur paratrooper. Picture was taken after he spent 12 months in the war zone, July 2015, Ukraine.

Can you talk more about the people you photographed? How did you meet them? Where did you photograph them? How did the soldiers react to being photographed?

The people I photographed are young men of different professions who, by accident, have become soldiers. I was getting in contact with them through different people. Most of the time I was meeting them in houses in their home towns, but also in psychiatric hospitals, centers for help, or on the front line. Each session started by talking about them and their memories of war. Reactions were various; some of them were telling me colorful stories, explaining their motivation for fighting, others could hardly talk about their experiences and it was visible that they need help in fighting their demons. Some of them were happy to have the opportunity to share their doubts and problems, while others wanted to forget things and start life from the beginning. The moment of taking the pictures was peaceful and calm with the ambiance of only one lamp in an empty room. 

© Wiktoria Wojciechowska, from the series Sparks. The squad. Nine killed and eight wounded, 2015.

Can you explain how / why this image (above) was intervened?

Many times during the talks I had with the soldiers they would show me photos from the front line - they were explaining to me situations and introducing me to their comrades seen in the background of the images and in videos they shot on their cellphones. Looking through the lens of camera or at the screen of a cellphone is easier than facing the reality. At the same time these shots are unique documentation of their first time on the front line. 

The picture is part of a series which I called 'Golden Collages,' and it is made by covering people who lost their lives in gold leaves. The reward for dying in the war is honor and pride of becoming a hero. Gold dignifies, but in the same moment blurs their faces.

Have you finished the project?

It is difficult to say: I stopped going to Ukraine regularly this spring, but the war is not over there yet. It is possible that I will go back and now I have a lot of material, which I haven't published yet. I need to focus on preparing them to show. Mentally, I often go back to war. I follow people who I have photographed, observe how they live now - rebuild their lives. And I am trying to gather materials all together in the form of a book.

What are you working on now?

On my spiritual and intellectual improvement.

To learn more about this project, visit Wiktoria's PHmuseum profile

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