05 July 2017
05 July 2017 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
For five months, Belgian photographer David Denil roamed the Ukrainian capital in pursuit of its pulse, listening through the chaos of its present condition for hints of its past and possible future.
A strong intuition guided Belgian photographer David Denil through the streets of Kiev, hunting for clues, chasing images, putting logic on hold for a spell. He would stop and talk with people he met - a person selling tomatoes on a street corner, another gardening - the "ordinary men" who, he says, “carry the country.” To explore the city, he sometimes starts by following a stray dog, a trick he learned from his early days of photographing in Barcelona. “The dog taught me ‘just follow your instinct,’ so that's what I did: I just walked and walked and walked, I just follow how I feel I should go.” Now, in the convoluted streets of Ukraine’s capital, a quick glance leads to an alley, a narrowing corridor that opens on a laundromat, and a red clue appears, a hanging dress inflated by an upswell of air.
Borrowing a line from Taras Shevchenko's poem “Days Are Passing, Nights Are Passing”, Denil titles this project Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking, chronicling the psychological consequences and aftermath of Euromaidan, the harsh waves of protest and civil unrest that consumed Ukraine in 2013, and the Ukrainian revolution, which culminated in the ousting of then president Viktor Yanukovych and Russia’s subsequent occupation of Crimea. “Is it possible to show a part of Ukraine not directly affected by the war, [and] still feel the atmosphere and tension?” This is the question driving Denil’s work.
Using a modern visual language, Denil photographs ordinary objects in a way that reveals their broader associations: a red dress seems to symbolise the human price of oppression, a billowing Communist flag, or a feeling of abandonment and disdain, “because… Where is the woman?” Denil points out. “There is just a dress and no trace of a person.”
In the days leading up to this project, Denil read extensively and studied the works of Ukrainian and soviet painters, then let it all go like a painter in front of a blank canvas. But to grasp the country’s past and present culture, he had to steep himself in it for five months, 50 days of which he spent shooting. With the help of part-time assistants, he turned random encounters into poetic moments.
Inside a blue-painted corridor of a dorm, twin sisters hold hands, their bodies visible but their features concealed. The masks, used during Euromaidan, are a remnant from a still painful past, clashing with the flowery purple pattern of their knee-length dresses, a design that looks at first glance like blood. The striking contrasts among the objects, postures and meanings might make these images seem playful, but the stiffness of the postures suggests a grislier interpretation. “[It’s] one big feeling, showing the complexity of the emotional reaction and the psychological atmosphere [of a country],” he says. “It's always individual, but in the end there is [a] national atmosphere, because it affects the whole country.” Despite the dull blue of the walls that comprise the setting, a point of light glows from beyond a shoulder, a reflected flash, yet enough to suggest another human presence.
Now completed, Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking will become a book, because Denil doesn't “see an image as a work - I see the whole book as the work.” The mise en scene of consecutive frames, the graphic design, the editing, even the smell of a book, all together “creates a narrative, and that creates a story, and that creates the emotional response.”
David Denil is a Belgian photographer exploring contemporary subject matter. In 2017, he received the student award of excellence by the Alexia Foundation.