Ukraine’s Hidden Epidemic

Pascal Vossen offers a glimpse into the explosive HIV epidemic in Ukraine that is emerging amidst the stress of the country’s unresolved conflict with Russia.

© Pascal Vossen, from the series A Nation in Relapse

In the shadow of ongoing warfare in Ukraine, an epidemic is gathering pace, says freelance photojournalist Pascal Vossen. Approximately 150,000 people, mainly sex workers and drug users, are HIV positive. Many are unaware they have the virus.

In April 2016, Vossen, who is from the Netherlands, and his friend, journalist Nils Adler, spent a month in Ukraine, photographing for what would become A Nation in Relapse, a project that documents the everyday lives of some those affected by HIV.

“We wanted to show that the conflict is not just about the frontline, [and how] the vulnerable groups are often hit the hardest,” says Vossen, who is based in Stockholm, Sweden. “HIV does not have to be the death sentence it once was, but early treatment and prevention are essential. Hopefully our project will raise awareness and encourage people to support victims of the virus.”

© Pascal Vossen, from the series A Nation in Relapse

From the mid-1990s until 2008, Ukraine saw an increase in the use of intravenous drugs, Vossen explains. Thanks to the efforts of NGOs, the rate of transmission of the HIV virus has slowed in recent years, although the conflict is threatening to undo all the good work.

After chatting with staff at organisations including UNICEF and the UNFPA, Vossen and Adler realised “what a serious issue this was. The displacement, physiological stress and economic destitution caused by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has not only caused HIV rates to rise but is hampering existing treatment and prevention programs,” says Vossen.

In particular, the pair spent time photographing inside a juvenile penitentiary in Pryluky, an hour north of Kiev, since young inmates are one of the most at-risk groups and HIV rates in prisons are far higher than the national average, Vossen explains.

© Pascal Vossen, from the series A Nation in Relapse

Vossen captured the inmates going about everyday activities, and many of them seemed distracted or not present, he says. He also photographed HIV positive mothers and their children, drug users, and sex workers.

“I naturally gravitate to situations where I can portray the emotions felt by the people I encounter, usually through subtle facial expressions and body language,” says Vossen. “What we would like viewers to take away from this project is [how] the effects [of the conflict in Ukraine] resonate on the fringes of society.”

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Pascal Vossen is a freelance photojournalist working in Stockholm, Sweden. Through his work he aims to show what life is like for vulnerable people affected by poverty or conflict. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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