Documenting Ukraine Grants
“People are the true and the only home for me,” stated world-renowned Ukrainian photographer Alexander Chekmenev. In the early 1990s, he photographed the everyday, “insignificant” people in Eastern Ukraine. These photos shed light on the country, its society, and provide context for the current war. They would bring Chekmenev recognition in 2014, when the Russian-backed occupation of Eastern Ukraine cut him off from his home and parents.
A few years later, he found himself photographing politicians for big magazines and homeless people in Kyiv for a personal project. He kept in touch with the homeless after he put the camera away, tried to help them, and wrote down their stories. In most cases, it’s the only reminders left of these people when they are gone.
In February 2021, Chekmenev went through his archives to find the negative of his signature photo, shot in his hometown Luhansk. It’s a portrait of a girl posing in a Pokémon mask. Next to it, he spotted a different picture from the same photoshoot in which she is not wearing the mask, and you can see her face. On that day in 2003, he had promised to meet her a week later and give her the print, but it had never happened.
This memory sparked the idea to revisit the home he had lost and the people who once were his main inspiration; to find the girl, listen to her story, and, finally, give her the print. This is the check-list of Chekmenev’s metaphysical journey home, and a consummation of the photographer’s rule: he always gives people the prints of their portraits and tries to help them if possible.
In February 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Over 13 million people were forced to leave their homes. Chekmenev resumed his documentation of the lives of “insignificant” people, this time in their struggles amid the war. His photos are on the front pages of the world media; his portrait of Zelenskyy the cover of Time magazine.