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Faces of War – a necessary show as poignant testimony

The brutal invasion of Ukraine on February 24 did suddenly change the face of the world. Unbelievable images of an inhuman attack start to invade social networks, provoking simultaneously incomprehension, shock, and terror.

If we have never been so well informed in the present day, in terms of images and in real time, we are paradoxically confronted with the question of the authenticity of images and fake news. Fuelled by slyly effective Kremlin’s propaganda, it seems today all the more necessary to show the reality of a war whose scale and atrocity are reminiscent of the dark hours of the Second World War.

For victims of the tragedy are ultimately drowned in the flood of unbearable images spread on social networks and media, this exhibition is in contrast conceived as a timeless collection of portraits, focusing on the background and experiences of each individual. Poignant testimony elevating these victims to daily heroes, the present exhibition aims also to be a tribute to the invaluable work of the photographers on site.

Socially committed and famous photojournalist Alexander Chekmenev (1969, Luhansk) has always been interested in capturing the difficult and painful lives of those left behind or working in the shadows – the homeless, the mentally ill, the street people, the miners – all victims of a post-Soviet failed system.

On assignment for The New York Times Magazine to report on the Ukrainians who remained in Kyiv, Chekmenev has been confronted every day with the same difficulties as the population – how to get around the city whose bridges are closed, where to sleep safely. The discovery of a teenage girl taking refuge with her cat and friend in the underground of the Kyiv metro was for Chekmenev both a shock (she reminded him of his own daughter, who has fled to Slovakia) and the starting point for the series Citizens of Kyiv. Since then, and despite the curfew, he has made priceless contacts with some of these singular refugees, listening patiently and kindly to their stories, their questions but also their strong determination.

Masterful portraits of Kyiv’s citizens, in a chiaroscuro lighting reminiscent of Dutch Golden Age painting, Chekmenev elevates these everyday heroes and victims to real iconic status.

In a similar humanist approach, independent photojournalist Oksana Parafeniuk (1989, Boryspil, Kyiv region) explores through documentary photography the manifestations of human resilience and dignity in people facing difficulties – such as migration and displacement, people with disabilities. 

If her interest in memory – and thus testimony – has always been present in her artwork, this interest has now become a necessity: « The places I knew have changed forever.(…) Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of documenting my country, of preserving the memory of Ukrainian cities and Ukrainians with every passing day.»

Her series Fleeing the War with Hope, on assignment for The Washington Post, tells the story of the difficult journey of Ukrainian children with cancer who flee their homeland to the Unicorn Clinic in central Poland, and from there to pediatric centers around the world, where they could continue proper treatments and therefore have a chance to live. 

Tymofii, 10 years old, Yevhniia, 9 years old, are both children with brain tumor that Parafeniuk has the chance to follow on the long and arduous evacuation journey. No cries, no tears, but an immense fatigue due to their unstable condition as well as hours of travel, endless hours of waiting and uncertainty. 

Between exhaustion and resilience, Parafeniuk’s testimony demonstrates the tremendous courage and strength of these Ukrainian children, whose bright eyes were remarkably full of hope – the hope for a recovery and a better future. 

Carole Glauser Pidoux
Curator, Photo Kyiv

Alexander Chekmenev

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ANNA MALININA

Anna Malinina, 30, a private English tutor for children, took up residence on a subway platform against her will. She woke the morning of the Russian invasion to the sounds of explosions, packed a bag and stepped outside to meet a friend. When she returned to the apartment where she lived as a boarder, the owner had fled and secured all three locks on the door. Malinina had a key for only one. The owner was unreachable. “I ended up on the street,” she said. Each day, Malinina has left the subway station for about 30 minutes. Most everything nearby is closed, she said, but one store has food, and she goes there. The platform has been cold at night — “very, very cold,” she said, “almost like being outside.” On March 16, with Kyiv on all-day lockdown, Malinina was not allowed to step above ground at all. “People have been down here for days,” she said not long after night fell.

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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NATALIA DOLINSKA

Early in the Russian assault on Kyiv, a bomb landed on a car parked beside the apartment building where Natalia Dolinska lived. Shrapnel and fire destroyed seven vehicles. Dolinska, 35, the director of a branch office of a financial company, was spared; she had relocated ahead of the attack. Her company closed its doors as Russia invaded, leaving her with no place to be each day. So she joined a field kitchen and now works shifts with other volunteers to gather groceries or prepare food; the flames behind her in this portrait are from the open-air stoves that now feed thousands of neighbors. With her home nearly destroyed, her job idled and Russian forces seemingly trying to encircle the capital, Dolinska spoke with disgust at Kremlin propaganda that insisted that the Russian Army came to save Ukraine. Russia, she said, had not invaded to help. “We do not need saving,” she said. “We were doing fine without you.”

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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VLADYSLAV MALASHCHENKO

Five years ago, Vladyslav Malashchenko, 26, opened Good Bread From Good People, a bakery that employs adults with mental or psychological disabilities and specializes in cakes and hot lunches. On the day before Russian Army units rolled onto Ukrainian soil, Malashchenko, sensing the impending crisis, held a meeting with the staff, in which they decided to stop selling to individual customers and bake bread for the public good. They quickly procured an additional 150 kilograms of flour and set to work. “I am not militant in my nature,” Malashchenko said, “but I can bake bread.” Throughout the opening weeks of the conflict, the bakery produced about 300 loaves of bread a day, almost all of which it has given away — some to a home for adults with cognitive disabilities, the rest to volunteer organizations, which distribute it in Kyiv. Malashchenko plans to keep baking. “Now, at this time of great need in Kyiv,” he said, “we need to continue our work.”

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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SERHIY KULIASOV

As Russian forces began attacking Kyiv, Serhiy Kuliasov, 46, who worked as an information-technology director at Dyvoslovo, a journal for teachers of Ukrainian language and literature, sent his two daughters and young granddaughter out of the city. He and his wife, Viktoria Yermakova, 45, who worked with him at Dyvoslovo, decided to remain behind and help the Ukrainian Army. They founded and now run a field kitchen in a neighborhood on the capital’s Left Bank, working with more than 150 people to prepare 7,000 meals a day. The Territorial Defense Forces gave Kuliasov a Kalashnikov rifle to defend the kitchen. “We will work under the open sky,” he said, “until we are victorious.”

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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PAVLO ARIE

On Feb. 24, the day Russia began its latest invasion of Ukraine, a new play by Pavlo Arie was to be performed at the Left Bank Drama and Comedy Theater. Instead, the theater closed, and most of its employees and artists left the city. Arie, 46, a director as well as a playwright, opted to stay behind as the venue’s caretaker. “I decided that going to work was my ritual,” he said, “even during the war.” Arie’s play, “Odysseus, Return Home,” is his reinterpretation of Homer’s epic of war and reunion, told through the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. The sign in front of the theater still holds the announcement of the play’s showtime. He spent the first weeks of the war sharing updates with his scattered peers, reassuring them that thus far the theater was undamaged. Two mornings after the would-be staging, Arie posted a photo on social media of a shattered and smoldering building. “All night Russian cruise missiles fly at civilians,” he typed. “I’m alive.” On March 13, Arie posted that he had temporarily left the city.

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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VADYM KYRYLENKO

Few places in Ukraine carry the historic significance and resonance of the Cathedral of St. Sophia, the 11th-century Byzantine structure, replete with cupolas, frescos and artifacts that UNESCO designated a World Heritage site in 1990. As it became clear that Russia was bearing down on Kyiv, Vadym Kyrylenko, 43, a preservationist and deputy director of the conservation area that includes the cathedral, participated in a family meeting that led to a decision to evacuate his wife and their children. He and all the other men in his family returned to Kyiv. He now lives in a building on the cathedral complex’s grounds, taking care of the sacred place. “My responsibilities are the restoration of the institution and its protection,” he said. “I am doing this now in wartime.” The bulk of the collection cannot be moved. For protection, the staff has shut windows and put cases over some of the objects — steps, Kyrylenko noted, that have unmistakable limits. “As everyone knows, this is ineffective against an air raid or shelling.”

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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VITA BOINA AND DENYS

Since the first days of March, Vita Boina, 31, an assistant manager of a day care center, and her son, Denys, 2, have lived almost full time in a railway car idled in the Palats Ukrayina subway station. Not long after they moved there, someone stole Boina’s phone as it was charging. She lost the number for her ex-husband, who is with her two daughters in a village on the way to Chernihiv that has suffered Russian attacks. She does not know if they are safe. The subway station is cold, especially at night. Boina puts her son in makeshift bedding atop cardboard, the only insulation between him and the numbing floor. Many people brought pets to the station, including a hedgehog. Dogs bark in the confined space. It could be worse. “We were lucky enough to find a space in a train car,” she said. “I know my child is cold. I wrap him and try to keep him warm.”

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

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MAKSYM PAVLIUK AND LIUBOV TYMCHENKO

Liubov Tymchenko, 17, moved into an underground subway station with her boyfriend, Maksym Pavliuk, 20, and her cat, Murysia (“the purrer”), after the attacks on Kyiv started. A student in a school for hairstylists, Tymchenko spent about 18 hours a day on the platform, returning outside about six hours a day to check on her home and charge her mobile phone. She and Pavliuk were sustained by volunteers — “today they fed us hot dogs,” she said — and took turns using the station’s small bathrooms. About 60 people lived underground in this station full time, she said, roughly half on the platform and the remainder in subway cars. When shelling or air-raid warnings sounded, the station often filled up, she said, and could become standing room only. Her fear was acute and disorienting; she was traumatized. “I am afraid of the shooting,” Tymchenko said. “I am a sensitive person, and I become hysterical.” (She relocated to Poland on March 17.)

C.J. Chivers
© 2022 The New York Times Company

Oksana Parafeniuk

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

Tymofii Shapoval, 10, a Ukrainian patient who has brain tumour, waits in the ambulance while medics plan his evacuation from the Medyka border crossing via helicopter in Medyka, Poland on March 30, 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine in late February creating a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and shortly after St. Jude teamed up with foundations in Poland to evacuate children with cancer from the war zone.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

A group of oncologically ill Ukrainian children together with their family members disembark the bus that took them across the border from Lviv, Ukraine to Poland at the Medyka train station in Medyka, Poland on March 30, 2022. From Medyka these children, who went through arduous journey from different cities in Ukraine (like Kherson, Sumy, Kyiv, Mykolaiv and others), departed to the hotel turned into Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic outside Kielce from where they were be sent to different hospitals across the world for treatment.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

A Ukrainian family with oncologically ill children, after just crossing the border, gets on a medical train at the Medyka train station in Medyka, Poland on March 30, 2022. It took them almost 4 hours to cross the border due to bureaucracy and they traveled from Lviv in two buses and eight ambulances followed by a police escort. 

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

A Polish medic carries a Ukrainian boy with cancer, who after just crossing the border with his family members, will get on a medical train at the Medyka train station in Medyka, Poland on March 30, 2022.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

Polish Red Cross medics wait at the Kielce train station to meet a medical train bringing a group of oncologically ill Ukrainian children from Medyka border crossing, where they got to from Lviv, Ukraine, in Kielce, Poland on March 30, 2022.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

Polish Red Cross medics and other volunteer groups meet a group of oncologically ill Ukrainian children arriving from Medyka border crossing, where they got to from Lviv, Ukraine, at the Kielce train station in Kielce, Poland on March 30, 2022.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

A group of oncologically ill Ukrainian children with their family members, with Oksana Besidovska, 31, in the middle, sit on the bus, after arriving from Medyka border crossing on a medical train, at the Kielce train station in Kielce, Poland on March 30, 2022.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

Yevheniia Besidovska, 9, together with her mother Oksana Besidovska, 31, go through the interview triage process and the vital signs checkup with doctors at the hotel turned into Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic in Bocheniec, around 20 km outside of Kielce, Poland on March 31, 2022. Oksana Besidovska, and her daughter are from Sumy and had to flee the war. Yevheniia  has a brain tumor that has returned. When the full-scale war started, they had to hide in the basement of Oksana’s parents’ village house. The Unicorn Clinic is set up as a temporary stopping place, where the clinic team gathers all the medical information for each group of arriving refugee families and sorts through a list of facilities able to take patients for treatment.

Sick children with cancer fleeing war that Russia launched on Ukraine

Yevheniia  Besidovska, 9, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour, sits with her aunt Maryna at the hotel turned into Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic, waiting for the bus taking them to Warsaw Airport from where they will depart to Rome for treatment in Bocheniec, around 20 km outside of Kielce, Poland on March 31, 2022. Yevheniia  and her mother Oksana (as well as Oksana’s sister Maryna) were taken to the hospital in Rome on the presidential plane from Warsaw, and they were met by the Pope himself in Rome.

Sick children fleeing war that Russian launched on Ukraine

Yevheniia  Besidovska, 9, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour, poses for a portrait with her favorite stuffed animal at the hotel turned into Unicorn Marian Wilemski Clinic, waiting for the bus taking them to Warsaw Airport from where they will depart to Rome for treatment in Bocheniec, around 20 km outside of Kielce, Poland on March 31, 2022. They are part of a group of oncologically ill children and their families, who arrived all the way from Lviv, Ukraine a day before, switching from buses and ambulances to a medical train at the Medyka border crossing, and who spent a night in this clinic before they will be sent to different hospitals across the world for treatment. Yevheniia  and her mother Oksana (as well as Oksana’s sister Maryna) were taken to the hospital in Rome on the presidential plane from Warsaw, and they were met by the Pope himself in Rome.