It’s rare to hear first-hand accounts from refugees, and rarer still to see their experiences through their eyes. We’ve just passed the five-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and since becoming displaced and losing her home in Donbass, Alena Grom has taken up the cause to document those who have been affected by the constant dangers that children and families face living in “the grey zone” of war between the Ukrainian military and Russia-basked separatists.
Against a backdrop of contemporary photography that can largely be defined as exercises of visual panache, Alena Grom reminds us about photography’s earnest capacity to tell stories and foster human connection. And amid a state of ongoing war, when millions of Ukrainians have become displaced from the regularities of life that so many in the West take for granted, Grom uses photography as a social and psychological salve for herself, her family, and her community. Her work represents an insider’s view expressed to allow her community’s voices and plights be heard, and to build a bridge of understanding to those who’ve been so fortunate to have never experienced the psychological toll that war places on families.
Gregory Eddi Jones: You’ve been using photography to respond to the war brought on by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Could you start by offering a little background on how this war began?
Alena Grom: In early 2014 there was a revolution in Ukraine. February 18-21 of 2014 were the last days of Euromaidan. More than 100 people died and more than 600 were injured. President of Ukraine Yanukovych fled to Russia. Taking advantage of the unstable political situation in Ukraine, in March 2014, Russia had held an illegal referendum and then annexed the Crimean peninsula.
In the spring of 2014 armed separatist detachments with the support of Russian troops captured part of Donbass. Donetsk – the largest city in the region – was under the separatists’ control.
Donbass is the largest industrial part of Ukraine and is based on coal and metallurgical enterprises. At the beginning of 2013 more than 6.6 million people lived here.
Now I, as well as more than 2 million of my fellow citizens who left the Donbass because of the war, have become a refugee.
GJ: What has this experience been like for you and your family?
AG: Before the war in Ukraine, we had built a new house. It was a dream house. We had been investing in this property all our money over the years. In January 2014 my family celebrated a housewarming party and in April, when hostilities began, we had to abandon it. In August 2014 the house was robbed and shot by military people. After that, with the help of our relatives who remained under the occupation, we succeeded in moving out some things from the house. We lost it and lived in a rented apartment for more than 3 years.
The children were very worried, they made drawings of the house and cried. My son was obsessed with building various shelters for many years. It stopped when we had purchased our new home. Then I learned from a psychologist that this was a post-traumatic syndrome because of stress. Once I asked my son, “What should the way home be like?” He thought for a while and answered, “A road home is the road to yourself, within yourself.”
Also, before the war we were engaged in business, it was a small production. When the war began, an artillery shell hit one of the buildings with raw materials. Everything in it burned down. Business ceased to exist and the family lost its main income.
At the start of the first battle in Donetsk my car was parked at the airport; it was shot with a machine-gun burst. We managed to take it out in between the battles. Based on this event I created a project called Hypoxia.
Some relatives could not leave the occupied city and lived under the bombings for several years. Sometimes they had to hide in cellars all night. My family could not live calmly in a peaceful part of Ukraine knowing that at any moment someone from their relatives could die.
My husband’s relative was captured in the autumn of 2014. He was driving through the city to deliver some medicine to his sick mother-in-law. On one of the city roads he was stopped by people in uniform and for several months we did not know anything about him. We thought he was dead. However, fortunately, he survived. He was forced to dig trenches for separatists. We managed to buy him back; his car remained with the separatists.
One of the big losses for me is losing the relations with my relatives who live in Russia. They are under the constant influence of Russian propaganda. When the war began in Ukraine, they did not believe that we were in mortal danger. They gave numerous arguments that it would be better for everyone. I stopped communicating with them to avoid hurting my family and myself.
The experience of migration left its imprint on me and my family’s life in all aspects: behavior, mindset, and worldviews.
At the school where my son is studying, there is a custom to congratulate a teacher on his or her birthday. Usually, children wish what they want for themselves. My son wished for her good politicians. I asked him why he did not wish her health or happiness. He replied that there was nothing more important than good politicians because bad politicians created wars. And war is scary.
“I came to realize that when I make projects about refugees, I am actually telling myself what exactly worries me. To me, it offers a therapeutic effect, I have a feeling I am doing something important and useful for me and other people.”
GJ: It’s so heart-breaking to hear just how profoundly the war has affected you and your family, especially for someone like me in the U.S. who only hears about refugee experiences from afar. What made you decide to turn to photography amidst these upheavals in your life? You mention that you began your Hypoxia series after finding bullet holes in your car…Was this the start of it?
AG: During all the events I mentioned, I was shooting intensively. However, at that moment I was photographing things and events that were not related to the conflict in Ukraine, I avoided such photos. Everything that reminded me of home and war caused suffering and pain. It was basically street photography, I was looking for something special, metaphysical. For me, it was an opportunity to escape from reality.
At that time, I began to show my photos to viewers and experts. I delved into the photo more deeply. I went to study to a photo school. For the graduation project, I chose the topic of migration. This was the first attempt to work on this topic.
I was shooting an artist who fled from the war from my native city Donetsk. During the creation of the project, we were constantly communicating with her, talking about the war, the house, experienced emotions. Each time I relived my own traumatizing experience as if I was falling into those terrible events again and again. It was painful and I began to distance myself from her, I wanted to finish the project faster. I don’t think it was the best experience, I still have feelings of some kind of incompleteness. After that, I continued shooting projects, but I tried not to touch a theme of war and refugees. A year later, when my psychological state stabilized and I regained my inner strength, I made another attempt to talk about refugees and a conflict in Ukraine. I created the project Hypoxia, then Keys. In these projects, I explored the events that happened personally with me, about my experiences. Then I came to realize that when I make projects about refugees, I am actually telling myself what exactly worries me. To me, it offers a therapeutic effect, I have a feeling I am doing something important and useful for me and other people.
“Children living in a war grow up quickly, they have adult eyes. I talk to them the way I would talk to adults. I ask questions, but these children are traumatized, so sometimes they do not want to answer and I do not insist.”
GJ: You speak to the work you’ve produced as a psychological journey to some extent. And it seems that your focus has shifted from inward to outward to promote emotional healing of your subjects. On your website, you write about your work being about an “affirmation for life” rather than an exercise of “pity or grief”. What kinds of conversations do you share with your subjects, and particularly the children that you photograph? Do you see your picture-making as a process of healing for your subjects as well as yourself?
The people rarely refuse when I ask to take pictures of them. Many trust me, since I am, as well as them, involved in the same tragedy. During a shoot or an interview, I try to remain honest with them, I do not promise anything. But my projects give hope to these people living in the Grey Zone that they will attract more attention from Ukraine and the world community. To them, I act as a connecting link to the outer world.
I can quickly find an approach to people. I am interested in their lives, I always try to support them, give a piece of advice, encourage, simply smile, and sometimes give a hug. People living in the war zone are cut off from the rest of the world, it is important for them to know that someone needs them, that they are remembered and supported. They welcome an opportunity to speak out and to be heard. Sometimes in the process of work, I tell them my story or the stories of other people, the ones who suffered because of war or the ones who managed to improve their lives, it depends on the situation. Afterward, I stay in touch with many of them, we text each other. Sometimes I help financially.
Children living in a war grow up quickly, they have adult eyes. I talk to them the way I would talk to adults. I ask questions, but these children are traumatized, so sometimes they do not want to answer and I do not insist. I shift their attention to something positive: a game or some pleasant words, often I start telling funny stories that happened to me when I was little, then the kids laugh and accept me. I always have my pockets full of sweets and small gifts. After the shoot, I give them a treat and leave them very satisfied.
I visited different areas of the Grey Zone, communicated with people and watched what was happening. I turned my attention away from myself to other people who were in a far worse situation. This helped me get rid of the psychological state of a victim and martyr.
Sometimes people had to live in inhuman conditions, for several months they were forced to sit in basements hiding from the bombing. Because of war some lost their relatives and loved ones, lost their homes, everything they held dear. However, they retained human qualities: mercy, kindness, responsiveness, ability to feel compassion and love… Behind every news about shelling and devastation there is a life-affirming story – a story proving that, as Svetlana Alexievich put it, a man is greater than war.
GJ: I also read someplace that you see yourself as photographing in order to counter-balance the “male perspective” of what war is. Could you talk a little more about how you define these different visions and what drives your impulse to counter-act the typical visions of war that we see?
AG: Often a “man’s perspective” is based on the idea that one has about war, his desire for revenge, struggle, heroic deeds.
I do not show defensive actions or heroic struggle in my projects. War is murder. I raise questions about how society interacts with war and with what remains of it. I try to fill my work with emotional experiences and to describe a survival strategy.
To show the pathos of war most photographers resort to famous clichés, such as images of an abandoned toy lying next to a destroyed building. Describing a military photograph distributed in the media, Susan Sontag emphasizes that the use of fear causes even more fear.
One should not interpret my pictures as simple illustrations of grief and mourning intended to squeeze out a tear. These photographs are not for crying; they are an affirmation of life.
GJ: So what is the state of the war today? Do you think you will ever get the chance to return to Donbass?
AG: At the moment the war in the Donbas is de facto at the stage of a “frozen conflict,” which is a situation in which there are no active hostilities between the warring parties and no political solution to the conflict. But from time to time the situation changes and positional battles or skirmishes begin. The last project I created is called Frozen Conflict. It is a “symbolic portrait” of the current Donbas territory, an attempt to convey its image with the help of symbolic markers.
The “frozen conflict” in the east of Ukraine is often compared to the situation in Transnistria, Abkhazia, etc. The world experience demonstrates that such conflicts are often protracted and can last for decades. But unlike the Transnistrian conflict, the situation in the Donbas is more internationalized. The US and EU sanctions against Russia are connected precisely with the conflict in the east of Ukraine. It is not possible to predict how long this war will last. But everything eventually comes to an end. The dawn comes even after the darkest night, it is not for nothing that the sun rises in the east.
GJ: Thanks for your time, Alena.
Alena Grom works at the junction of social reporting and conceptual photography. She works on her topics on the front line. The artist sees her “mission” in covering the lives of people who find themselves in a “Grey Zone” or a zone close to military action. With her every shot (a wordplay and reference to gun shooting) she targets propaganda and forms the image of the existing difficult reality. With her photographs, Ms. Grom tries to inform the world community about the complexities of military everyday life, the tragedy of war, and faith in the world.
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