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Image credit: Pavel Borshchenko

As images of war and destruction in Ukraine proliferate the global scene, it is essential that we look to images of art as well; photographs that tell the stories of the unique Ukrainian lives, cultures and histories that are being threatened, and in many cases, misrepresented.  

While photography may, at the moment, be showing the world the tragic reality of active combat in stark clarity, photography also has the power to unveil truths, investigate preconceived ideas, and immortalize memories. Strengths that Ukrainian art photographer, Pavel Borshchenko (@pavloborshchenko), has long used to explore the relationship between his Ukrainian identity and his country’s Soviet history and the complexities and misconceptions long held between the West and the East. 

Image credit: Pavel Borshchenko

Pavel Borshchenko lived and worked in Kyiv, Ukraine, until recently when Russian forces invaded and forced him to flee. But Pavel’s roots are in the provincial city of Sumy. Pavel is part of the Ukrainian generation who grew up witnessing (and living) the drastic cultural upheaval that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was born into an era defined by the collapse, in a small region that adapted to post-USSR life much slower than the metropolitan areas. While the West often marked the end of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet way of life persisted well beyond this point, especially in peripheral areas that could not quickly assimilate into the free market. Like Pavel and his family, Provincial Ukrainians simply lived on the only way they could. 

Image credit: Pavel Borshchenko

His photographs embody this cognitive dissonance that Pavel identifies in his childhood – born a soviet in every sense but the name. The photographs are a visual onslaught of contradicting cultural symbols, stereotypes and historical references, stacked on top of each other, engulfing his human subjects, altogether redefining their silhouettes. There is a menacing sense of discontent to these cultural objects’ syncopation. They overwhelm the tight composition, an overdose of historicity.   

Pavel’s busy compositions evoke the historical excess his generation has had to navigate, but they also reference the unique imagery of Soviet propaganda. Pavel replaces the heads of his subjects with Soviet symbols: busts of Stalin, the hammer and sickle, or an astronaut helmet (a clear reference to the cold-war space race), in other images, he covers the model’s face with muslin, drawing attention to the cultural garb they are adorned in. He transforms a person into a people, one into one of many. The way Pavel obscures personhood, or any indicator of subjectivity, speaks to the indoctrinating effects of propaganda. 

Image credit: Pavel Borshchenko

Pavel Borshchenko does not only investigate cultural confusion from within but also challenges an outsiders’ perspective. There is an absurdity to his imagery that is both humorous and troubling. For instance, his images of subjects in cardboard war-planes and tanks; there is a sense of play to be found here despite the presence of the Russian war machines. The drastic scale disparity between the people and their vehicles seems to portray a child quickly outgrowing their favourite toy. Pavel’s subjects have outgrown these flimsy pretend vehicles, and yet, they are confined to them, unable to disembark or unload their weight. They are forced to carry the weight of their Soviet childhoods. 

Image credit: Pavel Borshchenko

Pavel’s use of material and props to obscure his subjects, space and setting disorientate the viewer entirely. We are left with no semblance of the real to ground ourselves in space or time. His material backdrops create a blank space, a nowhere – disconnecting his images from their actual Ukrainian setting; they could be set anywhere for all we know! All that remains in his photographs is the anachronistic Soviet imagery. In other words, Pavel hides the real Ukraine while highlighting an idea of Ukraine, or what the West believes Ukraine to be. 

Image credit: Pavel Borshchenko

Pavel’s perplexing portraits ask how one person can be all these things.   

Ukraine and Russia’s history is long and complex, and neither should be defined by the other. As we watch the unfolding news of this conflict in trepidation, we hope that more Ukrainian artists can keep exploring their cultural identity. 

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Image detail: Gary Ramage