That time I went to Ukraine during a crisis.
by Debbie Davies (See some photos below or click banner above to go to website for all photos.)
The U.S. Department of State’s travel warning about eastern Ukraine areas such as the Crimean Peninsula, Donetsk and Luhansk should be enough to deter any citizen from traveling to Ukraine. Only a crazy person would voluntarily travel to a country during a violent conflict.
Love can make you crazy.
In July, 2014 I, Debbie Davies, ignored the travel warning, and conducted a social-art project in central Kyiv, Ukraine.
The I Love You Project® is a global interactive social art project which celebrates diversity and uses video, photography, and sound to create installations. A digital microscope camera is used to videotape participants saying “I Love You” in their native language. The voices are recorded separately, combined with original music and videotaped images to create a multi-media exhibition. Portraits of participants are also part of the exhibition creating a mosaic of human faces. The microscope camera creates unexpected portraits that play with skin tone, contrast, and light. The goal of the project is to explore cultures and bring people of different backgrounds together through art and love.
Why did I pick a country in the midst of a political crisis? How did a New York woman become interested in Ukraine?
My project seeks out neighborhoods where discord exists amongst residents, usually due to cultural differences. I have conducted the project in Spain (Barcelona) and Germany (Berlin and Frankfurt). While Kyiv is not a first choice for language diversity - mostly Russian and Ukrainian language - the current conflict, which focuses on separating those who are “ethnically Russian”, attracted my attention; since my project is about bringing people together. But my interest in Ukraine dates further back, beyond the Crimean annexation, the pro-Russian rebel uprising, and the Maidan protests.
We have a saying: “a taste of your own medicine.” Participants in my project hear me say “you must talk to strangers”. I decided to “taste my own medicine” and take a risk. I joined Couchsurfing, an online social network where people offer free lodging to travelers. My first visitor was a woman from Kyiv, Ukraine. Khrystyna stayed with me in Brooklyn in March 2013. It was her first time using Couchsurfing, too. Here we were, strangers sleeping under the same roof. We became good friends. When she returned to Ukraine, we kept in touch, and she visited me a few more times. I read news about Ukraine, as I do with news in Spain and Germany where my other friends live (people I met through the project). Khrystyna and I hoped to conduct the project in Kyiv.
The news in Ukraine was always dramatic. There was political upheaval in the leadership, and debate about joining the E.U. Then there was the protests in the Maidan during the winter. Molotov cocktails, bloodshed, and the unraveling of Kyiv impacted me more than my own local news. I was worried about Khrystyna.
And then Putin stepped in with the Crimean annexation. The fighting in Donetsk with pro-Russian rebels was discussed even with my least political friends. All this talk of segregating ethnic Russians was deeply upsetting to me; being someone of mixed race - an immigrant from Trinidad - who wanted to conduct a project in Ukraine about love, unity, and tolerance. My resolve to conduct the project in Kyiv was solidified.
I had an opportunity to conduct the project in Germany again. The exhibition would take place during the end of June, 2014. I thought this would be a good time to conduct the project in Kyiv directly after.
Everyone I knew, who were otherwise always supportive of my project, tried to dissuade me from visiting Ukraine. They, too, had read the travel warning and all the bad news. I assured them that the warning was all about the east, and that I would not put myself in harms way. I was going. Love was calling me.
Aside from some polite and professional interaction with a customs officer at the airport, my arrival in Kyiv was uneventful. Curious eyes scanned me. My skin is brown and my dark hair falls in long spiral ringlets. I am definitely identified as a foreigner! I was surprised there was no obvious military presence In Kyiv; not even at the airport.
My friend Khrystyna behaved as if she was my mother. She arranged a pickup at the airport, gave me a cell phone (I had my own iPhone with me) and asked me to keep in touch throughout the day. I was told I should not walk unescorted in Kyiv. Even when I did not call her, she was calling the team working with me to know what I was doing.
Khrystyna arranged the exhibition, connecting me with a curator and a team to help with sound recording and translations. Over three days in a gallery - a converted bunker - I met people who spoke both Russian and Ukrainian, and a few other languages. We called the room where I recorded people the “Love Interrogation Room”.
The videos, featuring music and voices of other people from around the world, played on a loop in two rooms. It was interesting conducting a project about love and peace inside a bunker with white cinder-block walls.
My project is not just about recording images and voices. Project participants and we who conduct the project connect via conversation before and after the photo session. This is the goal of the project, to create these connections We share a glass of wine and some snacks. We talk about what is happening politically, socially, and economically. The gallery walls displayed photos from Spain and Germany, which visitors admired and asked many questions about the people in the photos - many of whom are now my friends.
One woman who worked at a restaurant nearby, thanked me for coming to Kyiv in spite of the travel warnings to bring this type of project to her city. Her words touched my heart and we shared a warm hug afterwards. These are the moments I risked traveling to Ukraine for.
My translator Alik was a good source of information about the history of the conflict. Alik and I walked around Kyiv and he told me of his travels - and torture - in the east. Recently, he joined the National Guard, and is currently in Donetsk. This is the risk we take when we befriend strangers. There are more people to worry about, and your heart grows bigger, filled with love.
On July 4th, which is the U.S.’s Independence Day, I photographed some members of the Congress of Cultural Activists (CoCA). This group of creative people and activists have a mission to expand the role of activism in promoting Ukraine culture and art. I felt a kindred spirit there and we talked after the shoot. Another project participant asked me why I wasn’t shooting the project on the Maidan. I explained the limitations of my equipment. I had never used my microscope camera outdoors - a rather peculiar device that is actually a child’s toy microscope. The ancient laptop I used was running an old operating system that was the only one able to run the software. Further, the battery drains quickly; I would need electricity. Alik called a friend at the Maidan who offered electricity. So on my own country’s Independence Day I shot the project in Kyiv’s Independence Square.
I already visited the Maidan on my second day in Kyiv. I was surprised to see the area still occupied by protesters. The smell of burning materials, debris, memorial candles and photos, and the general atmosphere, was saddening. When I returned on July 4th to the area to conduct the project, I braced myself for the scene. We set up a table and chair, my laptop, microscope camera, and sound recorder. The participant who suggested this came with us, and he and Alik approached people to explain the project and ask them to participate. One of the CoCA members, Yaroslav, stayed near me. I was not frightened, but the visceral feelings inside me were indeed overwhelming as I viewed the images on my laptop screen whilst raising the camera above my head to capture a surreal view of the Maidan. In the distance, people sang songs and gave short speeches. Men in military garb walked between the makeshift dwellings. Beneath my feet the cobblestones were broken and in some areas missing altogether. So there was dust in the air, and that feeling - similar to what I experienced during my own country’s 9/11 - that something terrible happened here. A bridge, which I could see from my vantage point, displayed large photos of the victims from the February fighting.
The images I captured, in stark black and white with some color, resemble X-rays. The juxtaposition of intensely beautiful Ukraine portraits against a background of grim devastation, tore at my heart. But I did not cry, because I was also surrounded by love. I was there to observe and record, and turn something awful into something beautiful. Here were people saying “I Love You” to the world. Here was an opportunity to change the news coming from Ukraine from something hopeless, into something hopeful.
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