Reviewing the Ukrainian photography exhibitions ‘The Wonder Wounded Land’ and ‘Protect’


Jenny Hall (she/her) explores how photography can help us protect the identity of Ukraine

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Image by Alex Andrews

By Jenny Hall

24 February marked the two year anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Amongst fundraising events, film screenings and a talk with a former ambassador to Ukraine, the University of York Ukrainian Society has organised various photography exhibitions displaying work from Ukrainian photographers and local artists. I visited the exhibitions ‘The Wonder Wounded Land’ and ‘Protect’ to explore how photography has been used as a medium of capturing the suffering inflicted on the country and the lasting destruction on the landscape, buildings, and livelihoods of the people of Ukraine.

On display at City Screen Picturehouse, ‘The Wonder Wounded Land’ was an intimate exhibition which accompanied the screening of the heart-wrenching documentary film 20 Days in Mariupol. The work demonstrated the contrast between the peaceful life Ukrainians knew before the war and the shattering consequences the invasion had on the country. It was also displayed partly to prepare the audience for the harrowing scenes they would see in the Oscar-nominated documentary. The exhibition was brought to York from Ukrainian Hub Preston and the photography came from both Ukrainian artists and everyday people who had seen the consequences of the war firsthand. Many of the Ukrainians present at the exhibition explained that they had similar photos on their phones, and the society received hundreds of images when curating the exhibition. The selection was a snapshot into just some of the experiences of life in Ukraine after the invasion, as well as a way of showing support for Ukrainian artists.

One of the pieces that stood out to me was an image of an apartment in a civil area in Dnipro in eastern Ukraine by photojournalist Yan Dobronosov. The block was torn open by bombing, exposing somebody’s kitchen. The lived-in sense of the room with a bowl of fruit still on the table showed how unexpected and unthinkable the attack was and demonstrated that up until the declaration of war, there was still hope for many Ukrainians. Another image showed the ruins of a café in the bombed shopping centre Retroville in Kyiv. Through the rubble we can see the remains of a modern café which wouldn’t look out of place in York. Alex Zakletsky, the artist that captured this image, has explained that it is not just Ukraine but also its culture that is being destroyed. In an interview he stated:
“First of all, Russians are trying to delete all Ukrainian identity, and identity is culture.”
Imagery of children’s shoes and baby strollers amongst rubble also highlighted the reality of destruction for families.

Held in community space Spark that same weekend was the exhibition ‘Protect’ by York based artist Edward Matthews, a former nightclub photographer who flew out to Poland to document the refugee crisis at the border. As well as badges and war uniforms, Matthews included striking portraits of Ukrainian people he met, telling their stories through photography. During his time on the border, he joined a humanitarian aid group with local Polish people, and his exhibition covered the physical, environmental and psychological scars left and still being left throughout Ukraine.

At the exhibition was also an opportunity to watch a clip from Protect Ukraine, a film comprising interviews with displaced Ukrainians. Among other questions, the interviewed were asked where they were the day before 24 February. The responses demonstrated how their lives were completely transformed from that day on. Ukrainian university students were also interviewed which was particularly touching - the idea of living in a city far from your family when hearing this news felt unimaginably cruel.

Both exhibitions were beautifully curated and demonstrated the importance of photography for documenting the horrors of the destruction inflicted on Ukraine. As Mstyslav Chernov, the director of 20 days in Mariupol noted, “My brain will desperately want to forget all this, but the camera will not let it happen.” I think the same applies to the Ukrainian artists featured in these exhibitions, and it shows us that 2 years on we must still support Ukraine and listen to the stories of the victims of the war.