“Photographers are very eloquent speakers” – A Conversation with Jessica Zychowicz and Mariia Kravchenko on the exhibition Ukraine: War and Resistance

Interview with Mariia Kravchenko and Jessica Zychowicz by Sophie Schmäing

In mid-May of this year, the exhibition “Ukraine: War and Resistance”, featuring  a collection of 40 images by Fulbright Alumni from Ukraine, or American Fulbrighters who have lived and worked for several years or longer in Ukraine, had its premiere in Germany at Hotel Continental – Art Space in Berlin after being presented in Ukraine and the United States. I interviewed Mariia Kravchenko, Program Officer and Jessica Zychowicz, Director at Fulbright Program in Ukraine & Institute of International Education Kyiv Office, about how resistance was literally enacted when the exhibition was first launched in the city of Vinnytsia and how intensive exchanges on the curation of the photos contributed to forming local and intellectual communities. We also discussed the different forms and meanings the exhibition acquired, ethical challenges, and why the photographers’ depiction of everydayness prevents the exploitation of their images by propaganda. On September 21, the exhibition will be opened at the  Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin, accompanied by an academic event on “Narrating Everyday Life During War Time in Ukraine” in cooperation with the Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe based at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA, April 2023. Photo by Eugen Fedchenko

Sophie Schmäing: To start of the conversation, I would like to ask you about your work within Fulbright Ukraine and the Institute of International Education Kyiv Office more generally. It is part of the Fulbright program’s self-image that it was founded to increase mutual understanding between countries and prevent wars. Now, how did the role and work of Fulbright Ukraine change since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014 and the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24 in 2022, respectively?

Mariia Kravchenko: I see in this question few subtopics, well, if you don’t mind I will concentrate on this period of full-scale Russian war against Ukraine because, actually, there are very general facts about the Fulbright Program. It was founded after World War II by the initiative of Senator J. William Fulbright. And yes, you’re right, the initiative was aimed to prevent war and conflicts between nations through promoting mutual understanding and through educational exchanges. In Ukraine, the Fulbright program is existing since 1992. Actually, it’s my birth year, so we are the same age. When we prepared the description for this exhibition, we were thinking intensively about the main thought of preventing wars: What does it mean that war is here? Does it mean that Fulbright is not necessary anymore? We concluded that it is even more necessary now. Because if one country decided to do something horrible, it doesn’t mean that other countries that are involved in this program don’t need it anymore. They need to deepen and strengthen all activities that help to protect their values and foundations of existence and providing academic exchange and cultural diplomacy (what Fulbright is about) is very productive here. So from the first days of the war, we continued all our main programs and did great jobs. However, because of the war, we don’t have U.S. scholars and students in Ukraine anymore. That’s a huge problem, but it’s reality.

Sophie: How did you develop the idea for the exhibit “Ukraine: War and Resistance”?

Jessica Zychowicz: The first edition of the exhibit took place last autumn in the city of Vinnytsia, where Inna Barysh, one of our staff members, was based at that time. She had left Kyiv for some short period and was there in Vinnytsia in West-Central Ukraine. And we cooperated with the local city museum there, so it was a local project as well. And a lot of the photographs were from Vinnytsia in that first edition. Not long before we opened the exhibit, the central part of Vinnytsia had been bombed. So, it was a very emotional time in the city. Some scholars from our Fulbright community also presented research related to their areas of expertise in regard to current events. The whole opening event was in hybrid format with in person presentations held at the museum shortly after a missile attack. The event felt very much like an act of resistance—so, War and Resistance is not only a figurative title, but an embodied and critical act with which this exhibit began.

And then from there, from that exhibit, we showed it in the University of Pennsylvania. One of our Fulbrighters, Rimma Milenkova, who is a scholar in art history from the city of Sumy in north-east Ukraine, 30 kilometres from the Russian border. Rimma took the lead in a lot of the conversations and curation and work in order to install the exhibit there. The hosting institution was the Annenberg Center for Media at Risk within University of Pennsylvania, which organized a parallel scholarly symposium that shaped the conversation around the images as one about journalism, and also the role of the photographer within the historical long lens of how photographers work in military conflicts. The professors and researchers who participated were from both the U.S. and Ukraine and possessed expertise from several places across the globe, different wars, and were thinking very much about image and its construction of audiences, not only, you know, in the format of a documentary, but also as an aesthetic that makes meaning out of what people think war actually is, what it means to inhabit a war.

Our exhibition continues to be hosted by institutions as large and sophisticated as the University of Pennsylvania or University of Minnesota, or very small local community libraries and colleges, even a credit union in Michigan hosted it; each time these photographs travel, the conversation changes, the audience shifts— it is important that the exhibit is versatile because of its content and the fluidity of both events, interpretations, and politics surrounding this bloody war.

Monroe, MI, USA May 2023. Photo provided by the Carleton Branch Library

Sophie: You already mentioned that the notion of resistance is very central in the exhibition, and I am wondering how you selected the images and the photographers and what kind of resistance narratives they communicate.

Jessica: Well, the selection of the photos is different in each exhibit and involves conversations with the curators if there is one, like in the case of Rymma who worked on this at University of Pennsylvania, and also Mariia Kravchenko and Inna Barysh and Marian Luniv, who is both a visual artist himself and a communications and media officer at Fulbright Ukraine. We work closely with the local host institutions. In September we also have a version of this exhibit opening at San Francisco Great Highway Park and our counterparts there have had very in-depth conversations with us for several months now about the photographs that we want to select based on the general audience that will encounter them within the park because we’re going to display these in a very large format outside in a public space. Some images need to have a quality to them that can be visible from a far distance. We also have shaped the content so that families and children can also engage with the information in the photos in this context. The park is a broadly oriented audience inclusive of all ages, so our goals are less about an academic or theoretical discussion that we’re aiming at here. So curating for a general public and selecting the images for other kinds of engagement has been very different than with the universities we have worked with on this project. By contrast: I suppose that one of the most interesting curatorial questions that came up in discussions with the photographers, who also sometimes take part in the selection of the photos themselves, was about whether or not to display human dead bodies in the photos. We were preparing for a university audience and we wanted students and faculty to consider whether or not showing the photos of bodies subjected to violent death within mass media and/or other contexts was ethical — getting at a longer debate and discussion within photography as a field of research. We discussed how the media today displays dead Ukrainians, both civilians and soldiers. To provoke some deeper questions in the end, the university and the curator decided to feature the dead body of a Russian soldier brutally killed by shrapnel, laying on a tank barricade, positioned almost as if in a crucifixion. The photographer was very surprised and glad that they even included the image into the exhibit because it hadn’t been included in any of the exhibits that she’s done, both ours and others. The way in which this particular image was displayed was also unique: it appeared inside of a light box covered with a cloth. The box itself was positioned next to another photograph of a small Ukrainian boy playing with a gun. The result was a possible commentary revolving around violence, children and the militarization of youth, stolen childhoods, and the juxtaposition of imagining and playing at life like kids do, contrasted with the adult world of senseless violence versus sacrificial death in wartime. The overall outcome was incredibly jarring emotionally and thought-provoking. So I think more than any other display, the curation that took place around that discussion was the most emotional. All of us are invested into the project in different ways. We come from different backgrounds and that’s what makes it a dynamic and evolving project. There is no right or wrong way to display these photos. It’s an organic process that keeps changing.

Mariia: I would like to mention something about resistance here, if you don’t mind. So, we don’t have a plan: 50% of resistance, 50% of war — no, the curatorial process is very natural every time. And how did the shape of the process first emerge? It started because Inna, who is deputy and officer for the Fulbright student program, has been in communication for years with the individual U.S. and Ukrainian photographers in this project. When the war started, she was actively following all Fulbrighters and their activities on social media. Our photographers, who are included in this exhibit, provide images to many global news media such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, etc.  Their pictures have become iconic not only in Ukraine, but globally. She had the idea that we should present all of this as part of a global Fulbright legacy.

And yes, we first showed it in autumn 2022 in Vinnitsya. There, I was actually also temporarily displaced after the war started, because I’m living in Kyiv and we spent the first three months in the Vinnytsia region. It was my as well as Inna’s temporary home. Marian prepared the first edition as a general project in conversation with the photographers because every photographer has his special view, and so it was a challenge to structure it in some way, to see some similarities and differences. So, as you could see at the Berlin exhibit, Marian worked with the local curator at ArtSpace in Exile to organize the installation so that some areas featured children, for example, while others focused attention on themes of resistance, etc. It is not always possible to show these photos in such a way, but this Berlin exhibit was special because the host provided us with a large venue.

And about resistance, yes, I would like to say that it’s all very natural. We are not specifically looking for that. But you can find it on many photos. For example, that red cat jumping from the ruined building and people who actually want to catch it. Or that Ukrainian soldier on a huge tank, Russian ruined tank. There are just so many methods for resisting and we try to present as many as possible in our exhibit. Of course, you will remember the photo of a girl in a children’s hospital in Kyiv, when she’s still smiling. She is missing a leg and about to receive a prosthetic one, despite the situation she’s still smiling. What we are trying to show with these photos is how Ukrainians believe in their victory. And this exhibit is not only about war, but about a better future, I guess.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, March 2023. Photo provided by Mill City Museum

Sophie: You were talking about different audiences, academic audiences, children, but the exhibition is also directed to different national audiences, because you showed it in Ukraine first, and then in the US, and then in Berlin for the first time in Europe. How do these diverse audiences shape the exhibitions and how do their reactions differ?

Jessica: Yeah, the context, the host site shapes the frame in some ways. And in Berlin, the site was ArtSpace in Exile – Hotel Continental. This place is a special one because at the time of the outbreak of the war the founder of it was on an art residency in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol at a site called Hotel Continental. After evacuating from Ukraine she decided to recreate a space in Berlin, naming it Hotel Continental after the Mariupol location, which has since been destroyed. And she has made it a place for artists from Ukraine to come and gather and display their work. And they are open to other countries, to refugee seeking artists from around the world. So the location was already overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine and everyone that came and attended the exhibit, including the US Ambassador to Germany, was very supportive of the work that was done between the German Fulbright commission and Fulbright Ukraine. So this was an international endeavour.

The reception of the photographs was interesting to observe during the event. I remember a woman telling me: “this country really understands war, Germany really understands war. My family had to leave in 1939“, etc. Everyone had personal stories that they wanted to share. They could see themselves in the images, suspending them in time, space, and memory.

And something that I know is true about all of these photographs, even if the photographers themselves are not able to acknowledge it, because they work individually, is that all of their photographs share an aesthetic continuity. The framings, subject matter, and other elements blend one into the other. We did not select the photographers based on any aesthetic quality, we invited them to the project as our Alumni, so to see this kind of visual resonance among the content of the photos is not very common in curation or in any kind of exhibit where documentary styles can range widely.

Perhaps some of the continuity can be attributed to the fact that the photographers are working for some of the same media assignments; they’re working in mass media. For example, these are not personal photographs shared between families or among close friends, or personal blogs or websites. These images are for CNN, New York Times, et cetera. At the same time the photographers in our exhibit are unique within the mass media context of the Russia-Ukraine war because they are not working on the register of photographers who are generally outside of life in Ukraine, oriented to it as a foreign country; our photographers live in Ukraine and know the culture and history. They are also not “dispatched” to capture action in battle. The photographers in our exhibit are photographers who are looking at war from a civilian experience and broadcasting it out mostly to English speaking audiences, but do so from a deeper well of knowledge about Ukraine.  I think that what this shows is also a development of a new kind of visual language for war because they are de-glorifying violence in the images. They’re not sensationalizing or instrumentalizing the experience and the trauma of war. They also do not over-assume or force the identification of viewers from outside Ukraine who have trauma from other wars, maybe families from Germany who have personal experiences and memories of the Second World War. These photographers are doing something different. They are showing very intimate moments between people. And you would not see these kinds of photographs during the period of the Second World War, not in mass newspapers, not during the sort of propaganda wars that were happening at the time. If you go into the archives and look at the visual representation of nations and their communication from the 1930s-40s, much of the material concerns ideals: there are icons depicting clashing ideologies, even overt renderings into cartoons with swastikas and sickle and hammer in combat. By contrast, in the 21st century, largely due to social media, photographs circulate in streams of image and text and animation that blends war with all other bits of information. In consumers’ minds the social media products that they are working and engaging with are mostly comprised of user-generated content, thus mass newspapers have adapted the visual representation of war, which sometimes looks like something that I could have taken with a camera on my own in the metro. War photographs are not staged, but presented in spontaneous form, oftentimes showing everyday experiences.

So throughout all of these photographs, the everyday experience of average people living through the war is underlined, which culminates in an implicit critique of violence. Violence is most jarring when it disrupts what would otherwise be banal: a missile on a playground is a good example of this sort of vulgarity. And in this way, the photographs perform a reordering of the human instinct to survive, challenging viewers by estranging them from familiarity. The violence taking place in the photos is shown as a consequence, not an action with a clear beginning and end: a playground could be anywhere, not only in Ukraine, and a missile looks scarier and its destructive aspects more immediate with this familiar background. 

The images do a great service for media worldwide in undercutting any kind of vulnerability that Russia could exploit and use against, or weaponize against Ukraine. Because if you look at the photos in our exhibit, you will see that they are not something that can easily be pinned into a single idea, ideological narrative, or political issue, unlike the war photos of a century ago (which explicitly were working on the level of propaganda pro/contra the enemy). Here in these images we are not looking just at one problem within all the different issues that need to be solved, like the refugee crisis, etc., but a much wider range of grammatical visual forms that point to the existence of human life through a destructive war as both miraculous, and ironically, mundane.  There is a lot of innovation here that is due to the photographers’ depth of connection to the local knowledge, people, culture—the outcome is changing the visual language in mass media about Ukraine as audiences become more sophisticated in their understanding of this country that was, for many of them, a tabula rasa before the escalation of the war. The photographers are very eloquent speakers and they shared in our exhibit about the process of creating their photos, where they’re living, how they travel, etc. All of this is important information, I think, for anyone interested to learn what is being conveyed on all levels: understanding the photos is understanding the photographers.

Vinnytsia, Ukraine, October 2022. Photos by Inna Barysh.

Sophie: It’s indeed really valuable information and reflection. You already mentioned that you aim at shaping the future as well. Probably the strength of depicting everydayness instead of sensational pictures also facilitates a continued interest in what’s going on in Ukraine and people keep on watching what is happening…

Mariia: Well, the idea you’re right, our main aim is to make people interested and to spread the truth through these everyday pictures of war. Yeah, you asked about audiences, you know, we didn’t have some people who don’t support Ukraine among our visitors, not in the US, not in Germany. I guess there are still a lot of such persons, but they just ignore us. The one thing that I can mention is that when we were looking for a place for the venue with Kerstin Oswald from Fulbright Germany, it was not a very simple task. We were looking for around three months and I guess one of the reasons could be that not all institutions are ready to show it. And it means that showing it is very important. And by the way, the exhibit is still in the ArtSpace in Exile this summer. I know they have some festival for youth and every group of this festival was also attending our photo exhibit and I’m sure that they were impressed, these young people, by the photos because as Jessica mentioned and you underlined that this photo shows that war is everywhere here in Ukraine, but people still continue to live and to resist in some way and it anyway shouldn’t be just glorified of course.

Sophie: Mariia, in our previous conversation you mentioned that the exhibition is also closely related to your personal story and experiences. Would you like to elaborate on these personal aspects?

Mariia: If you have time, yes, I would like to be brief. I meant only this Berlin part mostly. From the first days of full scale war, our family stayed in the Vinnytsia region, so pretty far from Kyiv, but still in Ukraine. We returned to Kyiv in May 2022 and spent summer and autumn there, but in November, because of the new wave of missile attacks, we lost electricity and heating for a few days in our apartment. I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to move abroad with my two-year-old daughter. I have relatives in Berlin and became a refugee for the winter period. I didn’t want to stay in Germany for a long time, but I wanted to spend that winter in a calmer place.

And when we went to Berlin Jessica initiated this cooperation with Fulbright Germany. Their office hosted me very warmly and especially Fulbright Germany’s Director, Cathleen Fisher, and her Assistant, Kerstin Oswald. They were both very excited about this cooperation: they looked at the photos and decided immediately that it was worth showing them in Berlin. Then we started to work with Kerstin for looking at venues for the exhibit and opening event. We had some issues with coordinating dates with venues, and even after everything was prepared, at the last moment we were met with another logistical challenge in the transport workers’ strike by Deutsche-Bahn in May. So, just a few days before the opening, we had a few speakers from outside of Berlin who were unable to travel to join us. But we still opened the exhibit since it was impossible to change date at the last moment. So, I was in my train from Kyiv and read that, oh, they decided not to go on strike after all! I was so relieved, but soon after I faced another challenge – Russia launched a series of missile attacks during the night while  I was on my way to Berlin. So, my train to Poland was very late and I lost one train ticket because of that and needed to manage my trip in extraordinary circumstances. But fortune was on my side, and I arrived in time successfully.

Finally, the last thing I wanted to mention here is that recently we had a professional exchange seminar with five other Fulbright Commissions in Europe and this example of cooperation with Fulbright Germany in Berlin inspired them all to co-create something similar with us. I will not announce anything just yet, because it’s still in the planning stages, but can say that our entire team at Fulbright Ukraine  knows firsthand the huge interest and support by  many European countries that also want to show Ukraine: War and Resistance to their audiences in their countries!

Berlin, Germany. May 2023. Photo Credit: Mark Straus, U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

Sophie: You emphasized that the exhibition travelled, acquired new meanings and expanded over time. Perhaps you want to stress some meanings that you find particularly important? I am also wondering, as people are surrounded by images all the time these days, especially on Instagram, does this perhaps impact the relevance and function of such on-site exhibitions?

Jessica: Sure, we have our San Francisco exhibit coming up which will be in a park and also the city of Monterey aims to display some of these images in their downtown area where there are many tourists in the summer that are walking through the streets. That way, they will see these photos in their own environment. That is why this exhibit is valuable and interesting for audiences not only inside a more formal closed museum space or research-based institution, but also in communication with a general public. The photos themselves become an afterthought to the conversations that they generate. They can be a site for research in a university or a more traditional museum space, but they are not objects for sale. For example, Fulbrighter Roman Tyshchenko, who is a Ukrainian student at University of Minnesota, curated a version of this exhibit where he was bringing together people from the university with others from the community, from the city of Minnesota, who wanted to support this, as well as from the local chapter of the Fulbright Association. So again, the photos became less important, I would say, than the community that was formed through the exhibit. Oftentimes local news will write press releases or feature reviews as in the Minnesota Mill City Museum exhibit in which the reporter spoke about it as opening the eyes of Midwesterners to the war. It was a regional commentary they were making that was also largely about a student coming from Ukraine and being a cultural ambassador bringing Ukraine to Minnesota. This is the real work of the exhibit that I think makes it very, very valuable. We have not positioned this exhibit as a fundraising promotion for the war, but it can also have that purpose. Hromada, which is the oldest Ukrainian English newspaper on the West Coast, has joined the San Francisco Great Highway Park to help raise humanitarian funds for Ukraine. Along with the format of an in-person exhibit, a local newspaper such as Hromada is also perhaps in a more traditional format than our online exhibitions and virtual talks we livestream and record and post to our social media pages, but it is important that we are doing all of the above. In-person and analog (non-digital) events and activities are a key way of gathering advocates for Ukraine in real time.

Mariia: One last thing: you’re right, it’s an option to follow photographers on Instagram, but I’m sure that many people still don’t use Instagram. And when you are scrolling Instagram, you’re probably not prepared to see photos of this kind every time. Naturally, people won’t react in the appropriate manner every time. And when you are going to visit some photo exhibit, or even accidentally pass by one, you get to see the whole project. And if you feel something in your heart, if you still feel like it’s worth seeing, despite maybe not even being ready for it, you will just go, look and read some captions. And I guess that format is still very relevant to our reality. Especially for elderly people. They are the people who don’t use Instagram, who don’t use Facebook. Perhaps not many people, but still. Some others do use it, but for the purpose of staying in contact with friends, avoiding to see those photos everyday. Moreover, because our photographers, as Jessica mentioned, work individually, they can show a photo of one very critical subject and then, after only one week – another one. It’s dynamic and rapidly-changing, which makes it difficult to follow all of the photos of all the photographers, or to structure the material for yourself in some way.  Therefore, the fact that we curate and caption all images, and work together with different teams and venues, brings structure to the format.  By the way, we also showed a video during our Berlin opening that presented all of the photos with comments and a narration of all key events and issues that have taken place in the war up to this point, about its historical context as perceived by Ukrainians. The video and narration were carefully prepared by our colleague Veronica Aleksanych. This  short video is an excellent resource for public outreach that can be showed in a range of settings – including cases when people are interested but don’t have the possibility to show the exhibit in printed form.

Sophie: Thank you very much for this insightful interview.

Mariia Kravchenko, Ph.D. (Candidate of Sciences, Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv) is  Program Officer at Fulbright Ukraine / IIE Kyiv Office. She is also a historian and recently returned from a short-term fellowship on FDR-Truman era research at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies in the Netherlands.

Jessica Zychowicz, Ph.D. (University of Michigan) is the Director of Fulbright Ukraine & Institute of International Education Kyiv Office. She is the author of the award-winning book Superfluous Women: Art, Feminism, and Revolution in Twenty-First Century Ukraine (U-Toronto Press 2020), editor of Freedom Taking Place: War, Women and Culture at the Intersection of Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus (Vernon Press 2023), and numerous articles. She was a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine; Fellow at U-Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs; U-Alberta; and Uppsala University. She holds a doctorate from U-Michigan and BA from U.C. Berkeley. For more information: https://www.jes-zychowicz.com/.

Sophie Schmäing is Science Communication and Networks Coordinator at the Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe at Forum Transregionale Studien and part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team. She is also an interdisciplinary trained sociologist who recently completed her PhD on urban democracy in post-Maidan Ukraine at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen.

Citation: “Photographers are very eloquent speakers” – A Conversation with Jessica Zychowicz and Mariia Kravchenko on the exhibition Ukraine: War and Resistance, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.09.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48669

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 7. September). “Photographers are very eloquent speakers” – A Conversation with Jessica Zychowicz and Mariia Kravchenko on the exhibition Ukraine: War and Resistance. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut7r

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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