Alexander Chekmenev (b. 1969)


Image from Odessa by Allen & Overy
Year: 2003
Material: Gelatin silver print

Wry as it may be, the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, gives Ukrainian photographer Alexander Chekmenev a broad platform in the West. In the first days of the war, special forces of the Russian secret service are hunting President Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky narrowly manages to get ahead of the planned attacks and escape kidnappings. He quickly receives an offer from the US embassy to safely leave the country. His historic response to that proposal is “The fight is here”. Zelensky decides to stay and some time later invites Simon Shuster, a journalist from the Kyiv-Post and Time Magazine to conduct an interview. Chekmenev is asked as a photographer for that interview. His photo of Zelensky will appear on the cover of Time Magazine in April 2022 and will become an instant classic. The portrait in profile, like a Roman emperor on an antique coin, certainly contributes to Zelensky’s steadfast and unyielding image.

Although Chekmenev will probably forever be identified with the Zelensky portrait, he has a long track record as a photographer. His document-humaine about the clandestine coal mining industry called Donbass, shot between 1994 and 2011, has been shown in various places in Europe and has long since been sold out as an art book. Photographing the improvised mining villages and their inhabitants in the regions of depleted and rejected mines is something Chekmenev cherishes because his brother worked as a miner in the Soviet period. In his time people still earned reasonably well, now people are going underground again out of pure poverty. About the current illegal miners, Chekmenev says: “Caught in a vicious circle of work, life and death, they do nothing half-heartedly. When they work, they work until they can’t, when they drink, they drink until they drop, and when they love, it’s to the last gasp.”

Another award-winning series is Passport (1995). In 1994, the local authorities in the Luhansk region are looking for a photographer for “passport photos”. The Soviet Union had recently disintegrated and the “new countries” had to issue their own passports. In Ukraine it was about 50 million passports! Complete with a white sheet as a backdrop, Chekmenev visits hermits, old people and hospitals to photograph people who cannot register at the local town hall.

Chekmenev’s direct photographs are not always easy to view. In the Soviet Union it was certainly not the intention to depict the harrowing consequences of years of communism. The repressive system has impacted the lives of millions of people, but its actual depiction was prohibited. The outside world was shown an idealised version, with happy and grateful subjects. The beautiful propaganda pictures were nothing like the raw reality. Self-sacrifice was high on the Soviet banner, but the associated pain and sorrow was taboo.

Recently, Chekmenev said in an interview that he is Ukrainian, despite his partial ethnic Russian origin. He would like his children to call themselves Ukrainian first, and then European.

Image from Odessa by Allen & Overy