Oksana Chelysheva discusses the photographic exhibition Children of War by activist Maxim Gromov, photographer Vladimir Telegin and journalist Yan Shenkman. She argues for the importance of photography in cultivating empathy for the children who suffer as innocent victims in armed conflicts.
The photo project “Children of War” is the result of cooperation between Maxim Gromov, a Russian political activist and former political prisoner, Vladimir Telegin, a photographer from Saint Petersburg, and Yan Shenkman, a special correspondent with Moscow-quartered Novaya Gazeta.
The project started as a reaction to the armed conflict which erupted in the eastern part of Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Back then there was hope that peace would be easy to achieve and that the necessary measures would require some peace-building initiative.
Maxim Gromov had already initiated a campaign in support of Russia’s political prisoners by helping their children to feel proud of their parents. He explains “It was very important to help political prisoners by supporting their children. It is a tough thing to live knowing that your father or mother is in prison. It can help to get to know that they didn’t commit any criminal offence and that people around do support them and that they will not be left alone.”
Vladimir Telegin also participated in the “Children of political prisoners” project. The project was a success: such renowned Russian actors and musicians as Lia Akhedjakova, Yury Shevchuk or Chulpan Khamatova came to spend a whole day with the children whose parents were in prison on politically-motivated charges. The result was a series of photos published in mainstream Russian media highlighting the background of each particular case.
When the armed conflict erupted in Ukraine, Maxim Gromov started to lobby for reconciliation. Children are the innocent victims of any conflict. Vladimir Telegin recounts that it was very difficult to persuade Maxim that there must be children’s faces in the photographs, not just their eyes. “There must be their eyes”, insisted Maxim. “The eyes will make people see that the way they look at you is the same for all children regardless of whether they are in areas outside the control of Kiev, in camps for the internally displaced in Russia or Ukraine, or whether they are children whose father died either on the Ukrainian side or for one of the self-proclaimed republics.”
Black and white photographs by Vladimir Telegin are still filled with children’s eyes. The portraits were made between summer 2014 and winter 2015. The project was supported by the Novaya Gazeta and its editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov personally.
Yan Shenkman recounts that he was in contact with various media outlets and it was only Novaya Gazeta that decided to provide support for the project highlighting the children trapped in adults’ games.
This newspaper got its fame for independent journalism through names such as Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova and Andrey Mironov who worked or contributed to the newspaper and whose lives were cut short because of the work they did. Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in October 2006. Her friend and colleague Natalia Estemirova was executed after her enforced disappearance in July 2009. Andrey Mironov, a former Soviet prisoner of conscience and human rights defender, was killed together with his Italian friend, freelance photographer Andy Rocchelli, in the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk in May 2014. Their last joint work was an article published in the Novaya Gazeta a few days before their death. It featured photographs of children hiding in basements of their houses.
War, children and photographs
Children bear no responsibility for wars. What they bear is the negative impacts. Children in conflict areas are completely deprived of the most important thing for a child: a safe childhood itself. Any attempt to represent children’s suffering may result in the viewer’s psychological withdrawal. People do not like to be nearby someone suffering, especially a child. While this is troubling, there also lies the hope that such an encounter with an image of a child (who wants to live and play) might push an adult viewer to become activated in eradicating the cause for the suffering of the innocent.
Children bear no responsibility for wars. What they bear is the negative impacts. Children in conflict areas are completely deprived of the most important thing for a child: a safe childhood itself.
During the American war in Vietnam a disturbing image of the “napalm girl” cemented public opinion in the West against the war. In 2015 Europe shuddered with the image of Aylan Kurdy, a drowned toddler washed up ashore in Turkey. The images of Syrian children from Aleppo who have stopped crying due to the depth of their trauma have drawn western societies into demonstrations demanding peace.
The images of Syrian children from Aleppo who have stopped crying due to the depth of their trauma have drawn western societies into demonstrations demanding peace.
It was the same hope to ignite the true anti-war zest in people which motivated Maxim, Yan and Vladimir to act. Yan says, “It is a pity that three years after we started with the Children of War project, it remains of current interest. The conflict is ongoing and more and more children get affected by it.”
These black-and-white portraits of children by Vladimir Telegin are not just of interest but also of political concern. While it was pretty easy to hold the exhibition in Moscow or Helsinki (where it was displayed in Arkadia bookshop), it took a year to find a venue for the exhibition in Riga. “This subject is too sensitive,” I have been told many times. All attempts to find a venue to bring the photos in had been in vain for the same reason, “We are not involved in politics… We will be targeted by our security police… We have to stay away from it, otherwise we will lose money as our supporters won’t approve of it.”
“This subject is too sensitive,” I have been told many times.
Then a meeting with Dagis Vidulejs, a Latvian artist and gallerist, happened. All concerns, real or imaginary, were waved away. He explained “I am interested in bringing people together to discuss really important issues. Without talking, no solutions can be found. The exhibition “Children of War” has been widely covered in the Latvian media, both in the Russian and Latvian language. All articles have emphasized the humanitarian aspects and the campaign to raise funds to aid children affected by the conflict in Ukraine. Dagis Vidulejs pointed out afterwards: “It’s very important that such media outlets as Liberty Radio and Sputnik didn’t dare to criticise the exhibition to serve their interests but published balanced articles. I regard it as a big success.” At the same time, one article did mention that the exhibition had very special visitors, servicemen with Latvian Security Police. According to that publication, Security Police thoroughly inspected the exhibition but failed to find any signs of “the exhibition being part of Russia’s propaganda campaign.”
Anger and hope
How should I describe the emotions I felt while reading that the exhibition had been visited by the Security police? Relief that they failed to find any sign of thought-crime committed? Happiness that Dagis Vidulejs and his welcoming “Happy Art Gallery” would not have to cope with any consequences to his genuine readiness to discuss what can be done to save the children in those forty black-and-white photographs from the hardships of life under shelling?
Actually, neither this nor that. I felt anger. Deep anger that security services find time to explore whether faces of children trapped by the conflict in Ukraine represent any danger to state security.
Does it mean that my problems in finding an exhibition venue during the previous year were grounded in real concerns of people I was in contact with that their decision to exhibit Vladimir Telegin’s photos would bring negative consequences? If it does, it is a sign that something is wrong with the definition of state security nowadays.
Dagis Vidulejs confessed to me that he had not expected such a positive outcome with the exhibition nor the very intense discussion on the reality of war-torn Ukraine that followed. It was far beyond the numerous clichés that “no teardrop of a child can be a way to some happy future”, as Fyodor Dostoevsky stated in his novel Karamazov Brothers.
Today the world is affected by another disaster: even an ocean of children’s tears is no longer shocking
Today the world is affected by another disaster: even an ocean of children’s tears is no longer shocking. The gallery owner Dagis, whose own art is a mix of political satire and philosophical allegory, says that for him it is a victory that two media outlets on such different sides of the political spectrum as Radio Liberty and Sputnik reported on the exhibition rather neutrally. This is additional proof that difficult photography and art that speaks of the complicated truths should be allowed to reach the public. In Latvia as well as in Finland, where the exhibition was held in 2016, people responded to the exhibition by sending toys, clothes and food to people in need in the areas affected by the armed conflict in Donbass.