Sasha from ARTIФ has spoken to a Kyiv-based photographer Alena Grom working on the crossroads of conceptual photography and social reporting. Alena covers the topics of the routine in the conflict-affected area in Eastern Ukraine, the life at the frontline, as well as life of immigrants and refugees.
Hi, Alena! Could you kindly introduce your work and tell us what your projects mean to you.
Once I learned the visual language of conceptual photography, I couldn’t stop myself from covering issues that concern me personally. In my projects, I tell the world about the problems of my home region, Eastern Ukraine, where the war has been going on since 2014. I am mostly focusing on ordinary people who suddenly found themselves living in difficult social and political circumstances. My photographs embody my own attempt to see the war from a different angle and give up the pathetic image of the heroic struggle.
What made you feel you want to be a photographer? Was there any ‘turning point’?
In April 2014, I had to leave home due to the events in Donbass. Living in Kyiv, I have been studying in photography schools, attending various lectures and workshops for photographers and cultural specialists. Soon I started working with complex issues that were important to me: conflict-affected areas in Ukraine, the aftermath of war, immigrants and refugees.
What motivates to keep creating and looking for meanings in the subject of war?
I’ve been to different parts of the so-called ‘grey zone’: I spoke to people, observed their ways of living. I switched my attention from myself to those who happened to be in a more difficult situation and it helped me to overcome the phase of self-victimisation. This transition is something I want to show my audience, too.
I would like to lift a curtain for people who live in peaceful areas and let them see how those based in conflict-affected territories live. Through my works, I want to preserve the memory of this tragedy for future generations, as I believe that nations forgetting their history tend to repeat the same mistakes. At the same time, I use photography as a social and psychological aid for myself, my family, and my community.
Your projects appear to take up a lot of emotional resources. Is there a need to step back occasionally? How do you make it work?
Upon returning from Marjinka where I shooted my project Means for Education primarily focusing on children, I immediately started working with photographs and interviews. Working in the conflict-affected area, my time and emotional resources are limited, so I focus on the basics: survival, safety, interaction with people and surroundings… Only later, in the safe environment, you notice important details you did not see before: a grey strand of hair of a boy who lost his mom; a girl struggling to speak as she gets nervous; another kid telling his grandmother and him had to hide behind a wall when a shooting started… Working in the war area, you hear such stories almost every day.
It was very difficult material that was mentally difficult for me as well. I managed to finish the project but for a while I had to overcome the consequent depression.
Can art change the world? Do you see your project as a contribution to social change?
Art and culture have always been tools to re-think suffering. Voicing a problematic subject an artists brings it to the surface and facilitates a public dialogue; calls for reflection and sympathy on a personal level. Art can serve an important social function: build bridges and unite efforts to bring about a positive change.
What did you find useful or interesting when taking part in a workshop by ARTIФ? What would you improve?
When applying to take part ARTIФ, my main goal was to work on my project The School of Survival showing the life of children in the Lugansk region affected by the conflict.
My participation in the workshop by ARTIФ gave me a useful experience of teamwork. I enjoyed collaborating with human rights defenders, other artists, and facilitators: It gave me an opportunity to learn from other professionals and to look at my approach from a different angle.