For the Record: Ukrainian photographer Igor Chekachkov on identity in crisis

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Chekachkov is currently working in Lviv as a fixer, helping the international press document the crisis. As the war between Ukraine and Russia prevails, the photographer reflects on the shifting state of identity

“When I first started photography, I didn’t think about what it means to be Ukrainian,” says Igor Chekachkov. “Later, I started to understand that this is a very important question.”

Chekachkov was born and raised in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine. The city has seen an avalanche of shelling in the last few days, pounded by the relentless Russian attack. For the past week, however, Chekachkov has been working as a fixer in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, around 70km from the Polish border. He is helping Magnum photographer Emin Özmen, and other international journalists, document the crisis. 

“I didn’t imagine that I would come here to work, but lots of people contacted me so I’m trying to help as much as I can,” says Chekachkov. “It’s important to help international journalists to work here properly. It’s my responsibility. I really feel like I’m doing something important, and it’s something that really encouraged me to stay [in Ukraine]. I feel that I am useful here.” Chekachkov was able to leave his home city in time, but his family and friends remain, as travel around the country becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous.

From NA4JOPM8 © Igor Chekachkov.

“The more photographs I found, the more I was fascinated by this idea of error, which reflects Ukrainian reality much more precisely, then a ‘clean’ image itself,” he writes about the project.”

From NA4JOPM8 © Igor Chekachkov.

Chekachkov began his career as a photojournalist in 2008. Covering a range of cultural and social subjects in his home country, his work has been published by a number of international media publications, including Forbes, National Geographic, The Guardian, Le Monde and WirtschaftsWoche. Though he continues to freelance, Chekachkov began to feel limited by documentary narratives and “wanted to expand the boundaries of the visual language,” he explains. “I started to experiment with different languages in art photography.”

The photographer’s most recent project NA4JOPM8, for example, began with a damaged harddrive containing thousands of images from Chekachkov’s personal archive taken over a decade. When some of the images were recovered, he found them altered, fragmented and discoloured. “I started to look through these images, trying to reevaluate my past and reconcile myself to the loss.” Images of political protests, monuments, intimate moments of the photographer’s personal life, and other assignments remix to reveal unexpected connections. “The more photographs I found, the more I was fascinated by this idea of error, which reflects Ukrainian reality much more precisely, then a ‘clean’ image itself,” he writes about the project. 

From NA4JOPM8 © Igor Chekachkov.

“The problem of identity was especially obvious after Maidan. It was something I was asking myself, and asking with my photography – what is it to be Ukrainian and what it means to me.”

Obscure Land © Igor Chekachkov.

Obscure Land © Igor Chekachkov.

Other works include Daily Lives, a fly-on-the-wall observation of Ukrainian student dormitories, and how people interact while sharing a small, common space. And Obscure Land, a series of panoramas of Ukrainian landscapes digitally constructed by an in-camera algorithm. There is also a portrait series, titled Victors, of decorated Ukrainian World War II veterans. 

What Chekachkov’s works have in common, is they are firmly rooted in his homeland, and an understanding of its changing social and political landscape. His exploration of identity became even more pertinent following the Euromaidan demonstrations in 2013. When the former Russian-backed president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. This soon turned violent, but ultimately culminated with Yanukovych ousted from government. Russia perceived this as an illegal coup, and proceeded with a military intervention in February 2014, resulting in the annexation of Crimea.

From NA4JOPM8 © Igor Chekachkov.

“I live in Kharkiv, in the east, where people speak Russian,” Chekachkov explains. “The problem of identity was especially obvious after Maidan. It was something I was asking myself, and asking with my photography – what is it to be Ukrainian and what it means to me.

“Now, it’s constantly changing. Back then I had some answers – I felt like my mission was to invest as much as I can in Ukrainian culture,” he explains. In 2017 Chekachkov founded his own art photography school, born of a frustration that no other photography courses in Ukraine offered anything similar. “But now I feel like there is something more. It’s difficult to communicate this because it’s constantly changing, but I feel that my role is more than just a cultural agent. I don’t want to say that I’m proud, but I feel like being Ukrainian now is a huge responsibility and I want to take it.” He adds: “I feel like every day I am becoming a very different person. I don’t know how, but it shapes me in a very different way.”

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.

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