Within the framework of the fifth photo festival Odesa Photo Days, the exhibition “Transit” was opened. Victor and Sergey Kochetov’s works, as well as Alexander Chekmenev, were presented on it. The curators of the exhibition were Sergey Lebedinsky and Oleksandra Osadcha – representatives of the newly created museum of the Kharkiv School of Photography. The unexpected combination of these two different artists – Kochetovs, as Oleksandra says, represent themselves as one author – according to the curators, is best suited to the main theme of the exhibition – the reflection of a permanent transitional state, in which, as well as 30 years ago, our country exists again.
Several days before the opening of the exhibition, I had an opportunity to talk to Alexander Chekmenev, who came to Odesa to visit the festival and to find heroes for his new series.
At the end of last year’s Photo Days, I realized that I would be volunteering the next year. So, here I am standing in the middle of the Literature Museum in Odesa, where the installation of “Transit” is going on. As it turned out in the morning when Alexander’s photos arrived, it was impossible to hang some of them, plastic tubes that were under the ceiling could hardly bear the weight of a 180 cm long wooden frame. Sergey Lebedinsky, the curator of the exhibition, decides to leave big works standing on the floor, while smaller and compact works by Kochetov family were hanging on those very tubes. I’m glad that I can be useful – I help to carry and hang photos, recommend a copy shop for printing the exhibition’s statements and authors’ biographies. Later, Alexander will tell me that he still can’t get used to the look of his photos in such a scale – he walks around the hall and it seems he’s looking at his own works for the first time. The scale is really impressive. Thanks to it, Chekmenev’s realism becomes even more natural and expressive. I offer Alexander to make an interview, although I don’t know what to talk about with him. As a journalist, I have no questions to him, but as for me personally, he is interesting in terms of his vision of the world and communication with it, and with that, as they say, you can’t go far. Therefore, his “OK, but only not in a cafe, I’d better talk to you while shooting, on the street,” instantly hits the target – it’s so convenient, after all, the walk itself will bring the topic for conversation.
We meet on the street of Lieutenant Schmidt, not far from the train station. Surprisingly, but for some reason this street has not yet been decomunized. Perhaps its name is a kind of reference to Ilf and Petrov’s novel, a beacon for all the lieutenant’s “children” who are still wandering around the planet.
Alexander introduces me to Yura. This is a new hero for his series about homeless people. Yura was born in Lviv in the late 70ies and was a construction worker. One day, after a night of drinking, he woke up next to a blood-stained man, as it turned out, he was dead. The police, without hesitations, accused him of murder and Yura got 8 years of imprisonment. After that, a new life has begun – without home, family, and future. He moved to Odesa, it’s warmer here and there is the sea. Moreover, in Lviv, he was threatened with another arrest because he couldn’t get a job and find a home.
In one of the archways where we try to make a portrait, an elderly man approaches us. At first, he observes with interest how Alexander explains the position to Yura, prepares the camera and the light, then of a sudden he appears next to us shouting and demanding to get out of the patio immediately, he calls security. I see that Yura feels uncomfortable, ashamed, while Alexander tries to explain to the man that it is not worth bullying strangers, whoever they are. Unsuccessful attempts to calm him down only provoked more indignation, he recommends us to return to “our Kyiv, which we’ve already f*cked up, and now came to f*ck up Odesa.” We had to promise that we would leave. After the man had left the security guard, calm, with a kind face, explained to us that he had worked for his entire life in the police and the prosecutor’s office, now he is retired, so he has no one to vent his anger on, that’s why he behaved that way.
“It’s OK, I didn’t like the light there anyway.”
We are going to look for another archway, we get to Panteleimonovska street, pass a few hundred meters and get behind the open gate. It’s peace and quiet in the patio, an elderly lady hangs her laundry, other residents of the house don’t pay attention to us. The picture is very photogenic if you can say so, but all the attention is on the medium format camera, film and light from a pocket Chinese LED-lamp on a monopod.
I watch how Alexander is working with Yura. Calmly, with respect to him, asks to cover with a hand his shoulder where he has a white spot. Although it is clear that he is not accustomed to being a model, it is evident that Alexander trusts Yura – they speak the same language, Alexander not only takes pictures of him, but he is sincerely interested in his life and tells about his own.
In the end, he wishes Yura to find a woman – maybe it can help. They shake hands.
“The world is round, God willing we’ll meet again,” Yura says.
“The world is square – we’ll meet at the corner,” Alexander answers and laughs.
We part company.
How long have you been shooting a project about the homeless and how long will it last?
I don’t like the word project and I don’t shoot with projects. I shoot themes, series – for me it’s more important, more serious and deep. You know, we can, let’s say, make a “project”, about how people eat, or how they shit. We can shoot their faces – surprised, happy, shocked, different states, to make it all in one day and become successful. In my case, I spend a lot of time communicating, most of the work remains invisible. Not everyone agrees to be photographed, even if you had a good conversation. Just yesterday I talked to four different people and the most photogenic one refused to be photographed.
How does the filtration process of heroes happen? What is the priority for you – a story or photogenicity?
For me, the face is always in the first place. Only then I find out the story. Our communication does not end with taken pictures, we talk. I’m curious to know where they from, what they did before they’ve lost their home. In my head I always “dress” them in civilian clothes – so, in front of me stands an average person with his extraordinary story.
Do you help them in the future somehow? I’ve seen that on Facebook you post portraits of homeless along with their stories. For what?
Probably I was lucky that I’ve met such person – enthusiast Oleksii Kuchapin. They are believers with his wife, so they opened the House of Mercy in Kyiv – they rent two apartments, where 10-11 people live permanently. For three years of their existence, they have saved more than a hundred people. They help to recover a passport, to get a pension or find a job, they give shelter and food. We got acquainted on Facebook. I saw photos of those people I shoot and I realized that this is a real person and he provides real help. Now our communication has reached the level that Oleksii writes to me when a new person appears and I am coming to make his or her portrait. Then it is uploaded on the social network with information on fundraising for help.
Leaving aside the uneasy stories of your heroes, their fate. Don’t you see some kind of aesthetics that attracts you in their types?
I do not use such terms as “aesthetics”. These are the words of the people who write. And as the one who shoots, I see a human being and injustice. A person that under certain circumstances, in one form or another, appeared at the end of his life. All of us pass certain stages on our way, and all of them have the beginning and the end. I’m curious to find out why this particular person has appeared exactly where he or she is now. This morning, I met a man who has worked in Russia as a docker at the port for thirty years. Then out of the blue, the Union collapsed and all information about his work has gone, and he appeared in the street with nothing.
While we’re walking and talking, Alexander constantly looks at people. It may seem that he doesn’t listen, or is busy with his thoughts because he is constantly looking at something on his way. He’s looking for a face. However, he clearly and simply answers the question, at some point he recalls the detail of one man’s story, gets his phone and writes it down. I noticed that in his phone’s notes there are dozens of similar records – name, surname, year and place of birth, facts from the biography, sometimes attached photos.
“There was a case of one woman when a family of believers from Georgia have seen the post with her photo and invited this woman to their home. Since then she lives there as a member of their family. It helped that she was a believer.”
“Facebook posts help to find funds and even relatives – there was a case. It works and in this, I see my role as a volunteer photographer. Indeed, I can’t lie to those whom I photograph when they ask me why I need it. I say that these photos and stories can attract the attention of more people to the problems of the homeless, it can help others. Quite often people agree and don’t ask for anything. They appreciate the conversation and the fact that I treat them not as hobos, and shoot them not as hobos.”
“These people that opened the House of Mercy, are Protestants. In Kyiv I also know Muslims that feed the homeless, the Orthodox – in the Vydubychi monastery, they also feed at the Alexander Hospital. The only f*cking beings that never help and to whom there is no sense to turn are politicians.”
Near the dumpster, we see a man who collects paper and cardboard. Alexander approaches him and starts a conversation. He asks about the prices for cardboard and the location of the nearest reception point. The man responds calmly, his name is Serhii. The man says that for a kilogram of cardboard you can get 16 hryvnias. After hearing that Alexander is a photographer, he starts swearing and chases us away with despair.
“On the one hand, I even understand this reaction and never respond negatively to negative. This is not productive. He said that he was military and most likely he is ashamed that he is in such situation and he definitely doesn’t want to share it with anyone.”
“Most often, homeless people are over 60 years old. Those who retired and remained without a family, money, and future. They start drinking and lose the rest. Young ones – all of them drink and all of them lazy.”
“The camera helps me. I shoot with old Rolleiflex and always wear it so that it can be seen. This is my first message to passerby – I’m open to communication. Taking pictures was a hobby for many in the Soviet Union, so people often start talking – they understand that we have common topics for discussion. This causes pleasant memories from childhood in them.”
“The gravest poison is not even vodka, but the hawthorn tincture, which can be bought for 10 hryvnias in every pharmacy. It is prescribed to people that have heart problems, however, homeless drink it instead of alcohol, three to four vials per day. Hawthorn causes dependence, leads to vascular diseases, they lose their legs, kidneys and die. Over the past year, seven people, from those whom I knew and photographed, have died.”
“With death comes the end of their suffering. Sometimes those whom I meet ask to send them to the rehabilitation center. They are aware of their dependence and can’t overcome it without rehab. In such cases, I contact Oleksii, they talk through the loudspeaker, get all the necessary information and report when and how to get to them. I buy a bus ticket and a person leaves. It happens that we have agreed with the rehabilitation center, and the person simply couldn’t make to the bus. Five times I organized a meeting with one man in order to give him the clothes we’ve bought for donations. Sometimes they forget, sometimes they start drinking.”
“In the 1999 and 2000 I was in Odesa quite often, there was a lot of work here. So, two years ago, I could find only one person for a portrait. Today, I see that Odesa has become cleaner in the center, but Odesa-type personalities have disappeared. Whoever you ask – he is from Lviv, that is from Kherson or Kyiv.”
“Together with Oleksii, we plan to arrange an exhibition of these portraits. There are sponsors from Germany who are ready to pay for the printing of photos and catalogs. I would like to raise money for the mercy house.”
“Who am I, to choose who is worthy of a portrait, and who is not? I just follow my emotions. I can’t take pictures of everyone, so I work according to the principle “whoever I like”. Well, you can’t like every girl. The same is here.”
“Sometimes you spend hours looking for new characters. When there will be nobody to shoot, I can put an end to this and start a new theme.”
Text and photos by Sasha Naselenko