“Luckily, we got out of the city while the getting was good,” photographer Brendan Hoffman posted on his Instagram this morning from Downtown Slovyansk, “before things heated up.”
The Moscow-based American photojournalist and co-founder of the Prime collective had been filing work last week from Ukraine’s eastern cities as pro-Russian militants continued seizing government buildings across the region. According to Saturday’s incredible report by the Times from the barracks of the ‘masked men,’ the nation is right on the verge of civil war — “either a sea of blood and corpses, or a referendum,” — with looming threats of what Time magazine calls a “full-fledged invasion by Russian troops.”
Hoffman’s photos that I’ve chosen to share here show the quieter side of the conflict, capturing gestures of casual disinterest, deeply-ingrained but subtly revealed skepticism and widely-cast contempt. Among the ways we’ve seen these events covered, from cinematic action shots to near-deadpan portraiture, this restrained, measured approach — stepping back and pointing the cameras away from the guns and fire and ice — might be best suited for 21st century conflict.
Today, the anticipated document of an event has often become the primary goal of staging one. As photojournalist Guy Martin recently wrote recalling his time covering protests in Istanbul in 2013 and earlier still in Egypt during the Arab Spring, “People’s reactions to me changed the moment I tried to photograph them: they played up to the camera, they picked up more stones to throw at police, waved more flags, etc.”
The imagery of unrest in Ukraine this year has been incomparably epic on an aesthetic level because of the orchestrated potential for and desire to make epic imagery. Unfortunately, it is out of step with the plight of the majority of the Ukrainian populace which is far more concerned, for instance, with making ends meet this week on a meager pension.
The prevailing sentiment among Ukrainians is and has been after centuries of colonial domination, that anyone desiring to hold power and anyone that has secured the potential to do so is not worth trusting with it. Either they’re gangsters or the pawns of global power-brokers looking to stroke ancient egos, secure crooked economic interests and accelerate the criminal exploitation of natural resources.
Approaching Ukraine’s May 25th presidential election, the most popular party line among nationals, as demonstrated in this series of interviews from Bloomberg.com, is “I wish I could vote against them all.”
(Lead Image: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images; Caption: A police officer watches pro-Russian separatists holding a rally outside from a window in the regional administration building on April 24, 2014 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The legislative body for the Kharkiv region, which was holding a session, was urged by pro-Russian protesters to schedule a referendum on greater autonomy from the central government in Kiev.)