“The camera is a powerful tool” – A War Diary from Ukraine
Lesezeit 10 Minuten
When war broke out in Ukraine, Berlin-based photographer Mila Teshaieva traveled to her hometown of Kiev. The diary she created is now being shown in an exhibition at the MEK. We spoke with the artist about her experiences on site.
When war broke out in Ukraine, Berlin-based photographer Mila Teshaieva traveled to her hometown of Kiev. She wanted to witness and capture this dramatic historical moment for her country and Europe: From the first days of the war in March, when Russian troops tried to encircle Kiev and people fled in panic, to the last days of April, when the crushing consequences of war crimes were discovered throughout the region around Kiev. Teshaieva, who has been a member of the OSTKREUZ photo agency since 2016, remained on the ground throughout, helping and accompanying her compatriots, her camera always with her. The resulting diary, which was first published on the internet platform dekoder.org, contains very impressive, intimate records of her experiences in the first months of the war in pictures and words.
Now, excerpts from the diary, together with photographs taken at the same time, are being shown in the exhibition “Fragments of Life” at the Museum of European Cultures. “Mila Teshaieva has been associated with our museum, which focuses, among other things, on changes in everyday life in Europe, for quite some time,” says Elisabeth Tietmeyer, director of the MEK. “So when we learned about her diary project, it was immediately clear to us that we had to make an exhibition out of it.” Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, is also impressed by the images on display: “Mila Teshaieva’s photographic diary conveys an impression of everyday war life that is extraordinarily close in its vivid imagery. I am pleased that we were able to realize this important exhibition in such a short time. I would like to express my sincere thanks to all those involved, first and foremost to the incredibly committed artist, but also to the Kuratorium Preußischer Kulturbesitz for its generous support.”
In the run-up to the exhibition opening, we spoke with the artist about the exhibition, her experiences in Kiev, and the political dimension of the war.
Why did you decide to go back to Ukraine after the war started, while everyone else was desperate to leave the country?
Mila Teshaieva: Because I knew that it was a significant historical moment, similar maybe to the beginning of the Second World War. We have all seen it, in Movies or on photographs, but I wanted to be a witness of this moment, see it with my own eyes and understand how it really is. And it was absolutely clear to me that I couldn’t stay in Berlin. I needed to go to Kiev and see what’s going on there. I needed to be with my people and with my country. It was not even about photography, it really was about the importance of being a witness.
You said that you didn’t want to photograph the war, but you wanted to document life in the war. Did it work? Did you manage to capture a comprehensive glimpse into life in the war?
I think yes. I think I was able to capture the fragments of this life. The courage of the people who were very determined to defend Kiev against any last Russian tank; or the absolute desperation of people who were running away, never knowing if they could come back or not. I documented what was left when the Russians retreated, people getting out of their shelter after 35 days of terror. There were very intense emotions: happiness, that it ended, but not believing that they survived, not yet realizing the trauma. People were overwhelmed by the scale of everything they went through. It was an immense catastrophe.
You said, and it’s also written in the texts in the exhibition, that it was very much a personal matter for you to go back and be in your hometown while all this happened. On the other hand, you also said that you wanted to document it. Was it both – the personal involvement and the urge to document the events – from the beginning, or did you first have the impulse to go back and then realize that you feel obligated to document everything?
First it was absolutely an impulse. I wanted to be there. The decision was made on the very first day, when the war started. But then, of course, I’m a photographer, so I had my camera with me and I know that it is a powerful tool. I was asked by a magazine to take some photographs, so I joined a renowned war correspondent and my OSTKREUZ colleague and fellow photographer Johanna Maria Fritz. We were travelling in a very small car, there were four of us and we were sitting on 50 litres of fuel, in our protective vests and helmets. We didn’t really know where we were going, everything was very unclear at that time. Will the city be in ruins? Will there be more bombings? What will happen with all the people? It was unbelievable, unreal. But then again, when you come to the city where you were born and where you grew up, you immediately feel at home, like nothing can happen to you. I think this might be a reason why many people decided not to leave Kiev, Bucha and Irpin: Because at home you feel safe and you just can’t imagine that someone would come into your house with a gun and kill you.
In one of the texts in the exhibition you say that you had taken photos of graphic scenes and were contemplating whether to give them to a publisher or not. Did you start to feel a sense of responsibility at some point when you started documenting things?
Yes, there was a certain moment. It was the very first day after the Russians had left the Kiev region. We went to Bucha and it was an unbelievable landscape of death. Imagine you are driving down a street, there is destruction everywhere, and you have to drive right and left very slowly and carefully, in order not to run over the dead people that are lying on the street. I couldn’t imagine before, that this would happen in my life. On that day, I walked between the dead and photographed them, and I published one of the pictures immediately on the web-magazine Decoder and on social media. I also asked my agency OSTKREUZ to share the pictures, because I felt that it needed to be seen all over the world. Who would have thought, when the war started, that it would be like this – civilian people, just shot in the streets. I really had this urgency to show it, to make it public that something barbaric and crazy is happening here.
What reactions did you get?
I noticed that in Germany these pictures were not very welcomed in the media. I think only SPIEGEL magazine published the images, while the rest of the media seemed to be reluctant to expose their readers to the very graphic images of the war. And I understand it, these scenes are not easy to look at. But how can the world learn about the atrocities that happened – and still happen – in Ukraine, if they are not shown?
Coming back to the exhibition itself – it shows a selection of the pictures you took during your stay in Ukraine, combined with texts. What were the criteria of the selection and what is the concept behind the exhibition?
The exhibition follows a chronological order. You follow me day by day, starting on the first day, when I arrived in an absolutely empty and deserted Kiev. The pictures and texts give a glimpse into the life during war: How people are preparing for the defence of the city, how they live in bunkers and cellars, how the war is moving closer and also how people learn about what’s going on in the rest of the country. And it goes on until April, when the world found out what had happened in the towns and villages where the Russian occupiers had been. The exhibition is basically following different stages of development in the first months of the war.
The texts that accompany the pictures give a very intimate, personal account – are they actual excerpts from your diary during this time?
Yes, it is my diary. What is special about this exhibition is that the text has exactly the same importance as the pictures. The text does not describe the pictures and the pictures are not illustrating the text – they are two sides of the story.
The exhibition was initiated and planned within a very small timeframe – how did it come about so quickly?
It was unbelievable. In the first days of March, Elisabeth Tietmeyer, the director of the MEK, wrote me and asked: ‘Would you consider making an exhibition based on your diary?’ At this time, I had just arrived in Ukraine and there were only two entries in my diary. So, she offered me to make an exhibition about a diary that was not even existing at this point, which I find incredibly brave and a strong statement from the museum. I am very honoured by this trust, especially as I had to postpone my return to Germany several times. We first spoke about it in the beginning of March and it took until the 12th of May to finally meet and begin to plan. So, we made the exhibition in about one month, with all the planning, the layout, the translations and the printing. It’s incredible that it worked out.
There’s a lot of civil support and solidarity right now in Germany and other European countries. Political issues like the delivery of weapons and financial aid however, seem to be rather difficult and divisive topics. Do you think that cultural institutions, arts and science in Europe do a good job on helping Ukraine? Or do you think they could do more, and if so, what could it be?
Cultural institutions are doing much more than politicians at the moment. I can’t really understand the political position of Germany in this conflict, and I find it unacceptable, especially considering the historical responsibility. It seems like many politicians in Europe believe that the war will end eventually and they can just go back to business as usual with Putin afterwards. To me, this is absurd. How can they not see what is happening? For 77 years we have remembered the horrors of the Second World War, and now that it might happen again, people just look away? It seems to me that people involved in culture and science are able to recognize the historical parallels, while politicians somehow aren’t, and I don’t understand why.
Do you think that cultural institutions will be able to rebuild bridges between the people in the future, when this conflict will hopefully have come to an end?
It will take a lot of time and effort, but I believe that it can succeed in the end. There are incredible artists, writers and other people in Russia today, who are all against this war. And I applaud everyone in Russia who is brave enough to stand up against it and take their protest to the streets. But I just don’t understand why so many just let it happen – why are they not able to change it, to stop it? Hundreds of people are getting killed in Ukraine everyday – for what? It is not easy to forgive. One day, of course, the bridges between our peoples will be rebuilt, but that is not a topic for today.