As a photojournalist I believe journalism’s role is to hold truth(s) to power, and as a photographer I search for images that add nuance and complexity to the public discourse. – Wil Sands
Waiting for Mother Russia – In Two Acts documents the daily tensions between pro-Russian and pro-Western residents of Eastern Ukraine. Sands’ balancing of portraits of political action and protest against more mundane snapshots of daily life highlights the complexity in the relations between these two communities.
Core ideas of Ukrainian identity evolved over many centuries as borders in the region were impacted by various military and political conflicts throughout the evolution of modern Europe. Between 1921 and 1991, like many of its neighbors, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. After independence, residents in the central and western parts of the country celebrated their Ukrainian identity. However, large numbers of eastern residents, particularly in the areas of Donbass and Crimea, remained tied to their ethnically Russian roots.
In recent decades, economic depression created by financial corruption, and tensions between an expanding European Union and current Russia leader Vladimir Putin have additionally exacerbated the country’s ethno-national divide.
The beginning of the current conflict is commonly regarded as the 2013 Maidan protests in Kiev of then president Viktor Yanukovych’s signature of a trade deal with Russia in lieu of the widely supported European Union Association Agreement. In mid-February 2014, these protests evolved into violent clashes between police forces and protesters.
In the days that followed, Yanukovych was impeached and a pro-Western government was set up until elections could be held. In response, protests against the interim government broke out across pro-Russian eastern Ukraine, with sparatists seizing the Donbass region and Putin sending troops to “reclaim” Crimea.
Though the situation in Kiev has stabilized and a ceasefire in Donbass was signed by both sides, the political, geographic, and economic challenges are growing. As Sands has observed, “Simplifying the current war in Ukraine as a battle between western democratic values and post-Soviet imperial aspirations, or neo-fascist political movements and struggles for national liberation , does not further an understanding of the root causes of this war.”
After several years of violence, an estimated 8,000 people, including children and the elderly, have been killed, and 1.5 million people remain internally displaced. Armed forces on both sides of the conflict have used deadly weapons in areas populated by civilians, and potential war crimes have been documented in a number of regions.
In the midst of the current uneasy ceasefire, Waiting for Mother Russia – In Two Acts depicts both the dramatic and banal aspects of life in conflict. As the country’s current government lurches through efforts at reform, it is clear that the potential for further violence simmers under Ukraine’s barely stitched together surface.
Workshop to Change the World: Waiting for Mother Russia – In Two Acts
February 11, 2016 | Nicholas Senn High School
625 at 625: Waiting for Mother Russia – Exhibit Preview
February 4, 2016 | 625 N. Kingsbury St., Chicago
Wil Sands is based in Barcelona, where he has been active in various social movements, particularly in prison abolition initiatives. His interest in documentary photography began on a trip to South America in 2007. In the spring of 2011, together with Anderson Barbosa and Guillaume Darribau, Wil co-founded the Fractures Photo Collective, an independent documentary photography collective based in Barcelona. As a photographer, Wil is in a constant search for images that complicate dominant discourses.