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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Or are you a stranger without even a name: Postcards from Donetsk

( I wrote this post about Anastasia Taylor-Lind's Postcards from Donetsk last week, but then, as we began promoting Music, Word, and Landscape on November 7th, I realised that actually, very obviously, this is all about landscape, about the pastoral, about war, about where we live and how we want people to see it. It's about our expectations and how we use photography to fulfil those expectations through generic representations of place, both in postcards and beyond.

It's also about music and song, which is what yesterday's post was about.

And that of course is the subject of the Word, Music, Landscape: Beyond the Visual. For which, you can, as always, Buy Your Tickets Here )

In July, Anastasia Taylor-Lind put a call out on Facebook asking if anybody a postcard from Donetsk. I, along with 921 others, said yes.

A few weeks later, the card arrived. It was a simple postcard of a rose-filled Donetsk (it's the City of Roses) at dusk. On the back there's some writing; Mikhail Meshkov was killed in Debaltsevo on Saturday 31st of January 2015.

Very simple. Very sad. Instantly the question came up. Who was this man, where did he die, how did he die? What was his story? I googled it. Debaltsevo was the site of a major battle/siege and Meshkov was possibly a separatist or possibly not, One search led me to a Meshkov who had insulted Putin on the internet, another one led m to a Meshkov with SPQR and a separatist flag on his Instagram feed.

That was kind of striking and I wondered if that was not the way the project was supposed to work. But then at the same time, it is exactly the way the project is supposed to work.

It struck me how simple and effective Postcards from Donetsk was, so I decided to have a short chat with her about it. This is part of what she said.

"I got the idea from a song called No Man's Land by June Tabor. I heard it on the radio as part of a programme to commemorate the music from the first world war. In the song, June Tabor describes coming across a gravestone for a soldier called Willie McBride. She imagines what his life was like and if he left behind people who loved him. Or if he didn't. Was he remembered or was he forgotten?

I bought the album and played it over and over, until I knew all the words.

(This is one of the verses.)

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined
Although you died back there in nineteen-sixteen
In that faithful heart are you ever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed and forgotten behind the glass frame
In a old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.

It's a song about war, about loss, but also about photography and naming people. This song named Willie McBride. And I thought that was important.

When I went to Ukraine I thought naming people was important. Photojournalism doesn't often do that, especially in a personal manner.

Instead there's a cast of characters in most photojournalistic depictions of war; the refugee, the grieving mother, the wounded soldier, those fleeing, those left behind in the ruins.

War happens to people who live in a war zone. It happens in places where war happens. It doesn't happen in Boston where I'm living or Bath where you live. We don't believe it's possible.

But it is possible. It can happen. And the greatest story you can tell is one where at the end, people say, 'that could happen to me.'

Before this I was making pictures of war as I knew how to make them. I photographed bombed-out apartment buildings and wounded soldiers. I was making pictures that looked like war pictures.

But then I saw these postcards of Donetsk which was in the middle of a war zone and I thought this could be where I'm from in Devon in England. If it could happen in Donetsk, it could happen anywhere.

Wherever I go my mum follows the news. She's concerned and needs to know what's happening where I am. With these cards, I wanted to make sure that people would care as much about the news from Ukraine as my mum did. I wanted to make it personal.

So I put a picture of the card up on Instagram, then I year later went back and got more cards.  But the question was who to send them to.

 I put a call out on Facebook and social media asking if people wanted a card. I didn't know if it would be a complete failure or what would happen. But in the end I got 900 names to send cards to.

I spent 10 days with my assistant researching people who had died in the war and writing the postcards to people. I wrote the names of those who had died and the place and date they had died and that's all. It was about giving a name. I still didn't know what would happen when people got the cards.

This was where social media kicked in. I have 70,000 followers on Instagram, but I had  never realised the power of social media. This was the first time I saw how it can be used to reach outside the photographic community. That's so important to me about the project.

So after I sent the cards out, people started posting pictures on Instagram, they started sending me stories of what they did when they got the cards; they lit candles, they prayed, they gave toasts, they made shrines around the card, they went to the top of hills and remembered the name on the card, and commemorated the anniversary of their death. There were people telling the story of the card to friends, to family, to their children over dinner. People were googling the names and researching the places named on the cards.

It was quite incredible. In all my years of photojournalism, nobody has ever written to me saying they had prayed for the person in the picture. Yet here it was happening repeatedly. Something different was happening.

I thought the story-telling would be when I wrote the card to the person I was sending it to. But it wasn't. The story telling happens when the person who receives the card starts telling the story to others; to their family, to their friends, the people they meet.

I don't know how this is going to end. I funded the first part with loans from 3 other photographers but now I'm going to continue. Robin Hammond has got me 2,000 more cards from Donetsk and I'm going to go back in January and send out another thousand. It seems wrong to stop it now when almost 7,000 people have died in the war. Though in reality, the total is probably much higher. There's no official list and because it's an artillery war, lots of people are missing in action; they don't have dog tags or ID, or their remains are never found.

For me it's a new way of working but it's one I'm very excited about. The difference between this and photojournalism is that if I'd photographed death for 10 days, I'd have felt fear, anxiety and terror. I'd feel the emotions of a war zone. With Postcards from Donetsk, after 10 days of writing the effect was one of sadness. I felt very sad. It's a big difference.

To receive a postcard, email your address to: anastasiataylorlind@gmail.com

To contribute to the campaign, donate here

To see more pictures, go here

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