In 1994-1995, in Luhansk, a town in southeast Ukraine, social services began employing photographers to take passport photos in the homes of those who were elderly or ill, and could not themselves afford to pay a photographer. Alexander Chekmenev was one of the photographers commissioned to go door to door during this national campaign. And so he ended up in the homes of these people, along with the social workers whose more usual job was to provide free medicine and groceries.
The pictures were difficult for Chekmenev to take. Some people were just breaking down and begging to be left alone. They asked why they were being made to suffer, claiming that there was not much time left for them and that soon they would be dead. Witnessing how people were living out their final years made a very strong impression on him. He remembers photographing a blind woman, who, when he asked her to look into the camera, said that she couldn’t see. He wondered why was she being made to have a passport? Particularly as it was also clear that she didn’t have too much time left.
One day he took nearly 60 pictures, mainly of elderly people. The next day, when handing out the pictures, he was shocked to find that one of the old men he had photographed had just died. He was also flabbergasted in one house to discover that the old woman living there had prepared a coffin for herself. She lived in one room, with the coffin in the other. She was ready to leave this world for the next at any moment. He also heard about a 92-year-old man who had made similar arrangements, acquiring a coffin, and waiting for his death. He had placed it in his shed and whenever he finished off a bottle of vodka, he would put the empty bottle into his coffin. When the coffin was full of empty bottles, he passed it on to somebody else saying that his time had not yet come. When we came to take his photo, he sat at a table with his nephew, a bottle of vodka and two full shot glasses standing in front of them. He also took photos of people who were mentally confused. They did not know what was going on, why they were being seated, or why he was taking pictures of them. One person, unable to move, had to be lifted from his bed. Two social workers held him in an upright position, whilst two others held the backdrop. Evidently, he too needed a new passport.
Born in Eastern Ukraine, Alexander Chekmenev began his photographic career working for a local studio in his home town of Luhansk. His early work focused on people affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union collapse and is an intimate and unique insider view of the painful transition of an area that was once a major coal mining region. In 1997, he moved to Kiev, where he currently works as photojournalist. He has been published in magazines worldwide and has exhibited widely in Europe including shows at Side Gallery, Newcastle and Third Floor Gallery, Cardiff. His first USA show has just opened at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland.
156 pages, 76 colour and b&w photographs
225mm x 300mm