Why these disturbing images of passport photo shoots in 1990s Ukraine are relevant today


Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In a photograph taken in newly independent Ukraine in the mid-1990s, an elderly woman looks away from the camera, her mouth tight with tension. Another woman, gray hair braided over her head, holds the subject’s face firmly, one hand on her jaw, the other behind her neck. A white background is posed by someone just out of frame. A sense of unease and strangeness fills the composition.

From 1994 to 1995, just a few years after the people of Ukraine voted for independence during a referendum, photographer Alexander Chekmenev took many photos like this, of people in their homes in the eastern city of Lugansk. He had been given a particular and difficult task: to go door to door and take passport photos of the most vulnerable inhabitants of the city.

Photographer Alexander Chekmenev Ukraine kyiv WWW.CHEKMENEV.NET Credit: Alexander Chekmenev

The mission was part of the former Soviet state’s hasty goal of issuing new passports to all residents within a year – although, in reality, it took many years, according to Chekmenev. Social services in different cities have hired photographers to help speed up the process.

With little pay, Chekmenev found himself in the homes of neglected elderly and infirm residents of Luhansk, taking portraits of each person on a portable white background held by family members or social workers. Cropped passport images belied the full, uncomfortable scenes: lonely old people, often living in poor conditions, propped up or posing for the camera. Many lacked basic necessities, such as running water or gas, in their homes.

These residents lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and were forgotten during its collapse, according to the photographer.

“The limited frame of a passport photo is like a TV box in Soviet times: the propaganda of a happy way of life within the permitted limits,” Chekmenev said from Kyiv, where he is based, in a email interview translated from Russian. “Behind the corners of the passport and behind the white background square, the true reality, without retouching or censorship, was hidden.”

Photographer Alexander Chekmenev Ukraine kyiv WWW.CHEKMENEV.NET

Photographer Alexander Chekmenev Ukraine kyiv WWW.CHEKMENEV.NET Credit: Alexander Chekmenev

Many residents did not want their images taken, and some were near death. “There were people crying and asking not to torture them with photographs and not to interfere with their peaceful death,” Chekmenev said. “It was the hardest thing for me, psychologically.”

Chekmenev recalled that a man had a coffin at home, awaiting his own death. Each time he finished a bottle of vodka, he placed it in the coffin, lining them up until it was full. After filling the coffin, he would then decide it wasn’t time to die yet and start over, he told the photographer. Social workers did not allow Chekmenev to photograph his subject in this room.

In total, Chekmenev took several hundred passport photos, as well as 36 behind-the-scenes color images for posterity. In 2017 he published them in book form, titled “Passport”, with Dewi Lewis Publishing in London.

Photographer Alexander Chekmenev Ukraine kyiv WWW.CHEKMENEV.NET

Photographer Alexander Chekmenev Ukraine kyiv WWW.CHEKMENEV.NET Credit: Alexander Chekmenev

Today, as Russian forces continue to attack Ukraine, forcing millions to flee their homes in Europe’s largest ground war since 1945, the artwork is a stark reminder of the fragility of the ‘State, symbolized by a 2 inch by 2 inch photo.

Chekmenev, now 52, ​​had his own passport photo taken by his family in 1996 as part of the program. “Mom and dad held the background, and my sister took pictures of me,” he recalled. Today in Kyiv, he added, “my passport is still with me.”

Previous 120,000 images of Amazonian wildlife captured by camera traps
Next 3 Best Practices for Adding Background Images to Your Emails