We think we know what war looks like. And no conflict in history has been as constantly visually documented as the Russian invasion of Ukraine; you can probably watch it live if you really want. So why would you bother going to look at yet more pictures of it?
‘Ukraine: Photographs from the Frontline’ is Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s distillation of eight years of documenting the build-up and conflict in the country. It’s just 17 photographs in a modest-sized carpeted room, but it’s brilliant. Taylor-Lind started taking portraits in Kyiv in a makeshift studio in 2014. The figures stand against a dark cloth; there is no context. But outside, there’s an escalation of protest, as the Ukrainian government at the time cleaves to Russia and away from the EU. A large photo, composed like a Renaissance altarpiece, shows demonstrators clambering over a huge public sculpture against a background of roiling black smoke. They keep their faces away from the camera, scared of being identified by the authorities.
Eight years later, there’s another face turned away. ‘Olena Labadeva Injured by Shellfire, Donbas, June 2022’ shows the back of a woman with a dressed wound. She’s incredibly vulnerable and still, just in her underwear, lying on a hospital trolley. It’s not a conventional image of war. There are no shouting medics or bloody bandages. The overriding emotion – as in many of the photos here – is sadness. In another photo, a young family sits in a field as a child proffers an apple to a horse. It was taken in 2018, when the Grinik family was living just 50 metres from the frontline. The family has since been broken up by the war. You wouldn’t know that all that was to come from the image, though. And that’s perhaps the point, the power, of this show. These images are quiet, almost peaceful. Even the photos that explicitly invoke war – a soldier sitting in a room of ammunition boxes, or troops raising their guns over the grave of a farmer – preserve something domestic and innocent about them. The soldier has hung a painting on his wall, and there is a loaf of supermarket bread on a table behind him.
Taylor-Lind’s pictures present the eternal miseries of war: the pointless destruction of lives and families and peace of mind. They’re fraught with worry and quiet despair but also full of beauty. And that’s a truth you don’t always get from the rolling news.