In the ghostly coal-mining towns of Eastern Ukraine, time stands still. Men die late in their fifties; women don’t live much longer. Their children, realizing that these towns won’t have much to offer them, leave while they’re still young. Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-based photographer Sasha Maslov turns his lens on these human tragedies with Forgotten Village (2011), an exhibition that runs through September 3 at the Sputnik Gallery. In his photographs, Maslov captures the Ukraine’s coal miners who, trapped in this grave cycle since the fall of the Soviet Union, can’t escape their dead-end lives.
The exhibition’s images are grim, realist portraits of a world few know well. It’s a dystopia that has grown past the point of decay. These towns were once industrial centers in Soviet-era Ukraine, yet, through the late 80s and early 90s, their coal mines, no longer of use to the state, were shut down. Mass migration followed; many flocked to cities and other vibrant centers of employment. Pirating has kept these mines alive for decades, yet it’s come at quite the price. Men and women seeking jobs find work through these illegal mines, often succumbing to tuberculosis. These people were left behind in a time warp when the rest of the state was moving forward, shaking off its Soviet past. They’ve been going through these motions ever since.
Maslov, who was born in the industrial city of Kharkiv, made the move from the Ukraine to Brooklyn in 2007. After working with high-end clients during college, the United States offered more opportunities for photographers. That said, he has also turned back to his home state in his recent works, highlighting what he sees are the injustices of a post-Soviet society.
Is there a hint of optimism in any of these works? Maslov insists that, for the most part, his intention was to illuminate this class of people and the dire, rather shoddy environment they inhabit. “Why are people living in these kinds of states?” he asks me, half-angrily. “I wanted to tell the world more about these people.” One can read into these images and, perhaps, conjure up an escapist narrative for the subjects. But these coal miners are more tragic than they are optimistic. If they wear smiles, those smiles are faint; they often look off to the side of the frame, sad and world-weary, refusing to confront us with their gaze.
In one of the series’ more striking images, three female cooks, all dressed in indigo vests and tall paper hats, sit in front of a painted, slightly parodic mountainscape. It’s clear that they’ve been told to pose, and that they’re supposed to look happy. But their smiles, dimming before they’re even alight, have an obvious tragedy to them. The painting behind them is artificial, and these paper hats and kitchens are all this town can offer them.
Such grim proceedings, of course, may strike some as a form of exploitation. Maslov’s photographs bring up an age-old debate. Should the privileged artist exploit the downtrodden? What gives him that right to turn his lens on them? Maslov understands this criticism, and even thinks it’s valid – to a point. “I do agree that many could see this as a form of exploitation, and it is,” he explains to me. “But, even so, when you’re an artist doing this, you put yourself in that high-risk environment. You go there, too, and you immerse yourself in it.” Maslov went further to describe how he, very gradually, became a part of that space; he observed the sad, everyday rhythms of the workers whose lives he chose to document. If a miner didn’t want his picture taken, Maslov complied.
His sensitivity towards these subjects is palpable in each photograph. It’s certainly present when he speaks to me. He’s an artist who is quietly committed to his home and the ghosts who inhabit it, though he does not, as he told me, espouse some sort of “silly patriotism” toward the Ukraine. “I don’t go around telling everyone that I’m a photographer from the Ukraine,” he tells me, a bit sarcastically. Being in America for years now has, in some respects, drawn him closer to his home as an artistic subject.
His photographs are deeply moving without straining for easy pathos. When I asked him if he ever sought to communicate a certain feeling with a photograph, he politely scoffed at the notion. His photographs aren’t meant to be read that way. They don’t teem with symbolism, and, even if we can project our literary tendencies onto his works, this wasn’t what Maslov had in mind. Time has rendered these men and women obsolete, and he fears what these next few years will do to them. He wants us to fear this, too. As we’re consumed with our urbanized, fast-paced life, they’re trapped in the doldrums of a ghost world stuck between two eras. It’s this phantom life that he seeks to capture.