Welcome to Donetsk: postcards from a war zone

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In 2014 while working on a project about European population decline, Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself in eastern Ukraine as protests against the government of Viktor Yanukovych gathered pace in the capital Kiev. Relocating to cover events in the Maidan or Independence Square she produced a series of portraits of those involved in the protests, which led to her first book, Portraits from the Black Square, published last year by GOST.

The upheaval in Ukraine did not end with Yanukovych’s flight from the country, and Taylor-Lind felt compelled to keep telling stories in Ukraine. Returning to photograph in the increasingly restless east of the country proved to be an exasperating experience, however. “I felt a similar frustration in Maidan, I’d felt it in Libya and then I felt it again in the east. I wasn’t contributing anything to the documentation of what was happening there – I was just making pictures [that] already existed.”

She describes feeling a “growing frustration about the way we tell war stories in the mass media, and I have been complicit in this. I think more often than not we reduced real people to characters inside a media war story. People become refugees or combatants or collateral damage.”

An answer to these thoughts came to Taylor-Lind almost by accident. “While I was in Slavyansk trying to make reportage-style pictures I went into the post office and found these postcards which said ‘Welcome to Donetsk’ in English on the front. I bought a few and I kept thinking about them.” This summer, she returned to Ukraine with the postcards still on her mind.

“I did a bit of research with my assistants and found the company [that] had published them. The owner had left Donetsk but his mother-in-law still had a stack of these postcards in her basement and she agreed to sell them to me.” The cards were made around 2012, when Donetsk played host to the UEFA European Championship. The cards show photogenic, touristic views of floral displays, an embracing couple and a tranquil view across a river, while today the city’s international airport lies in ruins and its football stadium has been repeatedly shelled.

For Taylor-Lind, one of the interesting things about the postcards was that “they don’t look anything like any of the pictures you find if you do an image search for Donetsk. You see completely destroyed neighbourhoods, people bleeding out on the streets. There are parts of the city that look like this, but then there are also places that look like the scene on the cards. I’m interested in the way we think war should look.”

Since then, Taylor-Lind has been researching the names of those killed in the continuing unrest. Each name is written on one of the postcards, along with the date and place where the person was killed, before the card is posted out to people around the world who submit their addresses to her via e-mail. “When people engage with this project they only receive one name, they don’t receive all of them. It’s one name for one person. It is a way of making war more personal.”

“When I started sending the postcards I thought I was telling a small story to one other person, but now I realise that what makes this one war story very personal is not what happens between me and the recipient, but it is what the recipient then does with the postcard.

“Often people will discuss the postcard over dinner with their children, they might take a picture and share it on Instagram and tell the story of that death to their social media community. Hundreds of people have performed small intimate acts of remembrance – lighting candles, making offerings, visiting religious places of worship. So that’s where the story happens. The postcard is just the catalyst for that.

‘These postcards aren’t going to stop the war in Ukraine but no pictures I could make would.”

Find more photographs from the ‘Welcome to Donetsk’ project here.