When Polish photographer Wiktoria Wojciechowska first heard about the ongoing Ukrainian conflict she was in China, shooting a project titled Short Flashes, which went on to win the 2015 Leica Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award.
“I was cracking the internet but everything was so blocked I couldn’t get any information,” she says. “I was asking all my friends, then I realised not many people knew about it, even though it’s so close [as Ukraine borders Poland]. I was really inspired to go by fear, by wondering how I would react if the same thing happened in my country.”
Wojciechowska sought out young Ukrainians who had once lived similar lives to hers, but then volunteered to go and fight. Talking to them one-to-one about their experiences, in a room soft-lit with one lamp, she photographed them when “something more real and more true” appeared in their faces.
“They were telling me their stories, which were often really difficult,” she says. “Sometimes they didn’t want to say anything, but often they told me a lot as they don’t have anyone else to talk to.
“These guys are people like my friends, some of them were DJs, then suddenly they were going to the front line, and afterwards they were not the same,” she continues. “In the younger people especially it was really visible on their faces that something had changed in them.”
Wojciechowska took about 70 portraits, and stayed in touch with her subjects, going to visit them on the frontline or back home. She also started to collect images they had taken on their mobile phones, focusing on group shots of battalions and covering those who had been killed with the metal leaf used on religious icons. “Some parts I’ve finished, but my work there is ongoing because the situation is still changing,” she says.
Even so, Sparks has already been published by the Polish newspaper supplement Gazeta Wyborcza Duży Format and went on to go on show at Krakow Photomonth in May 2016. Wojciechowska also published a book of Short Flashes with Bemojake in April 2016, and the exhibition, which was shown at Arles in 2015 travelled around Leica’s worldwide galleries, plus Photolux Biennial in Lucca, Italy, and the Fotofestiwal in Lodz, Poland.
Depicting Chinese cyclists and bikers as they speed past on the road, they images in Short Flashes initially look very different to the Ukrainian portraits, but are inspired by a similar impulse. “In one I am catching the moment; in the other, I am waiting for it,” says Wojciechowska. “Maybe I’m still looking for this truth of the person… Most of the time we are acting, but maybe between gestures there is something.”
Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s Sparks won the Public Prize in the 2018 Arles New Discoveries Award, plus the Madame Figaro Photography Prize at the same edition of Les Rencontres d’Arles www.rencontres-arles.com