Travelling to Kiev in the wake of protest, revolution and civil war, Belgian photographer David Denil set about documenting the aftermath of conflict in the minds of ordinary people, still coming to terms with the country’s sharp divisions. The resulting series, Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking, departs from journalistic record, instead attempting to depict “the psychological state of this Ukraine looking at its future while haunted by its past and memory,” he says. “The images are metaphorical representations from the everyday life encountered where time seems frozen but dreams of hope still linger.”
After being spotlighted as one of British Journal of Photography’s Ones to Watch in 2018, Denil’s series is now published by Dewi Lewis. The book is made up of multiple paper stocks and sizes, showing new and old images as well as newspaper clippings, and text by journalists Sébastien Gobert and Jack Losh, who writes in-depth about PTSD and the trauma of war. It also includes an introduction by Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko, based on her personal experiences through times of revolution.
“To me the book had to embed additional layers that shaped context so that the images are part of a larger perspective,” says Denil. “The multiple themes explored throughout the series resulted from the many conversations I had with locals questioning the experience of both past, present and future.”
The photographer’s images possess a cinematic quality, manifesting in bright floodlighting and symbolic posing. For Denil, this use of lighting is crucial, and something he is constantly focused on. “A film teacher once told me that there is no silence without sound,” he recalls. “And for light, it’s the same thing. There is no shadow without light, and your shadow is a part of you. It’s an imprint within the environment you create.”
Straying from traditional documentary methods, Denil relies on visual storytelling to communicate the sentiment of contemplating the future while remaining gripped by the past – an impression he felt potently while travelling through Ukraine. “If intervening in any way means something isn’t documentary, that means August Sander wasn’t a documentary photographer,” he says. “That means Alec Soth is not a documentary photographer. That means everyone who has worked in portraiture is not a documentary photographer. And that simply isn’t true.”
The resulting images show people affected by the recent revolution, but also how their daily lives carry on, despite the ongoing unrest, which has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths since the Euromaidan protests began in Kiev in November 2013. They show people in their homes and on the street, always performing tasks that Denil describes as possessing “double meaning”, inviting viewers to contemplate the metaphors that he deems necessary for presenting their truth.
“When you take photos of things you don’t connect with, there is no respect, and my ethical position is to at least have respect,” he explains. “If I take an image, I already know what I want to emphasise and how I want people to react to it.”
Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking by David Denil is published by Dewi Lewis
This article is adapted from a feature originally published in BJP’s 2018 Ones to Watch issue