Elena Subach compels us to imagine war beyond the frame

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Elena Subach found herself unable to photograph those fleeing the conflict. Instead she turned her lens on what they left behind

Elena Subach was born in Chervonohrad, a small coal-mining city in the Lviv region of western Ukraine. Her father was a miner while her grandfather painted icons for local churches. Such buildings are characterised by shiny, Baroque-style domes and ornate interiors, and make a spectacular impression on the city skyline. Subach uses her camera to make sense of the post-industrial landscape, but also the strange foreboding mood that defines cities like hers, and the ways that spirituality and superstition seep into everyday life in Ukraine.

As her artistic practice has evolved, Subach’s projects have become more vivid and evocative. Her work celebrates the inconspicuous objects that often evade attention, elevating them to near iconic status. She turns the fabric of life into a technicoloured patchwork of reality and myth. “Elena Subach is a tender observer of small moments and daily rituals. Ordinary items become totems: old ladies are elevated to the status of goddesses, and a simple hand gesture makes us think of magic,” says Polish photographer Rafał Milach, who nominated her for Ones to Watch. “She mixes memories, tropes and clichés, continuously drawing on and reimaging the visual identity of Ukraine.” 

“All this time, I couldn’t photograph people. I did not want to, I did not dare to interfere in their already violated personal space, despite understanding the importance of documenting this history.”

When Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, disrupting and devastating the lives of ordinary Ukrainians, it was the biggest military attack in Europe since World War Two. At the time, Subach was living in Lviv and working as a researcher at the Lviv National Art Gallery. With the sound of air-raid sirens warning citizens of incoming missiles, her instinct was to leave the city and go to Poland. Instead, she and her husband drove to Uzhhorod, a city in western Ukraine situated between mountains where she felt they would be better protected.

The following day, the couple joined the local volunteer movement, the Transcarpathian Gastronomy Battalion, which organises shelter, food and psychological support for fleeing Ukrainians seeking asylum in Europe. Subach’s team was stationed closest to the border zone. In March, martial law was imposed in Ukraine, banning adult men from leaving the country, and the days became marked by farewells. Men drove their families to the border and dropped them off; couples parted ways; all of them hugged, kissed and said goodbye.

“All this time, I couldn’t photograph people,” says Subach. “I did not want to, I did not dare to interfere in their already violated personal space, despite understanding the importance of documenting this history.” Instead she turned her lens on the empty chairs on which people left their belongings, imbuing them with gravitas while preserving a sense of humanity. “They seemed to me like small islands in a sea of people – places to stop and relax for a minute. In many cases this would be the first time a person had a chance to sit down in 24 hours. Thousands of people have passed by these chairs. I think [the chairs] are very important witnesses to this war.” 

Documentary photography can often reduce the victims of war to wounded bodies, and turn individual refugee experiences into one single story. Subach’s work does not show people encountering war but compels us to imagine them beyond the frame. 

Liza Premiyak

Liza Premiyak is a London-based journalist. For the last seven years, she’s been interested in understanding, of all places, what it means to live, create and protest in Eastern Europe. Until recently, she was Managing Editor at The Calvert Journal, where she looked after the online publication’s photo stories and ran the New East Photo Prize, broadening perceptions of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia.