Time of the Phoenix: Ira Lupu on photographing wartime Ukraine

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© Ira Lupu.

The Ukrainian photographer’s latest body of work, Time of the Phoenix, is now on display at Wembley Park, London

Ukrainian photographer Ira Lupu describes the name of her latest body of work – Time of the Phoenix – as a fairly straightforward metaphor. The phrase refers to a time of transformation, a time before перемога (victory) has been achieved, when the people of her homeland remain hopeful in the face of war. Created during her return to Ukraine in July 2022, the work is now on display in an open air exhibition at Wembley Park, London. It is the final show within a wider series of exhibitions curated by Lupu, entitled Visions of Home.

Here, Lupu discusses her experience of creating Time of the Phoenix, the anxiety of seeing her country at war, and the emotional reality of “Ukraine fatigue”.

© Ira Lupu.
© Ira Lupu.

You returned to Ukraine following the Russian invasion to help your mother leave the country. What did you see and how did you feel?

 My grandmother Polina died at the end of April in Odesa. When I got the news, I packed my whole New York life in the middle of the night and headed straight to JFK airport. The idea of going to Ukraine at the time seemed quite scary, but I couldn’t afford to hesitate. 

 Arriving in Odesa felt like a weird lucid dream. Military checkpoints, empty streets, and sirens going off amid the spring bloom. Ukrainian flags were painted over every building, and poster boards were hopelessly appealing to the Russian soldiers. My family apartment never felt as empty as it was then.

 After seeing how badly my mother reacted to air defence explosions, I knew that we had to leave immediately. So after just two days in Odesa, I drove her to Romania, where my sister’s family lived at the time, and then we all moved to Greece.

© Ira Lupu.

What convinced you to return to create Time of the Phoenix?

 In my thoughts, I kept coming back to Ukraine. This short visit to what was once a warm, welcoming, and laidback home has left me with complex emotions. I decided to return to Ukraine at the end of July. That was when I started taking pictures.

The ultimate goal of my visit was to reconnect to my home. I wanted to share this moment in history with my old and new friends – many of whom have become internally displaced refugees, fighters in the armed forces, paramedics, and war documentarians. I had cameras and film on me, but I didn’t set any intentions – I was unsure if I’d be able to pull off the pictures. 

 In July I entered Ukraine through the Romanian border. I think I’d entirely accepted the possibility of dying in yet another Russian missile strike on the civilians, but I was still a little anxious to go. This anxiety evaporated in a split second when I saw the piece of Ukrainian land over the Danube river. It got me madly exhilarated and thirsty for all these little things that felt as if they were carved in my DNA: a mosaic pattern on an older woman’s headscarf, a pile of concrete rocks next to the wired Ukrainian trident, a bold “Russian Warship Go Fuck Yourself” patch on a border control officer’s shoulder.

I felt viscerally connected to everything around me. I finished the first roll in my first 10 minutes in Ukraine – my driver thought I was completely nuts, but appreciated it. I didn’t stop for the next month and a half.

“I hope that it will make someone care again – and realise that war, like death itself, isn’t something that only happens to “other” people”

© Ira Lupu.

What can you tell us about the message behind the work – what do you hope people will understand about Ukraine through the images?

 I allowed myself to be unintentional and spontaneous. My “guerilla” photographic approach violates the golden rules for documenting war. Because war is a dead serious thing, you must treat it accordingly. You arrive at the warzone and look for physical and psychological traces of war that can be translated into photographic language. In the worst case, you provide context. 

 I don’t want to say that I’m trying to humanise war and neither do I want to sugarcoat things. But, I hope that on a subconscious wavelength similar to the one they were created on, these photographs provide a more empathic understanding of the war, and put it closer to the viewer without being overtly didactic.

“Ukraine fatigue” is real. As one of the millions of Ukrainians working towards our existentially important victory, I hope that it will make someone care again – and realise that war, like death itself, isn’t something that only happens to “other” people.

© Ira Lupu.

Time of the Phoenix became part of Visions of Home, the multi-artist exhibition you have curated at Wembley Park. What was your curatorial approach and what messages do you hope it will convey? 

 Visions of Home is an outdoor exhibition of Ukrainian art that I’ve curated for Wembley Park this summer. The show was executed in different formats and scales, from a regular panel photo exhibition, to a six-story high print and digital totems. The goal was to create a diverse yet cohesive experience that is as serious and educational as it is entertaining.

In the end, we had a great mix of photography by Ukrainian women photographers, including archival imagery by Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit, which sheds light on traditions and the national liberation movement of Ukraine in the 20th century, and post-Maidan Revolution photographs by Yelena Yemchuk. We also included two recent and equally striking “full-scale invasion” projects: Radiation of War by Yana Kononova and We No Longer See the Future by Elena Subach and Helen Zhgir, a body of work combining refugee photography and interviews.

 Time of the Phoenix is on display as part of the Wembley Park Art Trail, until 15 November 2022.