The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art presents a powerful exhibition, Brotherland: War in Ukraine, that displays the work of photojournalist Brendan Hoffman. In this photo exhibition, Hoffman gives us a closer look at the war that has taken place in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014. The war between the Ukrainian military and rebel separatists has left more than 13,000 dead and over a million people displaced.
On display are 29 photos that show how this war has affected the civilians and the soldiers, as well as the landscape of the region. Hoffman lets us see how this conflict has become an uncontrollable fact of life that unfortunately has shaped the day-to-day existence for the people who live there.
“I want people to have a deeper understanding of the war and that it is still going on today even though the conflict may be getting less coverage,” said Hoffman.
The power of Hoffman’s work is that he doesn’t try to shock us with graphic images, but rather captures empathetic images of the civilians who are living through this conflict. A number of his photos are of civilians who have had to adapt to the war around them in order to go on with their daily lives. In one photo, we see a woman walking past a dead body on the street where a rocket had struck near a bus stop. It is with a sense of resignation and fear rather than lack of compassion that she walks past the body—she seems fearful of getting involved, believing it is safer to stay in the background. In another photo, we see a woman holding a shopping bag. Despite the fact that a shell has landed near her building, she still went out shopping for the day dressed in a white dress and wearing makeup—for her own psychological survival she goes on like life is normal as she walks through debris that was caused by shelling near her home.
Hoffman is a master of catching the expressions on people’s faces—subtle looks that tell a bigger story. In Nadezhda, we see the weary but determined expression of a 75-year-old woman in a stairwell as she holds a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a piece of fruit in the other. He also captures the expression of resignation such as in Evacuation where we see a young woman staring out the window of a bus that will evacuate her along with other women and children from the fighting. An equally strong image is Tram as we see residents ride in a trolley car—their eyes have a faraway look while their expressions show a weariness in living in a war-torn region.
Hoffman also captures scenes that border on the surreal and the whimsical. In Swans, Eastern Ukraine, we see a couple of swans swimming in the wastewater from the Shcheglovskaya Coal Mine while the buildings in the background are shrouded by fog. In another photo, a circus performer rides a horse that is dressed with Pegasus wings. There is almost a Fellini-like element to this work, but this image is not to entertain us, but rather to show us that even in war-torn regions like Donetsk, life goes on as people try to create some sense of normalcy in their everyday lives.
In Ukrainian Soldiers in the Snow, the whimsical effect of snow falling on a country scene would normally be a comforting sight, but the two soldiers in the foreground create an incongruity to this Currier and Ives landscape, and they are an ugly reminder of a war going on in this tranquil setting.
Also worth noting, is a series of photographs of four different funerals that show the raw emotional toll on relatives and friends who have lost a loved one. In another series of photos, four scenes tell a story about the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 that was shot down by rebel fighters in 2014.
Visitors can also experience virtual reality videos (each about two minutes in length) that correspond with three of the photos that are on display.
What is most impressive about this exhibition is that many of the images tell a story of people (soldiers as well as civilians) who have been enduring a lengthy war. The strength of Hoffman’s work is in how he uses his camera to capture scenes of everyday existence. Hoffman as a journalist has an empathetic approach without taking sides in this war.
“If you asked people in this region six months before this war started if there was ever a chance they would see a war in their region, everyone would have said that would be impossible. The most important take away I want people to have when looking at my work is to realize that war can happen anywhere,” said Hoffman.
Brendan Hoffman (b. 1980) is an American photojournalist based in Kyiv, Ukraine. His focus on Ukraine, began with the 2013-14 protests in Kyiv and he continues to cover the war in eastern Ukraine. Hoffman has worked on assignment for The New York Times, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, TIME, Getty Images, The Washington Post, Newsweek, NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.
Brotherland: War in Ukraine runs through June 2. The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA) is located at 2320 W. Chicago Ave. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday 12 to 4pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission: Suggested donation is $5. For more info, you can call UIMA at 773-227-5522 or visit their website.