Review – Barricade by Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar

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About eighteen months ago I was standing in Kyiv’s Independence Square eating an ice cream, it was all very normal, even rather dull. Six months after that I was watching live streams on the internet of what looked like a war in the heart of the same city. Battalions of riot police faced off against a diverse coalition of protesters, from pro-Europe activists to Afghan war veterans and members of the Ukrainian far right in in what was touted as a battle for the nation’s future. The scenes were dramatic, the stakes high, and the price paid terrible.

As the protests went on I lost count of how many times I saw photographs depicting medieval scenes of charging protesters with dirtied faces, against a sky black with the smoke of tire fires. But as I heard from friends in Kyiv there was much more to the protests than this. Some told me they were a deeply fragmented affair, with tension also between protest groups wanting different outcomes, others explained that beyond a relatively small part of the city life carried on more or less normally. As the metaphoric and literal dust settled projects started to appear which took a longer and slightly more sophisticated view of the crisis, it’s causes and it’s reverberations (some of these, like the work of Chris Nunn which will was published here last week, are still ongoing).

Barricade is a collaboration between Donald Weber, a photographer whose work has long centred on Ukraine and Russia (probably best known is his acclaimed 2012 book Interrogations) and Arthur Bondar, a Ukrainian photographer and VII mentoree. The book employs a broad mix of visual strategies to record different elements of the events in the Maidan, but they largely veer away from the dramatic clichés outlined above. The first series of images for example records different sections of the improvised barricades that surrounded the square and helped to keep the hated Burkut riot police at bay, a series of images which belie Weber’s original training as an architect. Following this a series of still lives record some of the objects found in deposed president Yanukovych’s sprawling residence near Mezhygirya, on the outskirts of Kyiv. These include chintzy decorations, underpants and Yanukovych’s personal bible, an odd possession for a man who reputedly spent eight million Euro of embezzled money on a chandelier.

These images segue straight into another set of still lives taken back in the Maidan, including a series of studio style photos of Molotov cocktails and other pieces of improvised and increasingly barbaric weaponry deployed by both sides in the fighting. In comparison the rather over dramatised images of weapons made by other photographers (for example Tom Jamieson’s pictures of DIY weapons) these are clinical and unpleasant in an entirely different way, one which just about avoids the problem of over-fetishing this brutal hardware. Saying that these weapons still hold the same strange power that arms always have, what Sebastian Junger described in the introduction to Infidel as the aura possessed of ‘the actual tools that implemented what millions of people … were arguing about’.

A series of portraits of some of the fighters follows, where the photographs are rather less interesting than the texts that accompany them. Apart from small differences, the rag-tag uniforms of the fighters are really rather similar to one another, particularly as in the book they’re arrange into loose visual typologies. What is far more interesting to me are the different motivations for their being there, something far harder to reveal in a photograph. What this section really reminded me of is the weakness of photography in some circumstances, and the contrasting power of other approaches. Indeed knowing that many Afghan war veterans were involved in events in Kyiv I couldn’t help but think here of Zinky Boys, Svetlana Alexievich’s phenemonal oral history of the Soviet-Afghan War.

The final section of the book consists of spreads from Ukraine’s penal code, most of it redacted in black but for small sections which refer to actions of vandalism, trespass, treason and other events related to the uprising. On the facing pages are black and white images from the square cropped to circles which roughly reference the text. For me this was the most out of place in the book, something more in the vein of the self-consciously arty work of documentary artists like Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin than the rather quieter and less contrived work I normally associate with Weber.

These misgivings aside I generally thought that Barricades was a very interesting approach to the complexity of the crisis, and I liked the design particularly. Part of Schilt’s ‘Grey Matters’ series, the emphasis of the book’s design and construction is on extreme simplicity, but without skimping where it matters. The cover is a plain grey cardboard, but the design and printing and contents of the book are all very well done. I have more misgivings about the special edition of the book (now sold out) which is advertised as coming in a ‘genuine Kiev barricade sandbag’. For me there’s something here that again veers on the wrong side of fetishising the crisis. All in all though an interesting book and part of what looks like a nice series from the book’s publisher, a series which does that relatively rare thing in photobook publishing and puts the emphasis on the content, not the package.

(Critical transparency: review copy provided by publisher)