“A driver who ran over an old woman held her head when she no longer had any pulse. The doctors pronounced her dead. Everyone present was in shock, and a policeman had just started wincing at the camera,” writes Ukrainian photographer Alexander Chekmenev in a commentary on the first photo in his book Pharmakon / Ambulance 1994–1995 released by 89books, a publishing house run by Italian photographer Mauro d’Agati. The black-and-white photograph shows a man sitting on the curb nestling the bloodied head of an elderly woman in his lap. People have gathered around, including this “wincing” policeman.
This image is part of a series the photographer made in Ukraine, in his hometown of Luhansk. “It was the 90s, only four or five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were war criminals around and wealth discrepancy. I lived in a studio in Luhansk, and there was an ambulance service across the street. I thought it would be a good idea to capture the city nightlife.” The photographer approached the ambulance drivers who agreed to be followed and photographed. “I went to ask them, and they said ok. The doctors wanted me to show their hard work, but unfortunately my images were not published by the press at that time, they were too raw.”
Alexander Chekmenev has always been a keen observer of Ukrainian society. Since the 1990s, he has been traveling up and down the country and taking photographs. Through his various series, he has captured the faces of the inhabitants of Odessa: alcoholics and the homeless, war veterans as well as psychiatric hospitals. He also recorded photo sessions for the new post-Soviet passports. Luhansk welfare services recruited him to take portraits of elderly or sick citizens who could not afford to have photos taken.
Working on his project on ambulances, he faced things we usually don’t see: the dead, the injured, sordid stories that usually belong in newspaper crime columns. Over the course of his project, he switched from black-and-white to color. “My first film was black and white, and it was difficult to show blood, so I switched to color.” Faced with pools of blood, Alexander remains calm, but admits to having been shocked at his first sight of death. “We took a young man to the hospital after a serious car accident and rushed back to pick up other victims. When we returned to the hospital, I saw the young man lying with a gag in his mouth—he had died in the emergency room from his many injuries and internal bleeding. Honestly, this was a shock.”
Scenes of domestic violence, car accidents, alcoholics passed out naked on the sidewalk, he didn’t miss a thing. Violence rules, blood spills. It is difficult to take it all in at once: Alexander Chekmenev’s images don’t shy away from the reality, horrible and sordid as it is, the reality the Ukrainian ambulance drivers had to experience almost daily in the mid-1990s. It is easy to understand why, in one of the images, a paramedic hugs one of his colleagues to comfort him. But then why show this chilling photographic series again some twenty years later? Alexander Chekmenev’s answer is clear: “It was time for this book to come out so that history would not repeat itself.”
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Pharmakon / Ambulance 1994–1995, by Alexander Chekmenev, published by 89books, is available for 35€.