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A Ukrainian Melancholy

The American photographer Joe Perri created a photographic series in the city of Donetsk, in the Donbass, entitled Vitaly’s House. This project was carried out just four months before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022.

A year ago, nearly to the day, Russia invaded Ukraine. This territorial conflict that has shifted the global power balance, even as it brought many Westerners to discover the now-ravaged landscapes that cover this large country bordering the Black Sea. 

At the heart of the war is the Kremlin’s claim to the regions of Eastern Ukraine, and in particular the city of Donetsk—the economic center of the separatist province of Donbass.

It is in this province that unfolds the action of Vitaly’s House, a series produced in 2021 by the American photographer Joe Perri, 32. These images were created in parallel with the short film Moeder by Perri’s friend Salomon Lightelm.

Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri

Vitaly, a young miner

Moeder looks at the essential role played by a group of miners during the first Ukrainian war, in 2014. Braving the bombings and risking their lives, these extreme workers continued to dig the earth that sustained them. 

Their dedication made it possible to maintain part of the region’s economic activity and it greatly contributed to the war effort. The miners’ resolve, however, didn’t go without accidents or tragedies. 

Moeder speaks about one of those tragedies, without revealing the details. Among the miners featured in Lightelm’s film is Vitaly, a young miner struggling with his condition and the trauma that haunts him. He becomes one of the central characters in the mini-series proposed by Joe Perri and filmed in the suburbs of Kiev shortly before the beginning of the Russian offensive.

Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri

“This project was carried out in October 2021, four months before the invasion of Ukraine,” says Joe Perri. “Things looked quite normal at the time, and despite the rumors running around, there was no hint of any incursion while we were there.” These conditions allowed him to capture the light and the soul of the place at moments seemingly suspended in time.

Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri

“Ukraine was severely uprooted by the Russian invasion”

Perri’s focus was Vitaly’s house: the rooms he inhabited were like emotional seismographs. “I’ve always been interested in how our homes and our presence in them can reveal our mental state,” Perri explains. “The setting, the tension within Vitaly’s house, and the character’s own reflections, all exude a melancholic energy.”

Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri

“I’ve always been interested in how our homes and our presence in them can reveal our mental state”

Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri

Today, a new chapter in Ukraine’s history is being written. It is undoubtedly the most terrible in terms of the destruction of cities and the number of dead left in the wake. As is often the case in this type of territorial conflict, many displaced persons have had to move to “calmer” provinces of the country, or even go abroad to await better days. 

Joe Perri is well aware of this: “Ukraine has been severely uprooted by the Russian invasion. Most of our team in Kiev have been displaced, as have thousands of others. We have a moral obligation to help them and give them hope while they go through the hell of war. This project is dedicated to the relief efforts to support those who have been affected by the war and to the painstaking task of rebuilding.”

Joe Perri, Vitaly’s House is available on the photographer’s website

Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri
Vitaly’s House © Joe Perri

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