Alexander Chekmenev, Passport

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Dewi Lewis Publishing (here). Hardcover, 156 pages, with 76 color and black and white reproductions. Includes explanatory texts by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, one of the immediate issues for the newly independent states was the ongoing management of the administrative functions previously performed by the federal government, including things like the issuance of passports. While these bureaucratic duties might seem relatively straightforward and mundane, for a new country like Ukraine, suddenly deciding to issue every single citizen a new passport turned out to be more than just pushing papers – it was a dauntingly complicated task. And one of the wholly unexpected roadblocks in the process turned out to be the humble passport photo.

As photographs go, the passport photo is one of the most unassuming portraits of a person ever taken. Set against a nondescript (often white) backdrop, it is first and foremost a headshot, intentionally without additional context or decoration, usually without even so much as a smile. Along with the police mugshot, it is an aesthetic exercise in extreme reduction, to the point that the face becomes the basis for elementary identification, no more and no less.

At the level of governmental policy, it might seem to make sense to issue an edict saying that all citizens need to get new passports (a “national campaign”), and then to set a deadline for this process to encourage activity and participation. And this is just what Ukraine did in 1994, hoping to replace all of the old passports by the end of the year. But a nearly intractable problem quickly emerged – what about all the elderly folks who were home bound, those who were ill or otherwise incapacitated, and those who couldn’t afford a new photo? How would they get photographed? The solution to this conundrum was to hire a group of photographers to tag along with social workers who were delivering food and medicine, effectively going door to door in certain towns to photograph each and every person. Alexander Chekmenev got one of these jobs, and his book Passport chronicles what he encountered along the way.

Bound in the colors of the Ukranian flag, with endpapers that look like watermarked passport pages, the photobook is divided into two sections. The first part shows Chekmenev’s cropped headshots on separate pages, the faces of elderly citizens floating in individual grey rectangles meant to mimic the passport’s identification page (since the sizes of the faces couldn’t be entirely standardized, the rectangles get larger and smaller to accommodate the differences). Printed on thin, almost transparent paper, the ghosts of other faces linger underneath and in the background. What we see is just what we might expect – a parade of aging (or aged) men and women, some with disfigurements or fading alertness, largely looking straight at the camera, without much in the way of expression. On their own, these images wouldn’t be particularly memorable.

But the second part of this book repeats the original sequence of sitters, showing us instead the full source photograph for each headshot fragment, and it is these images that are so striking and loaded with emotion. His elderly subjects generally sit in their homes, or in their single rooms (perhaps in hospitals, assisted living facilities, or other group settings), or have come outside if it was too dark to make a picture inside. The social services women hold the white rectangle (not much more than a bed sheet) behind them, momentarily isolating their bodies from their surroundings. Each scene has a surreal quality, the makeshift stage set intruding on the overlooked squalor of everyday life.

Chekmenev’s systematic government-sponsored pictures of these people and their rooms tell countless personal stories, many with a dispiriting undercurrent. While some people have done their best to freshen up for the picture, bringing out a special dress, putting on a suit decorated with war medals, or at least aiming to be marginally pleasant (a quick comb of the hair for example), others clearly have less grasp of what is actually going on. Many sit in bed, the white sheet awkwardly propped behind them, others require help to stand up straight, and a few seem utterly confused and disoriented by the whole process, some only clothed from the waist up. In many cases, there is distinct feeling of invasion, of too many people crowding into a small room, intruding on the personal space of someone who is unable to protest.

Like Zofia Rydet’s exhaustive project to document the interiors of Polish households, Chekmenev’s photographs are filled with resonant cultural and sociological details, many of them repeated across this selection of elders. Their rooms are filled with hanging laundry, carpets and tapestries as decoration, mismatched kitchen items, and bare lightbulbs, with a plastic floral tablecloth, a tin teacup, a framed face from the past, or even a portrait of Lenin providing some hint of personalization. For those with less health (and hope), an improvised toilet-chair with an iron pot, a blind woman’s stick, or a rickety cane or crutches are the visible reminders of the recurring limits of these surroundings.

While these pictures were taken with obvious care and professionalism, after seeing a few dozen of these grim scenes, it’s hard not to feel like the whole project was an exercise in ridiculous futility. In his background essay, Chekmenev relates stories of sitters who have coffins ready in the next room, or who have died between the time he made the picture and returned to provide the print. So the idea that these folks were headed off on international trips and needed their passports updated seems to be the height of folly, bordering on unintended bureaucratic malice and the deliberate infliction of unnecessary suffering on the elderly and the infirm.

Even if we ascribe a measure of exploitation to this situation, Chekmenev’s photographs are wholly authentic and immediate, bringing us right inside the hard life of the elderly in Ukraine. The images do their best to be honest and upstanding, even with a certain understanding that this charade walks a muddy line of human respectability. But like Jacob Riis’ powerful images of the lives of poverty stricken immigrants in late 19th century New York, Chekmenev’s pictures in Passport expose patterns of everyday struggles and hidden hardships that are hard to ignore. As much as we might be aghast at what he forces us to experience, it is impossible not to feel empathy for the plight of the unseen.

Collector’s POV: Alexander Chekmenev does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Prints from Passport (in editions of 10) are available directly from the artist’s website (here). This body of work was shown at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland in 2016 (here).

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