JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by 89books (here). Softcover, 17×23 cm., 132 pages, with 65 color and 6 black-and-white photographs. Includes an introduction by Donald Weber, and multiple texts by the artist. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: By sheer fluke of timing and location, Alexander Chekmenev’s photography career has not lacked provocative subject matter. He was born April Fool’s Day, 1969 in Luhansk, in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, in what was then the USSR. His father was ethnic Russian and his mother ethnic Ukrainian. After serving time in the Russian military, Chekmenev began working for a local photo studio in 1988, on the cusp of the Soviet Union’s collapse. By the time Ukraine regained independence a few years later, he’d transitioned to professional gigs, working regularly as a photojournalist and on independent documentary projects. Since 1997 he’s been living in Kyiv, his base for assignments throughout Ukraine as the country has been buffeted by geopolitical winds.
Perhaps pummeled is a better word than buffeted. Even before the current catastrophe, Ukraine had pinballed in from one crisis to the next in recent decades. Chekmenev had been on the scene for most. He covered the economic turmoil of the mid 1990s, the Russian separatist movement which followed, the installation of Putin-puppet Yanukovych and subsequent EuroMaidan revolution in 2014, the Crimean annexation later that year, and the current Russian invasion. Choppy waters indeed. But Chekmenev is not just a crisis photographer. He’s focused on the basic fabric of society as well, documenting coal-miners, street life, portraiture, flea markets, hospitals, veterans, homeless, Roma, and the surprisingly tangled logistics of basic bureaucracy (in his 2017 photobook Passport, reviewed here). Normal daily activities unfold before the camera in Ukraine just as they do anywhere, but often with one eye scanning the horizon. The winds of fate might shift at any moment, and there’s no room for complacency.
So it is with Chekmenev’s long simmering project Pharmakon (English: “Ambulance”). Although collected just last year into a monograph, the photographs were made in 1994-95. They document medical emergencies encountered by paramedics responding to night calls in Chekmenev’s hometown of Luhansk. At the time, he was in his mid-20s, a young and energetic photographer. He does not elaborate on the arrangements but through some means he ingratiated himself as an ambulance passenger with relatively free access. Perhaps the paramedics welcomed his company to spark their routine rounds? Even with Chekmenev along, a punch-the-clock mood of procedural habit pervades their duties. The characters in Pharmakon appear unfazed by carnage, as nonplussed as if delivering mail or watering some deck plants. I suppose if you drive an ambulance long enough you attenuate to a bloody stream of car crashes, drunks, domestic disturbances, and malfeasance. Mere flukes of timing and location.
Emergencies they might seem prosaic to medical staff, but it’s hard for laypeople to view them this way. Chekmenev’s pictures are quite explicit, with strong graphic punch. On accident scenes he typically parked himself center stage with bright flash and wide angle lens. The resulting pictures are awash in close range skin, blood, limbs, and faces. We see a naked corpse on a cot, a pair of scissors protruding from a scalp, a head smashed by pavement into goo, and a linoleum kitchen buried in blood, all streaked and glistening crimson as they’re patiently recorded by Chekmenev. “My first film was black and white and it was difficult for me to show blood so I moved to colour film,” he explains, a transition which paid off in pictures as saturated as any slasher flick. Such scenes would be extraordinary in any other context, but Chekmenev treats them as run of the mill encounters, and some of that attitude rubs off on the reader. By the book’s end, we feel somewhat inured.
It’s no great leap to read the book’s subtext: a citizenry under brutal duress, clinging to some semblance of normalcy. If that described Ukraine in 2021 when Pharmakon was published, it’s an even more accurate and sobering assessment now. Within the past several weeks the country has devolved into a violent mess. Russia’s scissors are still deeply embedded in its scalp. Lest anyone overlook the symbolism, Donald Weber’s foreword lays it out: “Look at Sasha’s photographs in this book,” he writes. “They’re troublesome, disturbing – they are certainly not easy to engage with. You have every right to be disturbed by them. I certainly am. But there’s something more to these photographs than just easy gore; think of them as images drawn from Ukraine’s bitter history, where its exposure to new armies and ideologies on Europe’s eastern flanks has made it the premier killing ground for a thousand years.”
If Weber infers another fluke of timing and location, there is some truth to that. Ukraine’s geographic location and democratic leanings have put it squarely in Russia’s crosshairs. Pharmakon may have been published before the latest incursion, but in parts of Ukraine the battle had been joined long before. Its publication can be viewed as a reaction, and the book as political allegory. Look at these peaceful Ukrainian citizens going about their business until BOOM!…blood, destruction, and turmoil.
Death and violence are serious matters. Addressed plainly they might cast a depressing pallor. But Pharmakon takes an approach which is over the top, almost absurd. Chekmenev’s photos are so graphic, so drenched in blood, that they exude the gallows humor of a Spaghetti Western. As in any good film, the mood is carried by its characters. Some are passed out in a drunken stupor. Others mug for his camera as they clamp bleeding wounds. A woman grimaces with her nose held awkwardly by technicians, while in another photo a man has his ears twisted in an effort to revive him. Another photo shows a beaming woman with two full brains outstretched for the camera, while in another a man with black eye in a neck brace grins warmly. Smiles abound, and Chekmenev spices the pictures here and there with matter-of-fact anecdotes. “Two cars didn’t want to yield to each other and like Easter eggs they knocked against each other, there was a head-on collision.” Or “The floor had been sprayed with blood, a little old woman was holding her head…she said that her husband, who she had lived with more than 30 years, had fractured her skull with an axe.” For a book of butchery, the tone is oddly deadpan.
With its ironic blend of carnage and bemusement, Pharmakon has parallels to ambulance chasing predecessors. Weegee comes to mind, as do Enrique Metinides and Andrew Savulich. None can be accused of being squeamish. Police scanners at the ready, they each cast their photo nets wide to catch swaths of bodies, twisted metal, and wreckage. In their respective heydays, pictures by all three circulated in the popular press, on the front pages even. But that’s no longer the case. Contemporary standards preclude explicit content. If an accident is reported in the mainstream press, the photographs are generally tasteful and inoffensive. War footage seems to have followed suit. Recent Ukrainian conflict photos by Lynsey Addario, James, Nachtwey, and Daniel Berehulak, for example, hint at slaughter with innuendo. We can only imagine what horrors these photographers have witnessed, because their public photos are restrained. Instead of gaping flesh wounds, we see prone bodies with faces obscured, walls with bullet pocks or charred vehicles. Given these present day mores, Pharmakon takes on a throw-back quality, and a veneer of gloves off authenticity.
It may be just as well that mainstream war coverage has been sanitized. Newspaper photos of battle scenes with this degree of bloodshed would be stomach churning. The same degreee of brutality might go down easier in the context of accidents, and of course a photobook has somewhat more latitude than daily reporting for a general audience. That is the equation cleverly leveraged by Chekmenev with Pharmakon. To comment on Ukrainian tensions and the constant threat of violence, while depicting no war footage—well, that’s a clever trick. Chekmenev attacks it with subversive glee. One might view the smiling paramedics in his pictures as surrogates for the photographer. They appear upbeat and energized as they make their rounds. They may face a nightly stream of catastrophes with no end in sight. But even buried to the elbows in blood, one eye scans the horizon. Surely something better lies ahead.
Collector’s POV: Alexander Chekmenev does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).