In 1994, three years after Ukraine become independent from a dissolving Soviet Union, the government ordered that USSR passports and identity documents be replaced with Ukrainian ones. Alexander Chekmenev was a young photographer working in a photo studio in the city of Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, when he was assigned by a social aid organization to take passport pictures of the ill and elderly people who could not leave their homes.
The job didn’t pay very much, especially compared to what his colleagues were making at the time photographing private clients. “Photographers were making a fortune, because every single person in the country needed a new photo,” Chekmenev told Quartz. “The amount I was paid was enough only for food,” the photographer remembers, “but I was curious how people live in neighboring houses.”
Chekmenev’s curiosity was well founded. “When I saw how they lived, I was ready to photograph for free,” he said. Some of the people he was sent to photograph had never left their homes, which were unlike any environments he had experienced before. “I was shocked by the conditions those old people were living in the last stage of their life,” Chekmenev remembers.
Since the passport photos had to be taken in front of a white sheet the photographer had the idea of taking wide-lens shots in the homes of the people he photographed. These were lives that had happened mostly (if not exclusively) under the communist regime, in conditions that the soviet state kept hidden from the outside world.
Checkmenev shot most of the images in black and white, saving the expensive (and hard to find) color negative only for the ones he found most remarkable.
The photos are an unsettling, sad, incredibly intimate (intrusive at times) representations of some of the most invisible of lives, right after the end of the USSR.
Amongst Ukrainian photographers, chekmenevshina became a term used to describe a blunt representation of something that society tries to keep hidden.