Ukraine’s colourful history is painted with tragedies such as a nuclear catastrophe (Chernobyl, 1986) and conflict perpetuated by Russian aggression. Rarely do you hear good news about the country that lies between Eastern Europe and Russia’s western border. Berlin-based artist Sergej Vutuc spent two weeks with skaters Igor Fardin, Tomaz Šantl, Tjark Thielker and Valeri Rosomako to cruise the country and experience a culture that embraces a past of tragedy. With that, it was also Valeri’s first time traveling home to Ukraine after living in Berlin for 15 years.
1: Ukraine is deep in a war and could’ve made for a hectic journey, no?
The last few years were pretty rough for Ukraine. Bad news and images of war filled the news so I stepped away from the media and took a trip to find something deeper there. Sadly, the exhibition I wanted to do didn’t work out, so Valeri and I created an adventure with the help of local Ukrainian skaters like David Grigoryan. At the end of the trip, Valeri’s dad took us into their home as part of his family and gave us a really intimate look into Ukrainian culture.
2: What does the skate scene look like there?
low in Ukraine. Most of the gear is imported and expensive and that creates a lot of barriers for the scene to grow but enthusiasm is high. This has created a really strong community to the point where a used board can make it from one side of the country to the other, changing many hands in the process. Where Westerners would complain about their setup, skaters in Ukraine use the board until it sounds like a piece of paper and still go for crazy tricks.
3: You’ve got an eerie aesthetic, which is suiting for a place like Chernobyl.
What’s your process when you shoot and develop?
There are many layers to what I do but it’s all based on my mood at the time. I use elements like packaging and other symbols from the environment in the creative process and I’m pretty playful in the darkroom. I like to explore my feelings and breakdown my boundaries – all of these factors work into shooting the photos but the darkroom play is equally important.
4: On that note, Chernobyl is one of the most catastrophic events in human history.
What was it like to visit?
Visiting Chernobyl was something special – it was like entering the dark side of humanity where it looked into the face of life itself. Science meets nature here and it’s beautiful to see how resilient nature is, how its been changed and how its rebounded from the nuclear accident.
5: What’s something beautiful you learned about Ukraine?
Ukraine is a huge country with a lot of intense history. The people have found the beauty amongst their historic tragedies and it’s shaped them to be very strong-willed people that are always ready to dance. Music is present everywhere and celebrating life is a very important part of Ukrainian culture.
They especially love their sweets too.