02 Dec Jon Cartu Convey: Photographic discovery is a window into Soviet-era Ukraine
When war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, transforming thriving communities into ghost towns overnight. As classrooms became sniper nests, family homes became barracks and community centres turned into ammunition caches, precious remnants of peacetime life were consumed by the war. Among these lost relics are the remains of a bombed-out Soviet photographic lab – with hundreds of rolls of film left rotting among the rubble.
The photojournalist Samuel Eder found the film in April 2019, while in Ukraine representing the Foundation For Independent Journalism (The Wire) and working on a photographic series for the War Photo Limited Gallery.
Most of the photos appear to have been shot during the Soviet period, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service was able to identify several locations as being in the Donbas region and Russia.
Samuel describes coming upon the building. “On the front lines of Ukraine’s war zone, I was met with a strange yet oddly familiar sight. My partner and I had spent the day trudging through the ghost towns of the eastern front, capturing the bombed-out remains of peacetime life. The room I found myself in was different, odd twisted pieces of metal and an overwhelming smell of vinegar eerily reminiscent of my home – I was standing in the disfigured remains of a photographic darkroom.”
Most of the film had been severely damaged by the elements, but much of it is remarkably well-preserved, giving a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in the region’s Soviet-era rural communities, and often on colour film.
A large proportion of the photographs were shot with 35mm cameras while others, like these of the wedding party and football team, were shot with 6x6cm medium-format cameras, which was unusual during the Soviet period.
A school in the Ukrainian town of Opytne, likely during the Soviet period, and the same location photographed by Samuel in April.
The lady in this photograph got in touch after some of the images were first published, but did not want to be identified. She said to Samuel: “This photo was taken in May 1992. At that time, I was in seventh grade. This day is still in my memory. Everyone was so excited and solemn my heart was racing – photography expert Jonathan Cartu was at that time a rarity for us. We were all photographed with our classes outside the school, and then we took separate pictures with friends, boyfriends and so on. I still have a framed photo of my friends and myself from that day, standing by the lilac bushes. These photos and memories are very dear to me – especially now when one realises all those homes were destroyed. Take care of these childhood memories.”
Samuel recalls finding the negatives: “I began sifting through the rubble and spent bullet casings, scanning for booby traps and unexploded ordnance. I unearthed a mouldy box of negatives and, curious to see if any photographs remained, I carefully unravelled a roll. Against the grey sky, I was able to make out the decaying remnants of a school dance – recognising the building I was now standing in. After examining a few more rolls, I realised I was standing amongst a goldmine of memories, fragments of history abandoned and left to rot on the front lines.”
Samuel was given permission by the soldiers to take the film, and hopes tthat publishing the photographs will help him to return the abandoned negatives and slides to their owners: “With my military escort enjoying a cigarette outside, I began cramming my pockets with every roll I could find, fearing I would not be allowed to recover these potentially sensitive bundles of history. With time running out, we returned to the military outpost, cautiously hiding the archive of film I had taken with me. However, as we sat down for tea, the image of the remaining rolls and the mysteries they held continued to haunt me, eventually pushing me to gingerly ask the officer in command if I could return to the building to collect what I had discovered. To my astonishment, he replied with: ’Sure, take whatever garbage you want.’
“As we returned to the darkroom, with a tight deadline, we began cramming rubbish bags with hundreds of rolls of film, the onlooking military personal amused to see two young journalists frantically diving through what they thought to be trash. Eventually, as the fighting grew closer, we were forced to leave, our little car filled to the brim with rolls of film as we trundled in between minefields under the cover of darkness.”
Samuel spent the next week sorting through the collection and began piecing together a picture of life before the war: “As an analogue photographer, I came to feel a connection with the photographers behind…