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Why these unsettling ’90s Ukrainian passport photos are more relevant than ever

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In a photograph taken in newly independent Ukraine during the mid-1990s, an elderly woman casts her eyes away from the camera, her mouth pursed with tension. Another woman, gray hair braided across her head, holds the subject’s face firmly, one hand cupping her jaw, the other behind her neck. A white backdrop is up by someone just out of frame. A sense of unease and strangeness fills the composition.

From 1994 to 1995, only a few years after Ukraine’s population voted for independence in a referendum, photographer Alexander Chekmenev took many photos like these, of people in their homes, in the eastern city of Luhansk. He had been given a peculiar and difficult task: to go door-to-door and take passport photos of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

The assignment was part of the former Soviet state’s rushed goal of issuing new passports to all residents within a year — though, in reality, it took many years, according to Chekmenev. Social services in different cities employed photographers to help speed up the process.

With little pay, Chekmenev found himself in the homes of Luhansk’s neglected elderly and infirm residents, taking portraits of each person against a portable white backdrop held up by family members or social workers. The cropped passport images belied the full, uneasy scenes: lonely seniors, often living in poor conditions, propped up or posing for the camera. Many did not have basic necessities, like running water or gas, in their homes.

Those residents had lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and were left forgotten in its collapse, according to the photographer.

“The limited frame of a passport photo is like a TV box in Soviet times: propaganda of a happy lifestyle within the allowed limits,” Chekmenev said from Kyiv, where he is based, in an email interview translated from Russian. “Behind the corners of the passport and behind the square of a white background, the true reality, without retouching and censorship, was hidden.”

Many of the residents were unwilling to have their images taken, and some were near death. “There were people who cried and asked not to torture them with photography and not to interfere with their peaceful death,” Chekmenev said. “That was the hardest thing for me, psychologically.”

Chekmenev recalled that one man had a coffin in his home, awaiting his own death. Every time he finished a bottle of vodka, he would place it in the coffin, lining them up until it was full. Upon filling the coffin, he would then decide it was not yet his time to die and would began anew, he told the photographer. The social workers did not permit Chekmenev to photograph his subject in that room.

Altogether, Chekmenev took several hundred passport photos, as well as 36 color behind-the-scenes images for posterity. In 2017, he published them as a book, titled “Passport,” with Dewi Lewis Publishing in London.

Today, while Russian forces continue to attack Ukraine, forcing millions to flee their homes during Europe’s biggest land war since 1945, the body of work is a grim reminder of the frailty of statehood, symbolized by a 2-inch by 2-inch photo.

Chekmenev, who is now 52 years old, had his own passport photo taken by his family in 1996 as part of the program. “Mom and dad held the background, and my sister took pictures of me,” he recalled. Today, in Kyiv, he added, “my passport is still with me.”

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