Old Khata Project: Documenting villages affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine
Documenting villages affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine
Hundreds of villages in Ukraine are partially or completely destroyed. This means their way of life, a unique European combination of traditional culture and modernity, is also changed or ravaged.
Writer Svitlana Oslavska and photographer/videographer Anna Ilchenko want to tell the true stories of those places behind the headlines with a particular focus on cultural change and the personal experiences of the people who are affected by the war. They feel the pressing need to document this as soon as possible since, lamentably, it is uncertain how long Ukrainian villages will keep existing as we have known them before February 2022.
‘What inspires first is the beauty of the houses.’
Svitlana and Anna are sisters. Their parents are from villages in Eastern and Western Ukraine. So during summers in their childhood, they spent time in rural areas on both sides of the country. These experiences contributed to their cultivation of an appreciation for life and people in villages. When they grew up, even as Anna was living in Kyiv and Svitlana in Ivano-Frankivsk, they were haunted by the memories of these places.
Such houses as their grandmother’s house are in the process of decay. Svitlana notes that this is a normal situation; just as life itself, architecture changes. Nonetheless, she remarks, there needs to be an effort to preserve this traditional heritage, documenting architecture with traces of traditional materials.
Svitlana and Anna think that this architecture is beautiful and deserves attention. Their search is not for museum-houses but remnants of living instances. Traditional architecture is still alive and still serves people.
The conception of the project
Previously, the two have been working as a tandem, going on reporting trips where Anna worked as a photographer and videographer, and Svitlana was working with text. During their reporting, they were taking pictures of rural buildings and settings and the desire to make an online archive of these images led to them opening a dedicated Instagram page. Then, Anna proposed to make it more professional and work towards creating a photography book that documents houses in rural Ukraine. In 2019, they decided to work on a documentary initiative called ‘Old khata project’.
Old khata project
In the Old khata project, the duo embarked on a trip across the country. The trip began in early 2021 in the Carpathian mountains in the West of Ukraine. Then, with the launch of crowdfunding for a larger expedition, from June to October 2021, Svitlana and Anna visited around 30 villages. They spent up to four days per village, thoroughly exploring whole regions.
They took photos and conducted interviews focusing on traditional architecture and the people who created them. They talked with the people for an hour or two, sometimes more, then chose bright quotations from the conversation and shared these on their social media accounts. They inquired into what meanings are made in these spaces and what it’s like to be the owners and creators of these houses. These conversations incited, at times, deep philosophical reflections by the homeowners regarding life, home, etc. The sisters discovered that it is hard to talk about the construction of architecture without touching upon questions that relate to life at large. These reflections now accompany the images.
A change in focus
In February 2022, with the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the book project was shelved, and a new concern started to occupy Svitlana and Anna: to document how villages survived the war and what people experienced under occupation. There are a myriad of ways in which villages have been experiencing war. Some villages have been burned down, some have lived under occupation, and some have been welcoming internally displaced people. Documenting these experiences has been Svitlana and Anna’s focus, especially since journalists often leave out the rural dimension.
After a region becomes safe, many journalists tend to crowd such areas and talk to people. But different from journalists, the Old khata project is not concerned with collecting facts but with seeing how people interpret facts and narrate their own experiences. How a person tells a story about what happened is what Svitlana and Anna want to document. In this, they still want to keep the attention on culture, conversations about life and the experiences of people. Svitlana tells us that whilst they encounter countless stories of horror, they often hear about instances of strength, resilience, bravery and pride.
The next steps
Now Svitlana and Anna will go to new areas and revisit villages they had previously seen during their expedition, where they have pre-established contacts. These include the regions of Kherson, Chernihiv, Kyiv, Zhytomyr, Sumy and Luhansk. They will continue documenting conversations and images. The conversation follows the direction of whatever inspires the interlocutor: a memory, a dream, a present effort, a recent experience…
Based on collected materials, they will create short videos, visuals and text stories and publish them in English and Ukrainian on existing platforms: Facebook and Instagram accounts of Old khata project.