March 12, 2022

Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut

My Friend:
My heart aches for Ukraine. I am glued to the news and am constantly asking myself: what more can I do? Then last night I suddenly realized that I could help others appreciate what the Ukrainian people are like.
In 2008 I visited my son (Cody) and soon to be daughter-in-law (Erica) who were serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. While there, I created a portfolio entitled “Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut.”
Here’s how the project came about:
Whenever I go to a new area to photograph, I make no preparations. I do not research the area, look at travel guides or other photographer’s work. I want to go with a completely open mind and hope that I’ll find something that inspires me.
Well, I had been looking for something for three days and hadn’t come up with anything, and I was starting to feel some time pressure as my days were slipping away. Well, pressure never helps my creativity and so that caused even more anxiety!
I found the people interesting, but I always hate photographing people in a foreign country, because they put on a “camera face” for you. You know, that big smile.
“Camera Face”
On this trip, I didn’t have the time…or a common language, to get to know the real person and get past the smile. And I sure didn’t want to come home with a bunch of smiling Ukrainian images.
I was pondering how to resolve this problem, when an idea came into my mind: why not ask people to close their eyes? Perhaps it might remove the “camera face” and yield something interesting.
My first “Ukrainian, with Eyes Shut” image and my favorite
And so I tried it. I was at a bus stop where I saw this gentleman and asked if I could photograph him, which I did, and then asked him to close his eyes.
And it worked! It removed the big smile and I liked the effect.
This was my first, and favorite “Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut” image. Even now as I look at it, it makes me laugh.
People’s reaction to my request were usually one of surprise, but almost everyone willingly allowed me to photograph them…with their eyes shut.
I remember photographing this man in an alley way, and my wife commented that it reminded her of her grandfather.
This young woman was a student whom my son taught in Beryslav. I’ve wondered about his students and what had become of them. Have they fled Ukraine, are they fighting, or are they dead?
This man scared the hell out of me! He was our taxi driver for several days, and the driving in Ukraine was crazy and dangerous. My son and I were squeezed in the front seat, and Cody told me that it would insult him if I put on my seat belt (it would insinuate that he was a bad driver, which he kinda was!)
This is a homeless man we met in the park. He was so very nice, and we gave him some food.
This young man was pretty funny! He was a comedian and told me that one day he was going to be the president of Ukraine! He was just such a character and wouldn’t close his eyes for me, so I had to settle for one eye shut.
This images saddens me. This is Natasha, she was my son’s Ukrainian supervisor and became a family friend. Natasha lives in Beryslav, and this was her text message to me today:
“They (Russians) are in some areas of Kherson. The enemy began to mine Kherson. Eyewitnesses report that they installed “trip wires” in the city center – near the building of Scythia. But the city is holding on and so are the people.”
We have asked Natasha to leave Ukraine, while she still can, but she has animals and we doubt she will leave them. I get it.
This old man was at a spring collecting water for his sick wife. Ukrainians believe the water from this spring has healing properties.
This is Lesha, I met him at a train station as he was returning home from a wrestling match. Where is Lesha today I wonder? Defending his country? Protecting his wife, his children and his parents?
This cocky fellow wouldn’t let me photograph him unless I paid him an American dollar! I normally wouldn’t do that simply out of principle, but I liked his boldness.
This is my friend Serg, whom I met in Lviv. Here is the email he sent yesterday:
“Thank you for your participation in the events that are now the territory of my homeland, Ukraine. Russia dropped the first echelon of its troops. This will not be a quick war. At the expense of Lviv – now the war is not infantry and tanks, but the war of planes and missiles. So, within the reach of of the latest weapons owned by Russia, every piece of Ukraine’s territory is in sight. But we are with God. And if you are with God, then who is against you?”
Serg is a new grandfather. I wonder what kind of country his granddaughter will grow up in? Will she be free or a slave of the state?
God bless you my friend, Serg. I admire you, your faith and courage.
A blind man, whose eyes are always shut.
This is the caretaker at a Monastery in Beryslav. In ancient times, hundreds of monks carved out alters in primitive underground caves where they worshipped. Now, there is only one monk and this solitary caretaker.
I met this Cossack on the streets of Kiev, where he played his instrument for money. Cossack’s were once known as fierce fighters, and perhaps this man is now engaged in the fight against the invading Russians?
At the Picnic
So what are Ukrainians like? I found them to be a very generous people.
The image above was taken at a picnic that was hosted for us by Cody’s Ukrainian friends. I remember that despite being poor (by our standards) they put on a big barbecue feast for us. I wanted to thank them by creating the image above.
The picnic was on the Dnieper River, in Nova Kakhovka, which is now occupied territory.
“Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut” was a wonderful project because I got to know and make friends with the Ukrainian people.
Perhaps if I had created this project today it might be entitled “Ukrainians, with Eyes Now Opened.”

50 thoughts on “Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut

  1. Hi Col,
    It’s so sad what happening in Ukraine.
    Your work is beautiful as usual. Somehow you managed to photograph the heart of each subject, making each person special and valued.
    Well done.

  2. Thank’s for that Cole, you feel powerless to help the Ukrainian people who should not be attacked by Russia, let’s hope it can be stopped and the Ukrainian people can get back to living as they wish not under the Soviet jack boot.

    1. There are things we can do! Donate as much as you can. Spread the word on social media about your feelings about the situation. Pass this article around so that others can see the face of Ukrainians.

  3. I remember this when you had originally posted. Thank you, Cole, for sharing again. Our prayers are for them all.

  4. To be a grand photograph it must arouse your feelings and the more it does so, the greater it is. Your photographs presented in today’s email are grand; all of them in their own way.

    1. Frank, thank you so much for your contributions! You have a direct connection to all of this. And I agree with you, Putin is as bad as Hitler and I fear there is more to come.

    1. That is my goal with this project. It did not have great meaning when I created it in 2008, but now, suddenly, it does.

      Please help spread the word by forwarding this to your friends.

  5. I feel really shocked – it is not a new thing in those last years following the end of my job activity bank , since many many shocking events had already happened- I never could believe such a tremendous thing might happen . There are are reasons prefer not to write which make me be more and more worry ed and a family negative contest – mine – aA

  6. On the black board at the local hall up the corner is written “Ukranian lives matter” I wrote it ………

  7. Cole – nice series. But if you really wanted to help why not offer prints for sale where some or all the proceeds go to Ukranian relief? Personally I’ve donated $200 to two seprarate organizations AND purchased film from Finland and Germany where the money goes to relief. Just a thought

  8. Cole, Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos. We are heartbroken to see what is happening to these people and hope for peaceful ending soon.

  9. Cole. First of all I LOVE THOSE SHOTS. I wish that I was 50 years younger so that I could go to the Ukraine to photograph the events so that the world could see the real thing. I spent 33 1/2 months in Korea and i saw thing that the public NEVER SAW they don’t show the real thing as the general public could not handle what they would see and that is what is happening now. Women and children being killed and then DUMPED in a mass grace

  10. I’m so glad you did this. One thought, I would have liked to see the last image be of the amazing Zelenskyy. Putin doesn’t belong in the Ukraine or your wonderful collection of Ukrainian people.

  11. Thank you Cole for sharing this. I hope that the Russians too get the opportunity to have their eyes opened – about their leader and what he is doing.

  12. Thank you for sharing. My heart goes out to the Ukranian people. Just hoping an end comes soon and all the Russian leaders are removed forever.

  13. Cole,
    Thank you for sharing this work. It is timely, relevant, and significant to the unconscionable events unfolding in the Ukraine. The concept of “eyes shut” is a brilliant and enormously effective device for your portraits, a device that in retrospect has added a deeper dimension to the work in light of the plight of these fine people. This body of work shows the humanity behind the people who are suffering through this crisis and that is something we cannot lose sight of.

    I’ve enjoyed your work for some time now but this is a deeply moving series of images.

    Best regards,
    Rob Matthews

    1. Thank you Rob. My goal in showing it again was to have people understand, just a tiny bit, the Ukrainian people. To show the face behind the tragedy, the soul behind this massacre.

  14. Cole, these are wonderful portraits; seeing these people “close-up” really brings home the suffering that is going on there now. I especially like the Cossack portrait; the juxtaposition of his musical instrument and what appear to be shotgun shells in his vest. Thank you for sharing these.

    1. Thank you Harold, nice to hear from you.

      After I originally published this work, A number of people sent me pictures of that same Cossack in different parts of Europe. I’ve often wondered if he travels by air, and if so, how he gets on an airplane with those shotgun shells!

      What’s interesting to me about this project, is how it had scant meaning in 2008, and now suddenly has become more relevant.

  15. Dear Cole, I remember this project of portrait with closed eyes well! As many times before, as much as I am worried and angry about what is going on in Ukraine my life and history were very different and much more personal. I was born close to the border of Slovakia and Ukraine during the previous world war. The Ukrainians gladly helped the Germans murder ten of thousand of Jews including women and children that are buried in a very famous place called BabeYar. There is a big memorial at this known place. Yes time have changed and the president of Ukraine is Jewish. There are a lot of Jewish communities in Ukraine especially in Odessa and Kiev. We will see what will happen with this war as far as the Jews is concern. Right now it is an ugly war against civilians, women and children, just Evil!! Israel have already taken in a lot of migrants and orphans. For me it goes back and is very difficult.

    1. Vered, I do understand where you’re coming from. Ukraine did terrible things in World War II, and today they still have many problems.

      But they are a free country, and they are trying to be better.

  16. Hi Cole

    You captured the soul of Ukrainian people with lovely your images.
    My wife is from Kiev. A city she loves. Unfortunately her two sons and their wives are still in Ukraine and facing this terrible tragedy on a beautiful country and beautiful people.

  17. There is a photograph labeled “He was a comedian and told me that one day he was going to be the president of Ukraine!”

    Is it a coincidence that he resembles Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

  18. Cole,Your words and these photos are so moving. Thank you–you have expressed feelings that so many people are feeling.
    I have given money to Direct Relief that was one of three charities recommended by the NY Times. It is highly rated on Charity Navigator. Judging charitable organizations always feels tricky, but these testamonies seemed like a start for me. Here is the url for Driect Relief:

  19. Cole, very powerful photos. Your photos are very moving. When I watch the photos on the online media the pictures of little girl refugees really get to me. Most of them appear like the little girls playing in our community park on cold day. They are just like us, except they no longer have a warm safe home or a father.

  20. Cole,
    Without being able to look into their open eyes we wander the images maybe more than we might have otherwise. For me, it reinforces that we are all the same, as God intended. Thanks for sharing. We have been donating through our church which is forwarding funds to christian based aid groups.

  21. A Haiku for you…

    Whimsical moments
    Ukrainians with Eyes Shut
    Veil future’s horror

    These whimsical, serene, contemplative, moments preserved. What a brilliant depiction of what was! My heart also aches for these people. I cannot imagine their agony and I will never understand such evil. One bright star is that their leader is demonstrating unimaginable courage and devotion.
    Cole you must be very proud of your son and daughter in law who gave time to the Peace Corp. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree 🙂
    Thank you for sharing.

  22. Great photos. Great comments. Here in Ireland we are accommodating over 80,000 refugees from Ukraine, including a second group of three in our own house. People like them very much.

    1. Thank you Ireland and thank you John for helping out the Ukrainians!

      On Friday, May 5, I’m speaking to the FAIP out of Ireland.

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