Priceless and fragile: Marta Syrko on her portraits of Ukraine's war-wounded
The 28-year-old photographer from Lviv wants to change perceptions about disabled people in Ukraine. Her "Sculpture series" shows soldiers in a new light.
Ukrainian photographer Marta Syrko recalls the first time she ever set foot in the Louvre Museum in Paris. As she walked through the gallery of antiquities, she admired the classical sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome.
“Some of them were missing part of their faces, one of them didn’t have arms,” she told Euronews Culture. “And these monuments are priceless. All the people around the world come to see them. But they’re also very fragile. The same is true about human beings.”
Syrko is exploring that philosophy in her own work with her newest project, which she calls her “Sculpture series.”
The intimate set of photographs depicts soldiers and civilians who were injured in the ongoing war in Ukraine. At their most vulnerable, nearly nude save for a delicately creased white sheet, their battle scars clearly visible, they are posed to look just like the sculptures Syrko saw in the Louvre.
By playing with light and shadows, Syrko makes her subjects look like they’re in a dream, or a painting from another time.
But what she’s depicting is far from fantasy – the brutal reality is that as an increasing number of young Ukrainians are returning from the battlefield broken, and Ukraine as a nation must make radical changes to ensure they can live in dignity.
Starting a dialogue about accessibility
Syrko, who hails from Lviv in the west of Ukraine, says that she was inspired to start this series after seeing more and more young disabled people in the streets since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. Even before the war, accessibility for people with disabilities was a problem across the country.
“Inclusivity in my country is a big issue,” she said. “It’s quite hard to get around in a wheelchair or with a stroller, so that’s why I want to make this discussion more open to everyone. Because now in my city, I see people who have been injured every day, soldiers and civilians, people without limbs. And it’s very, very scary because it’s only been one year (since the full-scale invasion). So it’s really not a typical situation and we have to get used to it really quickly.”
As many as 10,000 Ukrainians are believed to have lost limbs since Russia’s invasion, according to nonprofit groups. Ukrainian officials have avoided releasing official figures in an effort to keep up morale.
The taboo made Syrko worry about whether it was a good idea to create a series of photos about wounded soldiers while the war was still ongoing.
“I spoke with my friends who are in the army and I asked them, ‘Is now the best time to show it or not?’ And they said it’s maybe even better to show it now, to show people that despite the situation that’s going on, we want to help them to live normal lives and to come back to society.”
The 28-year-old fine art photographer spent a lot of time talking with her subjects in this series, who she calls her “heroes,” to get them comfortable with stripping down for her camera.
“Sometimes during this project I noticed that they were a little bit ashamed of posing, especially without clothes,” she said. “It was the first experience of shooting in their lives and the first one was nude photography, so it was quite hard for them. But we really spoke a lot about the shooting before and after, and I showed them all the pictures that I was making.”
She said she was stunned by the outpouring of support she received when she began posting her photos on her Instagram account.
“I didn’t expect such support,” she said. “My last hero that I took pictures of, 70 percent of his skin was burnt and he almost died. I saw that people were texting him and being very supportive, sending him presents. It’s really influenced his behaviour and his recovery, because he’s still in the hospital. And I think that it’s a really good way of psychological recovery.”
A mirror for Ukraine, a reminder for Europe
There are two messages Syrko says she’d like to get across with her Sculpture Series - one for Europeans, and the other for Ukrainians.
Since the war began, she’s been splitting her time between Amsterdam and Lviv, working on commercial and fashion projects in Europe and social projects back home. She says her images are a way of reminding Europeans that there’s still a war on.
“It’s a reminder that (the war) is quite close to your country, it’s still going on,” she said. “And I will continue this project until the war stops.”
The responsibility of representing her country through her artwork as war rages on is a heavy burden, and Syrko admits that sometimes it can feel like too much to bear.
“You don’t have the strength that you used to have, and you understand that everything is falling apart around you and you have to smile and act like everything is okay,” she said.
That’s especially true in Europe, she adds. “You understand that people cannot feel this all the time, they have their lives and that’s okay. But it’s quite hard to feel all these emotions you have inside.”
“But I think I’ve become more empathetic, more active in my work because I understand that now it’s really important to take part in this cultural fight.”
So far, she’s made portraits of seven war-wounded “heroes” and she returned to Lviv in May to work on more.
For Ukraine, her message with this series is about uniting around the idea of diversity and inclusion.
“Almost every person in my country has relatives or friends who are connected somehow with the war,” she said. “You understand that now it’s a collective problem. (...) And I think that we are really getting used to it and that we’ll find ways to integrate people with disabilities more in a normal social life.”