I’ve been going non-stop for the past nine days and my shutter has fired more times than I can recall in my comparatively young days as a photographer (I’m 26). Batteries constantly charging and files downloading, it’s good to have a rest. This time I’ve been in Ukraine, a country that for most part is off the beaten track, that is unless you happen to be a Mongol or Viking invader. As history has it, Ukraine is actually a much-traversed land situated in North-East Europe. I’ve been photographing for Heifer International in Western Ukraine, which was at various times in the past 500 years part of Poland, Austria, and the USSR, and has seen occupation from the likes of the Mongols in the 13th century to the Nazis in the 20th.
Of course, upon arriving my luggage was MIA. A message (that looked like it’d been sent via telegraph) had been delivered to the airport that said my bag had wound up in Orlando for some reason and may take a couple days to arrive. I had to leave the very next morning to travel South so I would have to go without. I always travel with my camera gear on board in case something happens and this time it was lucky I did. I didn’t collect my bag until four days later. By that time the clothes I had been wearing all along had traveled through four days of cow pastures, barns, hay fields and a rain storm. The writer I traveled with, Christian DeVries and I were up at 6 most mornings and worked until 11 or 12 at night. Ukraine is so far north that in the summer the sun rises around 4:30am and doesn’t completely get dark until after 11. Lots of time for pictures, not a whole lot of time for sleep. The cuisine was great, though marked by an uncanny knack to put excessive amounts of dill on EVERYTHING.
In case you’re not up to speed on your NGOs and development organizations, Heifer works in rural areas of developing countries providing needy people with what they can use most: livestock. Most of us live in the cities or suburbs, so it’s hard to imagine just how valuable livestock is to the rural family. With a cow or a few hens, a family can help provide for itself with milk and eggs and trade any excess products for goods or sell them for cash. This enables families who would otherwise live in absolute poverty to become self-sufficient. Furthermore, every participant agrees to “pass on” the first of their animal’s offspring to another needy family in the area. My primary assignment in Ukraine was to photograph the people and communities Heifer International has affected. Those we visited were hospitable, strong, proud and most of all, hardworking. They were bee-keepers, sheep-farmers, gardeners, parents and grandparents, and children (who especially love to goof-off of the camera).
Heifer’s system of passing on the gift transforms communities living in poverty, as I’ve recently seen first hand. Communities become self-sufficient over time and no longer require aid from other development organizations. Heifer is not a relief but a development organization. It can take years for the pay-off to happen and decades for communities to be transformed. But lasting change is not made overnight. They work at the community level, with local staff to monitor the progress of the community and provide initial training and veterinary services to farmers. Agencies like the Red Cross and UNICEF work to solve immediate needs. Heifer works over time to develop communities. Both long-term and immediate strategies are essential to bring up struggling nations.
Why is Ukraine a struggling nation? Why does 29% of the population live below the poverty line? Its harried past has a lot to do with it. Fiercely nationalistic, Ukraine has resisted rule by other countries for the past thousand years. When it resisted Stalin’s takeover in the 1920s, he inflicted famine upon the land by systematically locking the people’s wheat and grain in government storehouses, thus starving the population into submission. Over 5 million Ukrainians died during this starving, and over 13 million died throughout the greater Soviet Union. This genocide has never been formally recognized by the West.
In 1986, the Chernobyl incident, and Moscow’s subsequent cover-up and mishandling renewed nationalist fervor, spawned mass street protests and set the spark that led to the country’s independence in 1991.
Since then, Ukraine has struggled greatly in its transition to democracy. In 2000 it was rated the third most corrupt government in the world by the independent watchdog group Transparency International. The silver lining could be in Ukraine’s current President, Viktor Yushchenko, elected in 2004 amid a fury of pro-western style democracy fever known as the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko promised an era of new government with an end to corruption. The country’s standing on the corruption list has improved in recent years, but that’s not saying much. The average person on the street will say that nothing has changed since the 2004 election. People are still working for unbelievably low wages while the country’s wealthy are getting richer. However, Ukraine has seen the transition to a free press. Whereas during the last decade 13 journalists were murdered and a number of papers shut down for criticizing the government, today the press is free to chime in with its own opinion of how the things are being run. This is not quite the case in neighboring Russia, where Vladimir Putin has tightened the reigns on the media.
Putting strain on this uneasy transition, Ukraine also struggles to find its identity between Europe and its sister country Russia. Central and Western Ukraine are strong backers of the pro-west Yushchenko, whereas the East backs Prime Minister Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s rival in the 2004 election. Believe it or not, some people still long for that old-time, hard-line autocracy of yesteryear and wish to be part of Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has made several pleas to join the European Union but has now set 2015 as a target deadline to meet the EU’s lofty standards. There’s certainly a lot of catching up to do during that time. While life in most cities is improving, rural areas of Ukraine often function with the technology and health services available 100 years ago.
Though notorious for his religious persecutions, Stalin didn’t destroy too many of the country’s ornate churches during his rein and the land is still dotted with many beautiful steeples. The culture has also witnessed a revival of Christian traditions and the reemergence of the Orthodox church. Churches are again are filled with devoted worshipers and the smell of incense as they were during the country’s founding in the 11th century.
However jaded Ukrainians are about their political system, they compensate for it in their love of friends, their vigor of life and yes, their passion for vodka. ‘Wherever there are friends, there is vodka’ seems to be the motto people live by. It’s dangerous to accept a shot. In accepting the first you open yourself up to being playfully prodded into the next, and the next, etc…. (which is not pretty when you’re trying to take pictures). The hospitality warmth of the people I encountered and photographed was overwhelming and won’t be forgotten.
You can buy an animal for someone in Ukraine. Visit heifer.org
Words and photos by Jake Lyell.