With just two short trips to Ukraine, photographer Noah Brooks has brought to light the hope simmering in the lives of the Ukrainian people, for whom the world combusted one year ago at the Euromaidan Protests. Brooks has visited Donetsk and Mariupol on two previous occasions. When asked about his motivation, Brooks cited the search for real human emotion.
“I guess I was just really looking for hope, beauty, and even love in this situation, in the struggle that these people are going through,” Brooks said. “I just saw so much grace. The people have been through horrible, unimaginable things, but the way they still carry themselves through life is so graceful, just really exceptional.”
Brooks’ photographs feature a variety of portraits, landscape shots, and close-up views of the destruction brought on by Russia’s invasion of the country. Most of Brooks’ past works have showcased his specific focus: protest photography. His work in Ukraine has been no exception.Above all, Brooks says he hoped to capture the essence of the Revolution. On his first trip to Ukraine, Brooks explored Donetsk on what he calls an art excursion.
“I was really looking for two things: art and war,” Brooks said. “There was so much art being created at the time because of the Maidan influence. I ended up in a place called Izolyatsia, which is basically a haven for artists.”
I was really looking for two things: art and war
Formerly a mining facility, in 2010 Izolyatsia became a non-profit governmental platform for contemporary art, bringing culture to the albeit-productive, monochromatic town of Donetsk. Sadly, just two weeks after Brooks’ visit, Izolyatsia was seized by pro-Russia separatists and turned into a military base.
On that same trip, Brooks also visited the military hospital in Kiev, where he witnessed firsthand the return of volunteers and soldiers from the conflict zones in Eastern Ukraine.
“Some people had lost limbs, others were just badly injured,” Brooks said.
There were so many volunteers just going into the conflict without hesitation to fight for their country. The sheer number of volunteers shows how important this is to the people.
“Honestly, everyone that I met, every scenario, ended up being a story that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” Brooks said.
Meeting the Azov Battalion, in particular, was definitely a memory that really sticks out.
Months later, Brooks returned to Ukraine to continue his photographic showcase. This time he visited Mariupol, spending most of the trip with the soldiers at the Eastern Checkpoint on the outskirts of town.
“Just being there around incoming shelling, at this checkpoint that had just been attacked a day before… I mean where I was standing it was literally burnt ground,” Brooks said. “To actually be there and see this kind of thing up close was just a big eye-opener.”
Brooks’ photographs serve as eye-openers for all viewers. The depth of emotion portrayed in the showcase indicates the kindness of the Ukrainian people and the misfortune of their predicament. When asked about the response his photographs have elicited from the Ukrainian people, Brooks explains that it’s all been positive.
“Their response was most important to me,” Brooks said. “These photos were really for them, especially after they have done so much for me. I knew I had to get good photos because these people were willing to stick their necks out and show me their world. It was the least I could do.”
Despite the hope captured in his photographs, Brooks remains cognizant of the reality of the situation.
“Unfortunately, it seems like this is going to be a long road for Ukraine,” Brooks said. “There are so many different problems there. In the East, the infrastructure being destroyed… the economy is down. And now the borders are changing every day with towns being lost to Russia and later regained.”
As Brooks predicts a long road ahead, he also remains steadfast in his own hope for the country.
The people of Ukraine are ready to fight, Brooks said. “They’re ready to do whatever it takes to be free.”
Judging by Brooks’ work, there’s one thing that remains abundantly clear to anyone who visits Ukraine.
In the eyes of an American, “This is a country being invaded and not having the military capabilities to defend itself. In all the places I have traveled to, I have never found kinder, more welcoming people who deserve independence.”
By Olga Tymouch
Photos by Noah Brooks