Chapter 1: TRAVELING WITH THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
I can almost certainly trace my need to explore and see the world back to childhood. Much of what I was drawn to as a child took place or was intertwined with places far from my home. To this day, I can remember distinctly as LeVarr Burton made his way to Japan, showed us what Taiko and origami were while telling us to “don’t take my word for it”, as the days themed book was read. I remember Sesame Street and Big Bird walking through the streets of Japan with Barkley. I remember watching PBS on Sunday nights with my mom during the British comedy block, which is probably why I enjoy British tele to this day in most cases more than TV in the states. I can also remember wanting to get the hell out of Oklahoma and seeing more of the world. This need to travel, my wanderlust are a massive part of who I am. They are at the core of what drives me forward. I’ve placed great value on experience and travel and have been fortunate enough to leave my comfort zone and see a few things here and there. Recently my life lead to Europe for the second time in two years. My first to Barcelona for work, the second to my wife’s home country of Ukraine with four days split between Amsterdam and Stockholm. Travel changes you. New sights and smells, new foods and drink add to creating these new experiences. You hear new languages, meet new people, and go through that awkward stage of trying to function in an entirely different environment, and that’s the great thing about knowledge. Once gained, it becomes a part of you. You learn and experience life and it’s damn near impossible to go back to what was.
Ukraine? Yep. I remember seeing this bright yellow DVD case in the foreign movie section section of library quite a few years back. The bright color and the graphics caught my eye. One of my hobbies that kept my mind occupied while living in Tulsa, was going to the library and checking out the foreign movie section. I picked up the bright yellow case with Elijah Wood wearing glasses that reflected sky blue and clouds. I decided to check it out even though I typically didn’t check out Ukrainian DVDs since I have a deep affection for Japanese and French cinema. Everything is Illuminated is a pretty damn good film. The main character travels to Ukraine to find his family’s lost legacy due to the Nazi occupation and Holocaust. Heavy, but there’s definitely some funny that make it a good movie and an amusing intro to Ukraine. I never really imagined going, but the movie was interesting. Funny the way life works. So many years later, I packed and prepped my gear and wife, and we set off for Ukraine. Taking the wife was easy but deciding between the cameras not so much. Although I love the image quality I get from the Nikon D810, I just didn't want the weight and risk. So I took the Fuji XPro1 with three lenses (18, 27, 35) and a Nikon flash just in case.
Eight years is a long time to be away from home; especially when it’s been that long since you last saw family. It’d been that long since my wife had been back to Ukraine and with the exception of the weekly Skype conversation, that long since she’d seen her family. As the day came, we set off to a country growing through a rough place, trying to find a new identity while trying to prevent itself from being pulled into the past by a Russian neighbor as well as freeing itself from its former way of operating. Change doesn't happen overnight, but it's necessary.
So this part won't be the most popular thing to say but I’ll get it out of the way from the beginning. Ukraine is hands down the most unfriendly place I’ve ever been to in my life. The constant and indignant stares that I received were as frequent as a hello in many other places. I’ve heard differing theories for this be it nationality, race, xenophobia, or simple exposure. Either way, it gets old really REALLY quickly. It’s important to point out that I’ve been plenty of places in my life where people have stared at me due to my race. Hell, even though I was born there, there are places in Oklahoma, where people were individuals had “that” look. However, I’ve never experienced anything like Ukraine due to its prolonged nature. It actually became funny after a while. I have a lot of photos of people staring at me and I'll point out that with or without the camera it was constant.
In Japan, stares, typically gave way to smiles, especially if I smiled back or greeted the person. Ukraine, not so much. Of course, not every Ukrainian looked at me like I was an invading alien, some were pretty awesome as people can tend to be. However every day that I was out, it was abundant. There aren’t many black and brown people in Ukraine, but it’s 2015 and Ukraine is modern in most places like any other country. So it definitely got old. I'm not an alien, I’m just a bloke with a camera. The sometimes strangely aggressive and angry stares that I received were something I’m just not used to. It’s one thing to be interested in a person, to learn something new, but it’s an absolutely different thing when you view that other person as something other than just another person. At the end of the day, people are people. No more, no less. Some stares though are accompanied by smiles and those persons coming up to you, trying out their English on you. Mostly teens and children, I always welcomed this because their curiosity at least leads them into positive interactions, usually “can we take a picture with you?”, which I’m always a fan of. There’s an unknown number of photos of me in this world with my arms wrapped around strangers in different countries, and I like that. I can spot that look a mile away and am always quick to welcome them over. Usually one of them musters up the bravery to come stand near you while the others stand back and assess the situation. They finally take the plunge and ask if they can take a picture with you. I make it easier for them and tell them to come over. It reminds me of my time as a student in Japan and is at least a starting point of opening one’s mind to the world.
After awhile it becomes fairly disappointing when the majority of your time in a place is spent like this. You definitely feel alienated. If someone stares at you, and you say hello, smile, nod your head, and all you get back is an aggressive stare, or a look of bewilderment, you tend to get a generally negative impression of a place and that was my general feeling towards a fair amount of my interaction with strangers. My thoughts weren’t helped by the fact that one of, it not the largest, far right xenophobic groups in Europe call Ukraine home. It holds political power in government and constantly announces its existence as seemingly everywhere I went.
I could hear the random photographic words of wisdom about becoming inconspicuous. Disappearing and becoming the proverbial fly on the wall. I couldn’t help but laugh because for me in Ukraine there was no ubiquity, no blending in. Which I'm used to honestly so I went about my business stalking photos.
A combination of sea-foam green and aqua blue are the best way that I can describe the color of the Soviet era propane fueled car that was our primary mode of transportation while in Ukraine. The car a member of my wife’s family for quite some time shuttled us out of the city and into many villages along the way. When it rained, water leaked into the car and filled the floorboards. The weight of the five of us always slowed us down as we went uphill, but also aided in picking up a good amount of speed going down. But it took us everywhere and was fairly awesome new experience especially traversing the roads. The roads... The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad. Amazing bad actually. It wasn't too uncommon to be driving on a paved major highway, and all the sudden the pavement disappears for a bit and you're "off-roading" for a bit until the road magically reappears.
Along the amazingly decrepit and potholed roads, I kept seeing billboard adverts featuring military clad men and women holding assault rifles. With the Russian conflict, Ukraine can have a zealous sense of nationalism, so I assumed these were army recruitment adverts. Yet, I kept noticing a symbol, of a hand with three fingers held up.
I would later find out that this symbol belonged to one of the ultra-right groups. Now sprinkle in that neo-Nazi and the occasional goddamned racist graffiti that seemed to be painted across the ubiquitous crumbling façade of brick walls, then you can understand my feelings of general “what the hell is going on?” However, this was put into perspective as I learned of the racially motivated Charleston SC church shootings during my trip. Man... A person has to decide on who they will be and what they will do with their life. I believe the core of who we are is in us from birth, but our realization of that and how it manifests in the world, we have some control over. I have no choice but to want to see and experience this world and there’s always going to be bad, but there’s also just as much, hopefully more, good. You need both sides of the coin to make it whole.
Chapter 2: THE OTHER-SIDE OF THE COIN
There were parts of my travels in Ukraine, which to say the least, didn't leave me with the best impression. This of course was my personal experience and everyone has their own. So then why did I go in the first place? Family. You miss a lot of life when you leave a place. That's not necessarily a bad thing especially if you want to leave a certain type of life behind. However, our lives grow like vines up a fence, and different environments, force us to grow differently than if we were to stay in the place of our birth. So, my wife left her country to find a new path leaving family behind. For many there's this drive to leave home. Maybe it's part of our DNA. Yet regardless of where we go, there's a drive to visit our past. To relive our childhood, our memories of smells, and sights, games and laughter. However, it's never quite the same as we remember it. We grow taller, maybe get a little grey. We are impacted by our new experiences which peppers our view of where we were in the past. Even with all of that, the familial bond is that constant thread linking us to our past. Unfortunately sometimes we loose people along the path and when we return all that's left are their belongings and our memories of them. But it's those memories that create who we are. I am the sum culmination of all those summers I spent in the Oklahoma country side with my grandparents.
From what I understand, there's a tradition in Ukraine that when a person dies, you leave their house or room untouched for a certain amount of time. Sometimes the loss is felt so profoundly, everything stays for years. I think this sentiment is why I can't go back to my grandparents home where I spent most of my childhood summers and holidays running around the country. Loss never really goes away, and to this day I still feel the death of my Grandpa. After my grandma's passing the house stands empty, but it's been ransacked and things have been stolen by people whom I'd never want to know. I can't see it like that. Yet, as I walked through my wife's Grandmother's house, seeing how hard the loss still hits especially with everything left untouched for years, I couldn't help but think of my family and share in a feeling of what the Japanese call 懐かしい (natsukashii). It's a feeling of reminiscence; joyful yet sorrowful in our longing to relive the past, a moment, a feeling previously had. I have this feeling a lot. It's what draws me so strongly to music and creativity.
Our family and our friends make us who we are. So no matter what we may have experienced from some random stranger, we have the people we hold close to our hearts and honestly that's all that matters. There's always bad, but there's also always good, and I think sometimes we can get in a place where we only see the bad. It's important to remember that this isn't what it's all about. Life is what we make of it, and travel more than anything teaches me this. Each time I travel I meet some of the most amazing people. I grow and become a better me. And if I'm being honest, the negative people make you better also. They point you in a direction of where you want to be. "I don't want to be like that", so you don't. At the end of the day, regardless of where you are, where you are from, or where you are going, we are all really just trying to figure it out.
CHAPTER 3: SO WHAT?
After having spent ten days, eating cake and chicken sausage for breakfast as well as other heavy Ukrainian fare, I definitely needed some gym time. My mother-in-law took us to the gym. Funny thing about Europe, and the rest of the world, is that they use the metric system. So as I loaded up plates which felt heavier than the normal American “45s”, but with a bar that weighed less, I figured I could power through it. But cake and sausage do not make for a strong body and the weight wouldn’t go up. “A good day to die”. Thankfully an Indian student came and helped me. I thanked him and continued minus some weight. As I spent time there I noticing that every international student came up and greeted me. The same was true for many of the Ukrainians. We shared a commonality in the gym and this commonality created a normalcy of humanity. Pretty good, for a last day in Ukraine. People are people and when we share something, it brings us together. It reminds me of something Steve McCurry said (one of the absolute best portrait photographers in history). "We are more similar than we are different, but we tend to get caught up on our differences." The more I travel, the more I realize this.
Before departing for Ukraine, I had an idea of what to expect, but expectations never really meet up to actually experiencing something. Our path to Ukraine took us from Denver to Seattle to Amsterdam to Kiev to Lviv to a three hour drive to Ivano-Frankivsk. On the Seattle to Amsterdam flight I saw my own little bit of Everything is Illuminated. One of those comical moments in life. On this flight there were numerous Ukrainians and Ukrainian families. One particular family had a Nikon DSLR. On long international flights, there's always lights out time, since the plane can follow the path of the sun and it doesn't get dark outside as long as you're flying. Of course many passengers are attempt to get some sleep, which isn't easy on a plane to begin with. For some reason this father thought this time was the best time to have a full on family shoot immediately followed by a fashion runway shoot. He broke out the Nikon popped the flash and started blasting away taking photos of his wife and child. Rocking his sleeveless shirt, shorts, and flip-flops he shot like there was no tomorrow. I'm not sure how many photos you need of your wife seated holding your child on an airplane, and neither did he because he took a whole hell of a lot. Flash popping each time. After having blasted away at his sitting wife as others tried to sleep, the couple decided that the only next logical step was to turn the aisle into a catwalk. As she strolled down the aisle, posing at each step, he shot away. Flash, flash, flash. She absolutely catwalked down the aisle of a crowded flight. Hilarious.