Discussing the isolation/insulation of Donbass aesthetics with an industrial photographer from Eastern Ukraine

by Andy Kozlov

The ruins of former secondary school #16 in Kramatorsk (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

I am hopeful for Eastern Ukraine. What does it mean? Despite many social challenges, people of this region are beginning to rediscover their historical past through art. Which in the long term will, hopefully, translate into Eastern Ukraine’s exiting the cultural isolation her people are living in now.


In a country like Ukraine, where the state was the only funder of culture for many decades, the establishment of any  non-governmental arts foundation is a significant event.

Izolyatsia in Donetsk (Photo by Andy Kozlov)

Even if few Ukrainians see it that way. Located where there used to be an insulation materials plant in Donetsk, Izolyatsia is an example of such. (See Lufthansa Regional still gets Ukraine wrongItaly 2 Russia: Fabrica creativity at Strelka)

Check Google Translate for the Russian word “изоляция,” and–what do you see? Two I would say oxymoron-like meanings: isolation and insulation. (See Euro-Zabor)

Map of air pollution levels in Mariupol

Founded in the same year when 53 cities of the Germany’s Ruhr Regional Association were presenting as European Capital of Culture, Izolyatsia taps into a relatively recent trend of rebranding industrial areas into culture and art hubs. It also has a proper mission for Ukraine’s easternmost region on the border with Russia: to preserve the industrial heritage of the region and simultaneously to construct something new, which would inspire social and cultural development. But what I find even more interesting is the amount of international art traffic going through Izolyatsia, as well as the location of the centre. The organization’s brochure reads:

One of our first steps is the revival of a former industrial plant and its adjoining territory, which not so long ago was no more than a dump. It is not by coincidence that our ‘laboratory of the future’ is making its appearance outside of Donetsk’s CBD – in a district that is labeled as ‘depressed.’ We aim to challenge the contrasting suppositions of the centre and periphery, the capital and province.

In this spirit, let me cease talking about Izolyatsia, and move your attention to Eastern Ukraine’s periphery, Kramatorsk, an industrial city situated between Kharkiv and Donetsk. (See Kramatorsk: a global intersection)

Partly Cloudy exhibition at Donetsk Izolyatsia (Photo by Andy Kozlov)

In Kramatorsk, I talked to Dima Alimkin/Дмитрий Алимкин. I asked this Jesus-aged fine art photographer about his work as an  industrial photographer at Energomashspetsstal, a Kramatorsk-based, Russian-owned manufacturer of special cast and forged details of individual and small serial production for heavy, power and transport industries. I wanted to know how Izolyatsia is shaping Dima’s creative work and what the future holds for an average Ukrainian’s artistic aspirations.

Izolyatsia is a very interesting project. We never had anything like this in Eastern Ukraine before.  One can be discussing the pros and cons of the fund’s projects like the recent “Partly Cloudy.” But the very fact that something has been done there and is continuing to be developed is the right way to go.

It is a strange situation. We are not far from Donetsk [Kramatorsk is ca 100 km north of Donetsk]. But I never find the time to go visit there. One centre like Izolyatsia is not enough for Eastern Ukraine. None of my colleagues in Kramatorsk has been there yet. I think if you ask the artists in Mariupol [ca 100 km south of Donetsk] you will get the same answer. It’s a transportation problem as well since most of us don’t have our own cars to be driving there.

Eastern Ukrainians’ kitsch aesthetic values and Energomashspetsstal

Russian-owned Energomashspetsstal in Kramatorsk

I came across Mr Alimkin’s work on Facebook and immediately noticed a sense of history, a sense of belonging and his ability to create history through the photographs of Kramatorsk and its people.

Having a sense of history, and the ability to create history.

In September 2010 I organized an exhibit about Kramatorsk in the municipal fine arts museum. I called it Kramatorsk. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring alluding to a South Korean film by Kim Ki-duk. There I showed my work of many years. The exhibit was subdivided into categories. There was a historical component, contemporary images, as well as a series about the people living in Kramatorsk today.

Dima said that back in 2010 his was the first photoexhibit embrace the multiple aspects of his city life. Before then, the only angle local photographers focused on was images of the beauty of Kramatorsk.

The visitors liked the exhibition. But I can’t say that the people whom I expected to develop further similar projects with came to me in crowds. I didn’t feel encouraged in my initiative by the local culture managers.

Jerzy Karnasiewicz’s uncle Michał Richert (far right) with fellow athletes who practiced gymnastics at Kramatorsk Aeroclub, Kramatorsk 1935 (Photo courtesy of Jerzy Karnasiewicz)

Interestingly, my inspiration came from two Polish photographers visiting Kramatorsk in 2008. Jerzy Aleksander Karnasiewicz and his wife Małgorzata are from Kraków. [Jerzy’s uncles worked in Kramatorsk in the 1930s.] They organized a photo exhibit about the Poles here. And I was fascinated by their networking abilities. They came to know all the right people after two days of coming here.

Lenin culture centre in Kramatorsk (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

I am also grateful to my company Energomashspetsstal for having covered part of the costs related to my exhibition.

I was coming of age in the Soviet times. Back then, we would make jokes about works of art by the limited number of artists you could find in people’s homes or hanging on the walls of public spaces. These would be copies of Ivan Shishkin’s Morning in a Pine Forest or The Ninth Wave by another Ivan: Aivazovsky. At times you would come across reproductions of Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga or The Unknown Woman. But the selection was ever the same.

Nowadays, there is little to joke about. I want to cry instead. Where used to be Aivazovsky, these days hangs a poster of Justin Timberlake. Coca-colazation? The saddest thing is when I watch American sitcoms and notice the interior design of their homes and the prints on their walls: not a bad taste at all. Moreover those photos are not like something from a series–10 images for the whole United States–no, there is a great variety of quality prints!

Vul. Parkova in Kramatorsk (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

This is where I shared with Dima my recollection of a Soviet propaganda poster on a wall in Friends, with two people over a book, that says in Russian: “To build, one must know. To know, one must learn.”

Eastern Ukrainians have trouble picturing their communities in a historical context. Their historical memory is remarkably short-lived partly because of the lack of cultural initiatives to re-awake it. Everybody is sort of busy earning cash, that when spend on art, supports its kitsch version. Despite sporadic efforts by local historians and culture experts to revive the memory of previous epochs, these initiatives resonate with few Kramatorsk residents.

What an Ukrainian artist can learn from visiting Western Europe?

Kramatorsk is home to a number of large industrial factories that sell their productions all over the world. This means that the city is often visited by international delegations. As of recently, Kramatorsk is home to Fuhrländer Wind Technology, the first renewable energy company to obtain a building permit for the construction of a production plant in Ukraine. Energomashspetsstal is Fuhrländer’s local partner.

Vul. Dvorcova in Kramatorsk (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

What remains weird to me is a relative isolation local population remains in despite all these developments. Partly to blame is the lack of appropriate recreational and educational infrastructure for networking opportunities with the foreign visitors. Equally, if you a foreign visitor to Kramatorsk who looks for a souvenir to remind you of Kramatorsk back home, chances are you won’t find any. I asked Mr Alimkin about this.

I think it is up to us to come up with an offer. One thing that could be of interest to the foreign visitors is very simple: a bunch of postcards. Or it could be something more serious: a photoalbum of Kramatorsk. When I was in Nancy,  France, several years back and walked into one of the book shops I immediately noticed a huge number of tourist literature about the city. It wasn’t Paris or Kyiv, for that matter. But they were selling all kinds of guides and photo books there. And I purchased one of those books.

Novoazovsky/Новоазовский wind farm. Each wind turbine by Fuhrländer has power capacity of 2,5 МW. (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

Now back home, we have nothing of this kind. Even if you look in terms of the whole Donetsk region, even if something has been produced, where can one find it?

So it was this photo book from Nancy that also prompted me to come up with a series of images with puddle reflections of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk [12 km north of Kramatorsk].

I wonder how many of the thousands of Kramatorsk residents travelling abroad every year come back home to Eastern Ukraine inspired to change something for better here? The sad reality is that Dima is one of few people to do this. The others are content with pleasing the narrow cirlce of family and friends with overseas souvenirs.

Industrial photography

Sunlight through the dust (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

Working on images as an assignment at work– say, ingot filling or a wind farm opening (these are usually big-scale events with many people attending)– I take the photos that the employer expects to get. But at the same time I can’t pass by without taking a shot ‘for the soul.’ For advertisement purposes this kind of shot won’t always be relevant. However, sometimes some smile of a steelworker will strike a chord with my clients.

Social photography

Unfortunately we don’t have much of social photography in Kramatorsk. I don’t mean to

Vul.Belyanska people. Petrovka, Kramatorsk. (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

boast but I am one of the few who supports this kind of photography here. When I was learning the ropes, my older colleagues would share valuable insights with me. They used to say, “Dima, don’t go for the grim stuff.” And I agree that photographing just that is not right. At the same time, it is not right either to close your eyes and refuse to see the world around you. This is tantamount to taking pictures of brightly-colored flowers during a WWII battle. When there is war with victims, a global catastrophe, and one is photographing the beauty of landscape. Well, one can take a couple shots of that too, but not close the eyes to more urgent things.

Today, there is no war here (although some people think differently). But there are certain things one struggles to overlook.

Dmitriy Alimkin, Eastern Ukrainian photographer

Lately, the number of social communication billboards has increased on the streets in Kramatorsk city centre. I asked Mr Alimkin how one can improve the communicative quality of the rather insipid posters.

Well, the good news is that these billboards exist. Somebody is generating these social messages for Kramatorsk urbanscape. One way to improve their communicative power is to link them to bigger-scale social campaigns. This could be a series of events tackling a certain social issue.

Take “Parent, don’t deprive your kid of childhood. Don’t drink alcohol.” This poster is out there. So what? What is its effect? It’s probably way too low. But if you link it with an anti-alcohol-abuse campaign, with various kinds of events in the public places, public awareness and outreach programs aimed at the youth that promote the healthy lifestyle, then I can guess you will see a much better result. Whereas what we have now, I am sure if I stand there for an hour beside the poster I will be able to take a myriad of shots of the youth drinking beer and smoking.

Isolating Canon

Before departing, I asked Dima about the brand he prefers for his photo cameras. His reply was absolutely witty.

Canon 5D Mark 2 and Canon EOS 7D. But it really makes no difference. When I was purchasing my first digital SLR camera there was a discount on this brand in the store. One gets stuck with a certain brand after a while, and later it becomes to expensive to switch to Nikon or Sony etc. There was a period when I was placing a piece of insulating tape on the Canon logo to avoid branding the company without a concsious intention.

These days, by the way, I am considering returning to film for sensual leisurely projects. I have recently gone back to my archives from decade ago and back then I thought some of the shots taken on film were flawed. But fortunately I hadn’t deleted them. I look at them in a fresh way now. Film has its charm, which has a deeper meaning.

Wedding hitchhike by Dima Alimkin (in the background – billboard advertising New Kramatorsk Machine-building factory)

In parting, Dima recommends not to wait till you save enough money for an expensive camera publicized in the media by a major brand. To get out of the isolation of Eastern Ukrainians’ kitsch aesthetic values and create history through the photographs, he suggests his compatriots don’t need much. An idea is more important than a prance of a person holding a telephoto lense.

Will Mr Alimkin’s compatriots  develop a sense of belonging similar to his is still a question that is difficult to answer today. But as long as the people like him do something for their communities, I remain hopeful for Eastern Ukraine.

List of Izolyatsia-like creativity hubs

The Melkweg is a popular music venue and cultural center in Amsterdam. It is housed in a former warehouse and is divided into a number of spaces of varying sizes.

La Fabbrica del Vapore in Milan.

The Kaapelitehdas situated in a building originally constructed as a cable factory and acquired by the city of Helsinki to be converted into a cultural centre.

Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga

La Conservera, named after the former use of the building as a tinned food factory, is a contemporary art centre in Murcia, Spain.

The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex is a large former industrial site in the city of Essen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It has been inscribed into the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since December 14, 2001 and is one of the anchor points of the European Route of Industrial Heritage. (See Whose premise: UNESCO-Harare or UNESCO-Paris?, UNESCO partners with NHK to produce World Heritage videos,  Biosphere Connections by Star Alliance+UNESCO+National Geographic and How culture contributes to development: an UNESCO indicator suite)

The Flacon design-zavod, a former glass factory in Moscow where all kinds of creative industries and people come together.

Puddle reflection of the major culture centre in Kramatorsk (Photo by Dima Alimkin)

The Winzavod centre for contemporary art is one of the most top-ranked art spaces in Moscow.

La Tabacalera is a social centre situated in an old tobacco factory in Madrid. (See On branding products and places)

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

Ivan Shishkin’s Morning in a Pine Forest

One thought on “Discussing the isolation/insulation of Donbass aesthetics with an industrial photographer from Eastern Ukraine”

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