Proximate to War: Uneasy Calm of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol

December 1, 2016

Just 20 kilometers from the front lines of separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine lies the city of Mariupol. The images tell us of a present and also help us imagine a possible future in this city as everyday residents navigate its uneasy calm.

Mariupol, Ukraine. Photograph by Ivan Sigal, 2016.

Mariupol, Ukraine. Photograph by Ivan Sigal, 2016.

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol is located 20 kilometers from the front lines of separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian militias briefly controlled Mariupol during peak fighting in 2015 between Ukraine and Russian-backed fighters. Its population has also historically supported pro-Russian positions. For Ukraine, holding Mariupol has been a key strategic goal in its struggle against the separatists.

Mariupol is a major port and industrial center, and Ukraine’s most important point of access to the Sea of Azov. It is also the largest city along the route connecting Russia to Russian-held Crimea. Occupying that territory is one way for Russia to guarantee the strategic viability of its annexation of Crimea. While concerns about a Russian escalation of the conflict around Mariupol have receded, the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election may propel a shift in the U.S. position toward Russia and destabilize the conflict.

I visited Mariupol earlier this year to explore Russian and separatist propaganda, their interference in Ukrainian domestic politics, continuous low-intensity bombings at the front, and ordinary Mariupol residents’ attitudes toward the conflict. I wanted to gauge—and, if possible, depict—the psychological effects of proximity to the war on this city. I spent a week walking the streets of Mariupol, making images and talking to people about their circumstances and their understanding of the threat.

These depictions of Mariupol mark a moment in the city’s history: a period of uneasy calm while proximate to a frontline, where nightly shelling is audible when the wind blows from the East. Photographs of residents riding buses and trains and driving cars evoke a fugitive state, employing visual tropes of flight, displacement and absence. These images both tell us of a present, and help us imagine a possible future. The images show us the narrow distance between the mundane passages of our daily lives and the unsettled and desperate journeys of those fleeing war.