CONVERSATION with Roman Pashkovsky,
Ukrainian Photographer

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Last week we interviewed Roman Pashkovsky, a prolific Ukrainian photographer, whose project titled “The Invincibility Code: True Stories of Modern Heroes” will debut at this year’s PHOTO KYIV Fair. Pashkovsky is a portrait photographer, but he also does landscape photography and projects in advertising. His portfolio includes Fedoriv Agency, The Village Kyiv, Vogue, Esquire, Forbes, among others.

“The Invincibility Code: True Stories of Modern Heroes” is a project about wounded soldiers from the ATO zone of conflict in Ukraine and how they are embracing life through sport. Now these ex-servicemen and -women are professional athletes, who represent Ukraine in the Invictus Games, an international sporting event for veterans with disabilities, similar to the Paralympic Games.

“The Invincibility Code: True Stories of Modern Heroes” isn't the first project where you addressed social issues in Ukraine [“50 Hryvnia” is another one]. What drew you to this topic in the first place?

It’s important for me that people aren’t divided — rich or poor, healthy or ill, white or black. It’s not natural. In a way, we’re all the same, because all of us are flawed in one way or another. Everyone has their own peculiarities. It doesn’t matter whether we acquire them throughout our life, or whether we are born with them. Yet our society continues to impose these arbitrary ‘norms’ upon us. The term ‘norm’ is very relative in itself, as many other things are, too. Or making the comparison like, “you’re handicapped, I’m not handicapped” equals to “I’m better, you’re worse” — is what I really despise. It’s as if there is this competition, where no one’s clear on the rules or what sort of yardstick is used in measuring these ‘norms’. It baffles me, really.

Was it difficult for people to open up in front of a camera? 

That’s the thing — people who went through so much, who endured such hardship in their lives, are not only unafraid of this [getting photographed] — they aren’t afraid of anything, really. A person can tell whether you’re ‘sviy-sviy’ [in Ukrainian: someone you can trust], and when that happens, it’s easier for people to be themselves. I think that’s one of my strengths — I don’t divide people up into this or that, I just treat them equally. I can just be myself with a person, talk to them, ask them some questions, really listen to what they have to say, be genuinely interested, not just remark dryly, “smile, please”. Before I start a photoshoot, I don’t even take pictures right away. Instead, I try to bond with people first. The same goes for all my projects, with all people that I work with, not just “The Invincibility Code”.

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I’m sure that a person can tell when you treat them equally and respond to it by being more relaxed in front of a camera.

Definitely. Because the process of taking a picture isn't natural. People take their pictures on very rare occasions [talking specifically about Ukrainians and photoshoots in studios], maybe once a year, which is frequent or even five years, which is seldom. You don’t do it, because you need to, it’s not a necessity. Usually, [you do it] because you’re going through changes, or through a certain phase in your life, or you have questions about yourself, or you want to get all of your relatives together for a group portrait or a certain event. Because it doesn’t happen often, typically a person doesn’t have a faintest idea what to do in front of a camera. And what you have to do is nothing — at least in front of my camera. Because doing something is easy, but doing nothing is hard.

Are there any photographers whose works inspire you?

 

No, not really. I never wanted to imitate one photographer or another. I have photographers that I admire, and I am familiar with their works and that’s enough for me.

Can you name some of these photographers?

I like Sally Mann — she has been taking pictures all her life, and she has her own conceptual approach to it. I always liked Cindy Sherman. Also, I enjoy Anton Corbijn’s works —he does a lot of portraits of renowned artists, like U2, Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, etc. His photographs have a very masculine and an energetic feel to them. These are my top three, but there are many others, like Andreas Gursky, whom I’ve been following for a while, as well as the British photographer Martin Parr.

You’ve collaborated with the FAVBET Foundation [charity foundation] on “The Invincibility Code” project. Do you think that businesses and organizations should support art and photo projects?

Of course they should. It’s great when you’ve hit a few milestones in your career and now you can dedicate your time to doing some good. You can decide for yourself, whether to support a charity foundation or become an art patron. It’s great when businesses can collaborate together with artists, photographers, sculptors, whoever. Of course, it only works if you’re granted full liberty to pursue your vision. You wouldn’t want to work with strings attached, i.e. “I give you money, and you do as I say” kind of framework. In my opinion, that won’t work. FAVBET [foundation] did the exact opposite. They told me, “We want to make a project. It’s up to you [to make it] as you see fit”. They put total trust in me. I explained [my concept] to them, and they replied “If you like it — go for it”. That was it.

What was working with the FAVBET Foundation like?

Easygoing. Everything was running very smoothly — people worked well together, the process was very well coordinated.

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What changes do you think are necessary, even crucial, in order for people with disabilities to feel more included in todays’ society?

Nothing has to change. We just have to wait.

To wait for what exactly?

When it happens.

But don’t you think we should put in the effort to affect this change?


No, we shouldn’t. Because right now, we’re talking [about inclusivity] within the context of Kyiv and other big cities in Ukraine, where some changes are occurring. But Kyiv isn’t the entire Ukraine. If you travel to Zhytomyr, there’s a completely different mentality — it’s either you’re strong or weak and that’s it. If you’re “on wheels” [i.e. in a wheelchair], then you’re weak, period. I mean, maybe changes are happening, but they aren’t coming from an honest, sincere place. People think along the lines of, “well, you can’t treat them [people with disabilities] like that”, or “you can’t be mean to them” or “all right, I will get their wheelchair for them”, but it’s not the same. A [disabled] person will be sitting there, and no one will come up to him and say, “Hey, what’s up, bro? How’s life”, you know? I mean, it’s very difficult to change that in a person. Do you have children?

 No, I don’t.

Well, when you do, then you’ll be able to impart [these values] onto them, to teach them these things. And in turn, they will learn from you and teach their own kids. Right now, we have this Generation Alpha, from which everything begins anew. The older generation has to make room for a new one, and they will bring about change, inclusivity, equality, all of the global processes and things we’re talking about right now. And there are changes. But meaningful change only comes about with a new generation. You can’t change people. If someone blames all of their problems, let’s say, on the government, that’s not okay. Everyone’s a critic now. You can’t spare an extra 40 hryvnia on a new lightbulb for the hall in your building, while you’re buying horylka [alcohol] or stuff for your house on OLX? Like, “that’s not for me, so I won’t do it.” What’s in my home is mine, but outside — I can litter and do whatever. How can you change a person like that?

I guess when a person reaches a certain age, you can’t change them, can you?

Not even at a certain age — everything that comes after three or four years old is too late. It only happens by setting your own example. Why should a child change a lightbulb or do anything, if his or her father won’t do it? They won’t even know how. Parents have to set an example, so a child can follow suit.

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All photos are part of Roman Pashkovsky’s “The Invincibility Code: True Stories of Modern Heroes” project. You can view the complete series at the Photo Kyiv Fair.

Interviewed and translated by Anna Shevetovska

 

10.08.2021