This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.Born in Chechnya in 1990, photographer Gena Kagermanov fled to Belgium with his family when he was 10. In 2015, one year after the Donbas conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine, he travelled to the region to do some photographic work for local NGOs. Then, starting in 2020, he returned regularly to the war-torn area to document how people live their lives in the region. His last trip ended shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
“Instead of focusing on destruction, I wanted to portray the larger social context as an essential element of the war,” says Kagermanov. “I think that’s often marginalised in war photography, which usually focuses on misery and the universality of violence.” The photos have now been collected in the series On War and Other Trivialities.
The Donbas is a vast region in eastern Ukraine sharing a long border with Russia. Back in 2014, this Russian-speaking region tried to break away from Ukraine following a series of political events that brought the country closer to Europe. Russian-backed forces seized large swaths of the territory and established two proxy republics: the Donetsk and the Luhansk People's Republic. The Donbas conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives.In February 2022, days before the invasion, Russian President Putin officially recognised the two republics as independent states, claiming the Ukrainian government had committed genocide in the region. These supposed human rights violations were one of the main reasons Putin cited for the war in Ukraine. Since March 2022, the so-called liberation of the region is also the main military goal for Russia. Both the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk were officially annexed by Russia in September 2022.
“This series is a journal of my travels and the people I’ve met on the old front between Ukraine and the separatist republics,” Kagermanov says. The situation there is tense but mostly stable, he explains. “Everyone is trapped in a strange reality: teenagers, elderly people, minors, soldiers – they live in a routine of boredom and occasional celebrations of the victories of the war.”In this series, Kagermanov wanted to try to reconsider wartime photography. Instead of focusing his lens on reporting atrocities, he decided to capture daily life under conflict. “War is not only about suffering; it’s also about daily trivialities,” he explained. “Partying, falling in love, getting drunk, getting bored, burying loved ones, among other things. Pain, agony and happiness are intertwined.”
Kagermanov is currently working on the last part of the project, a book combining his pictures with words by A. Jelyzaveta, a 19-year-old Ukrainian student from the Donbas who came to Belgium as a refugee in 2022. “After the invasion, the whole region changed in unrecognisable ways, and we began to look at this series from a totally different perspective – nostalgically,” he says. “This sentiment has perverted everything we’ve tried to recreate in this book.”Scroll down to see more photos from the series: