cole thompson photography

Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut

March 4, 2022
My Friend:

My heart aches for Ukraine. I am glued to the news and am constantly asking myself: what more can I do? Then last night I suddenly realized that I could help others appreciate what the Ukrainian people are like.

In 2008 I visited my son (Cody) and soon to be daughter-in-law (Erica) who were serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. While there, I created a portfolio entitled "Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut."

Here's how the project came about:

Whenever I go to a new area to photograph, I make no preparations. I do not research the area, look at travel guides or other photographer's work. I want to go with a completely open mind and hope that I'll find something that inspires me.

Well, I had been looking for something for three days and hadn't come up with anything, and I was starting to feel some time pressure as my days were slipping away. Well, pressure never helps my creativity and so that caused even more anxiety!

I found the people interesting, but I always hate photographing people in a foreign country, because they put on a "camera face" for you. You know, that big smile.
"Camera Face"
On this trip, I didn't have the time...or a common language, to get to know the real person and get past the smile. And I sure didn't want to come home with a bunch of smiling Ukrainian images.

I was pondering how to resolve this problem, when an idea came into my mind: why not ask people to close their eyes? Perhaps it might remove the "camera face" and yield something interesting.
My first "Ukrainian, with Eyes Shut" image and my favorite
And so I tried it. I was at a bus stop where I saw this gentleman and asked if I could photograph him, which I did, and then asked him to close his eyes.

And it worked! It removed the big smile and I liked the effect.

This was my first, and favorite "Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut" image. Even now as I look at it, it makes me laugh.
People's reaction to my request were usually one of surprise, but almost everyone willingly allowed me to photograph them...with their eyes shut.

I remember photographing this man in an alley way, and my wife commented that it reminded her of her grandfather.
This young woman was a student whom my son taught in Beryslav. I've wondered about his students and what had become of them. Have they fled Ukraine, are they fighting, or are they dead?
This man scared the hell out of me! He was our taxi driver for several days, and the driving in Ukraine was crazy and dangerous. My son and I were squeezed in the front seat, and Cody told me that it would insult him if I put on my seat belt (it would insinuate that he was a bad driver, which he kinda was!)
This is a homeless man we met in the park. He was so very nice, and we gave him some food.
This young man was pretty funny! He was a comedian and told me that one day he was going to be the president of Ukraine! He was just such a character and wouldn't close his eyes for me, so I had to settle for one eye shut.
This images saddens me. This is Natasha, she was my son's Ukrainian supervisor and became a family friend. Natasha lives in Beryslav, and this was her text message to me today:

"They (Russians) are in some areas of Kherson. The enemy began to mine Kherson. Eyewitnesses report that they installed "trip wires" in the city center - near the building of Scythia. But the city is holding on and so are the people."

We have asked Natasha to leave Ukraine, while she still can, but she has animals and we doubt she will leave them. I get it.
This old man was at a spring collecting water for his sick wife. Ukrainians believe the water from this spring has healing properties.
This is Lesha, I met him at a train station as he was returning home from a wrestling match. Where is Lesha today I wonder? Defending his country? Protecting his wife, his children and his parents?
This cocky fellow wouldn't let me photograph him unless I paid him an American dollar! I normally wouldn't do that simply out of principle, but I liked his boldness.
This is my friend Serg, whom I met in Lviv. Here is the email he sent yesterday:

"Thank you for your participation in the events that are now the territory of my homeland, Ukraine. Russia dropped the first echelon of its troops. This will not be a quick war. At the expense of Lviv - now the war is not infantry and tanks, but the war of planes and missiles. So, within the reach of of the latest weapons owned by Russia, every piece of Ukraine's territory is in sight. But we are with God. And if you are with God, then who is against you?"

Serg is a new grandfather. I wonder what kind of country his granddaughter will grow up in? Will she be free or a slave of the state?
God bless you my friend, Serg. I admire you, your faith and courage.
A blind man, whose eyes are always shut.
This is the caretaker at a Monastery in Beryslav. In ancient times, hundreds of monks carved out alters in primitive underground caves where they worshipped. Now, there is only one monk and this solitary caretaker.
I met this Cossack on the streets of Kiev, where he played his instrument for money. Cossack's were once known as fierce fighters, and perhaps this man is now engaged in the fight against the invading Russians?
At the Picnic
So what are Ukrainians like? I found them to be a very generous people.

The image above was taken at a picnic that was hosted for us by Cody's Ukrainian friends. I remember that despite being poor (by our standards) they put on a big barbecue feast for us. I wanted to thank them by creating the image above.

The picnic was on the Dnieper River, in Nova Kakhovka, which is now occupied territory.
"Ukrainians, with Eyes Shut" was a wonderful project because I got to know and make friends with the Ukrainian people.

Perhaps if I created this project today it might be entitled "Ukrainians, with Eyes Opened" because everyone's eyes have now been opened.