Photographer Alexander Chekmenev was given a bizarre photo assignment in the 1990s: go door-to-door in the eastern Ukrainian city of Luhansk and take passport photos of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Chekmenev dragged his portable white backdrop into the flats of poor elderly and infirm Ukrainians, where he realized that a wide shot showing the subject’s living quarters would better reveal the true story of their lives instead of the cropped-in passport photos he was originally tasked with taking.
In 1991, Ukraine declared itself independent of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), and the former Soviet state had the tough job of issuing new passports to all residents. Social services employed photographers to help speed up the process.
On that assignment, Alexander Chekmenev — who is still a working photojournalist — found that many of his subjects did not have necessities like running water or gas in their homes.
Many residents he met hated having their passport pictures taken. In at least one case, a shocked Chekmenev found that one of his subjects had died the very next day after meeting him.
“There were people who cried and asked not to torture them with photography and not to interfere with their painful death,” Chekmenev says in an interview with CNN.
A 92-year-old man that the photographer met had acquired a coffin in preparation for his demise. Whenever he finished a bottle of vodka, he would put the empty bottle into the coffin. When the casket was full he would pass it on to someone else saying that it was a sign his time had not yet come.
In retrospect, it appears as though it really was needless for these poor souls to be photographed.
“The limited frame of a passport photo is like a TV box in Soviet times: propaganda of a happy lifestyle within the allowed limits,” Alexander Chekmenev says.
“Behind the corners of the passport and behind the square of a white background, the true reality, without retouching and censorship, was hidden.”
Alexander Chekmenev’s work can be found on his website.