Their names are Andrij, Volodya, Dmytro, Vitaliy, Yurko, Garry, Sasha, Stanislav. They work, or worked before, as a mechanic, an astronomer, a bank teller, a DJ; one was still a high school student. None of these young Ukrainians had military training before 2014, when they volunteered to ﬁght Russian-backed separatists in the east and south of the country; several showed up on the battleﬁeld in tennis shoes. Now they are older, and have become soldiers; their faces have grown gaunt, their eyes darker, their beards scraggly. Soldiers, but also photographers — for in war today the men carry smartphones alongside their riﬂes, and every one of them records new friends and new casualties, to be swiped past or published for likes. The war continues in eastern Ukraine, beyond the international press. The soldiers are creating their own archive.
Portraits of these unprepared men and boys, shot by soft lamplight against backdrops of olive or blue, form the spine of Sparks, a rare and extraordinary examination of war, innocence, and masculinity by the young Polish artist Wiktoria Wojciechowska. But the portraits are just the start: these young men conﬁded in her, and entrusted her with the images they themselves had taken on the frontlines. In time Sparks expanded to include shaky cameraphone footage the soldiers recorded during ﬁreﬁghts, which Wojciechowska edited into uncanny collages; later she wove their images into books of fraying linen, and copied out their testimonies by hand. The artist made her way to the combat zone a dozen times, yet little resembles war photography in Sparks, whose hushed, throbbing images — of a soldier shaving his hair off, of a boy struggling to string a bow — hover between document and dream. One soldier provided a group portrait of his division, woefully untrained; nine had since been killed. Wojciechowska applied ﬂaking gold leaf to the faces of the men shot down: like Beuys with his dead hare, like an entombed pharaoh.
Wojciechowska was born in 1991 in Lublin, a picturesque city in eastern Poland not far from the border of Ukraine, which became independent in the year of her birth. At 22, after studies in Warsaw, she moved to China — and there, uncertain of herself and unable to speak the language, she went out on the streets in the midst of monstrous typhoons. The commuters of Beijing and Hangzhou cycling past in Short Flashes wear colorful but insufﬁcient rainslickers, and visors barely shield their eyes from the downpour; some speed by into blurred, drenched specters, gazing with bemusement or, more often, exhaustion. Soon China became more familiar, and Wojciechowska shot more intimate series with friends and neighbors. But in those early, long-exposure photographs of strangers in the rain, the crowd of 1.4 billion began to resolve into individuals, so ordinary, so far.
Some young men go to war to enforce borders; some young men would do anything to cross them. In The Path, her new, troubadouresque video and suite of photographs, Wojciechowska traverses the Maritime Alps that separate France from Italy, following in the footsteps of past pilgrims and present refugees. In the thin air she meets shepherds and botanists, and shadows a Sudanese newcomer through the valley. The rock faces bear Bronze Age petroglyphs, and also graffiti wishing the best to migrants headed north. Below, the crises continue. But Europe appears almost idyllic up here, and necessity forges friendships as hardy, as humble, and as beautiful as a mountain ﬂower.