Early in 2022, on the 24th of February to be precise, Russia invaded Ukraine and the conflict that had started back in 2014 escalated into full-scale war. It was still winter across Europe, and the people of Ukraine suddenly had life-fracturing decisions to make: would they stay in place, flee their homes, leave the country, or join the Armed Forces?
Around this time, in a small apartment somewhere in the middle of Kyiv, the country’s capital, the Ukrainian artist Vic Bakin had been in the middle of sifting through his photographic archives, unearthing and printing old pictures for a new project called Epitome—a loose and poetic exploration of the world around him through delicate, hand-printed images of landscapes and portraits. While looking through his previous work, he realized how many of the people in his portraits were now faced with the aforementioned set of choices—friends and acquaintances he had once shared space with through the camera were now dispersed across the country and beyond its borders, each of their lives altered by the condition of war.
The first iteration of Epitome began in earnest some time in 2020, although Bakin says the project had been swirling around his mind for a decade or more before that. “It began as a kind of exploration of childhood memories, the coming-of-age period, and of youth and maleness (or masculinity) through the poetic nature of photography,” he says.
Born in 1984, Bakin has been based in Kyiv for the past 12 years. His work mainly revolves around documenting Ukrainian youth culture, in particular different communities such as his local queer and fashion scenes, and he is particularly known for his portraits of young men. “I consider the coming-of-age process to be something very mysterious and full of contradictions,” he says. “I remember from my own experience that this is the most tumultuous period in life. The ambivalence of strength and tenderness. The onset of masculinity. It’s a real metamorphosis, and in a recurring manner, through photography, I am always trying to grasp this fleeting moment of time.”
In the weeks and months that followed the 24th of February, Bakin decided to continue on with Epitome, but to allow the new circumstances of war to change the tone of the work in whichever way felt natural. “From a very precious personal diary at the beginning, Epitome gradually became an exploration of the notions of belonging to a place in the wake of mass displacement and chaos,” he says.
2020 was also the time Bakin stopped sending his images away to be printed in a lab, deciding to do it himself instead. “I equipped my tiny bathroom as a darkroom for hand printing, and during the long air raid sirens I began printing pictures I had taken both recently and years ago. Sometimes, I can hear the sound of a distant explosion under the red safe light as I work. At the beginning, I even thought about naming this series safe light, because this tiny, dim, womb-like space felt like the safest place in my apartment, but I know it would be naive to truly believe that,” Bakin says thoughtfully.
And it’s true—the space of the darkroom is utterly unique, isn’t it? An enclosed space to slip into and completely immerse yourself within. It’s a place of glowing wetness, one where images hover on the cusp of visibility before emerging, ghost-like, beneath a shallow bath of chemicals that lap across the images’ surfaces, like waves on some distant shore. It’s also a place that exists entirely within its own sense of time—photographic time, that is, marked only by the seconds and the minutes it takes to project and expose, agitate and develop. The world outside is suspended in the darkroom, becoming simply ‘elsewhere’ for a while. For Bakin, this period marked a turning point. “This is really the time photography finally came full circle for me. The war affected everyone without exception, and it seems to me that my little home darkroom became my place of escapism from the wartime reality.”
When beginning to hand print these images in the darkroom, Bakin started by creating test strips of images from his archive, and eventually he realized he’d gathered quite the collection of them. “It was like a patchwork of everything that I’m drawn to,” he says warmly. “From the image of an old wooden pier on a pond that reminded me of my childhood, to a portrait of a stranger who looks like someone I used to know, to a withered sunflower field…whatever the subject, somehow it is always something that has challenged or triggered my memories and imagination.”
He’s drawn to things that feel personal and collective simultaneously, he says, which explains how Epitome developed into something about both his own experiences, and the backdrop of war his life is now unfolding against. “I collected all those pictures in a box upon which later, having half-filled it, I wrote the word ‘Epitome.’ This beautiful Greek word somehow stuck with me, because one of its meanings is a small part or excerpt of something bigger, and the mixture of these very loosely narrated themes became an ‘epitome’ for me.”
From a landscape seen from afar, to a close-up male nude, to a young man standing before a lake as still as glass, the subjects of Bakin’s images in Epitome are varied, but all of them are somehow related visual notes, describing moments from the living and natural world as he finds them. “The beauty of fields, trees, rivers, human skin, all the living things that breathe…instead of big or loud urban environments, I am always drawn to people, nature, small villages—things that engage me on a deeper level and poetically allude to fragility and longing. Because life is fragile, isn’t it?” he says.
Meanwhile, quietly melancholy, soft and shot through with stillness, the images in Epitome are also linked in atmosphere, and there is an elegiac sort of paleness to them too, achieved through a beautifully milky and muted colour palette of earthy sepias, creams and greys. This is because Bakin wanted a sense of warmth to resonate from the images. “Unlike the coldness of white, these tones give them life,” he says, “…milkiness, warmth—these are familiar and intimate things, are actually the first things you’re introduced to when you’re born,” and that gentle sense of comfort and nostalgia is something he wants to be full and felt in his pictures, he says.
In his project statement, Bakin writes, “Could I make something today that does not refer to war? I doubt it. Bruised visibly or invisibly, most of the places and people here have somehow been touched by war.” This idea of bruising is something that can really be felt through his pictures, because their surfaces appear to be blemished like skin, with blisters and purplish marks washed across them. It’s an aesthetic he achieves through printing in the darkroom, and allowing the irregularities that occur during the process to become a part of the final pictures.
This approach was born from a practical obstacle too. Once the war began, all of the photo shops in Kyiv closed, affecting the work Bakin was making, because he ran out of new paper fixer. “I used the same mixture again and again until it was totally exhausted,” he says, “and the next day I found out that the pictures were not properly fixed—the landscapes and the bodies were bruised with brown spots, and this exhausted fixer became, for me, a visual allegory of our time… the land stained with blood.”
When asked what he would like his audience to take away from his pictures, Bakin says he doesn’t have any preconceived notions in that regard. “I’m not into strongly conceptual photography—I think one should never try to convey an idea to an audience in any distinct or definite way. For me, that only narrows perception,” he says, adding, “instead, I just try to show life as I see it, in a poetic way.” In the end, though, there is a tangible tenderness to Bakin’s photographs in Epitome that proves just how emotive and multi-dimensional photography—most especially the alchemical process of developing and printing—can truly be. Bringing your own images into being is always a personal endeavour and a labor of love, and textures of that warmth radiate from Bakin’s photographs as a result.
This series was awarded first prize of the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2023. Discover the work of all 40 of the award-wining photographers and finalists here.