Alexander Chekmenev, Pharmakon – Collector Daily

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by 89books (here). Soft cover, 17×23 cm., 132 pages, with 65 color photographs and 6 in black and white. Includes an introduction by Donald Weber and several texts by the artist. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: By pure chance of time and place, the photographic career of Alexander Chekmenev has not been short of provocative subjects. He was born on April 1, 1969 in Luhansk, Donbass region, eastern Ukraine, in what was then the USSR. Her father was of Russian descent and her mother of Ukrainian descent. After serving in the Russian army, Chekmenev began working for a local photo studio in 1988, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the time Ukraine regained its independence a few years later, he had transitioned into professional gigging, working regularly as a photojournalist and on independent documentary projects. Since 1997 he has lived in kyiv, his base for missions throughout Ukraine as the country is rocked by geopolitical winds.

Maybe bludgeoned is a better word than shaken. Even before the current catastrophe, Ukraine had moved from one crisis to another over the past decades. Chekmenev had been on the scene for the most part. He covered the economic turmoil of the mid-1990s, the Russian separatist movement that followed, the installation of Putin’s puppet Yanukovych and the EuroMaidan revolution that followed in 2014, the annexation of Crimea later that year- there and the current Russian invasion. Troubled waters indeed. But Chekmenev is not just a crisis photographer. It also focuses on the basic fabric of society, documenting coal miners, street life, portraits, flea markets, hospitals, veterans, homeless, Roma, and logistics. surprisingly entangled with grassroots bureaucracy (in his 2017 photobook Passport, reviewed here). Normal day-to-day activities happen in front of the camera in Ukraine as they do anywhere, but often with one eye scanning the horizon. The winds of fate can change at any moment, and there is no room for complacency.

The same goes for Chekmenev’s long simmering project Pharmacon (English: “Ambulance”). Although collected last year in a monograph, the photographs were taken in 1994-95. They document the medical emergencies encountered by paramedics responding to nighttime calls in Chekmenev’s hometown of Lugansk. At the time, he was in his mid-twenties, an energetic young photographer. He doesn’t give details of the arrangements, but in some ways he indulged himself as an ambulance passenger with relatively free access. Perhaps the paramedics welcomed his company to trigger their routine rounds? Even with Chekmenev, a usually procedural vibe pervades their duties. The characters in Pharmacon seem unfazed by the carnage, as bewildered as if delivering mail or watering patio plants. I guess if you drive an ambulance long enough, you ease a bloody stream of car accidents, drunks, domestic troubles, and malfeasance. Mere coincidences of timing and location.

Emergencies may seem prosaic to medical personnel, but it is difficult for laypersons to see them that way. Chekmenev’s images are quite self-explanatory, with a strong graphic punch. At accident scenes, he usually parked in the center of the scene with a bright flash and a wide-angle lens. The resulting images are awash with skin, blood, limbs and faces at close range. We see a naked corpse on a cot, a pair of scissors protruding from a scalp, a head shattered by the sticky sidewalk and a linoleum kitchen buried in blood, all streaked and glistening crimson as they are patiently recorded by Chekmenev. “My first film was in black and white and it was difficult for me to show blood, so I switched to color,” he explains, a transition that paid off in images as saturated as n any slasher movie. Such scenes would be extraordinary in any other context, but Chekmenev treats them like mundane encounters, and some of that attitude rubs off on the reader. By the end of the book, we feel somewhat hardened.

It’s not a big leap to read the book’s subtext: a population under brutal duress, clinging to some semblance of normality. If this described Ukraine in 2021 when pharmacy was released, it’s an even more accurate and sobering assessment now. Over the past few weeks, the country has degenerated into a violent mess. Russia’s scissors are still deeply embedded in his scalp. Lest anyone overlook the symbolism, Donald Weber’s foreword spells it out: “Look at the photographs of Sasha in this book,” he writes. “They are troublesome, disturbing – they are certainly not easy to approach. You have every right to be bothered by them. I certainly am. But there is something more to these photographs than just easy gore; think of them as images drawn from Ukraine’s bitter history, where its exposure to new armies and ideologies on Europe’s eastern flanks made it the prime killing ground for a thousand years.

If Weber deduces another coincidence of time and place, there is some truth in that. Ukraine’s geographical location and democratic leanings have placed it in Russia’s crosshairs. Pharmacon may have been published before the latest incursion, but in parts of Ukraine the battle had been fought long before. Its publication can be seen as a reaction, and the book as a political allegory. Watch these peaceful citizens of Ukraine go about their business until BOOM!…blood, destruction and turmoil.

Death and violence are serious things. Addressing clearly, they could cast a depressing paleness. But Pharmacon takes an exaggerated, almost absurd approach. Chekmenev’s photos are so graphic, so steeped in blood, that they exude the gallows humor of a spaghetti western. As in any good film, the atmosphere is carried by its characters. Some passed out in a drunken stupor. Others roar for his camera as they heal bleeding wounds. A woman grimaces, her nose awkwardly held by technicians, while in another photo, a man has his ears twisted in an attempt to revive him. Another photo shows a beaming woman with two full brains reaching for the camera, while in another a man with a black eye in a neck brace smiles warmly. Smiles abound, and Chekmenev spices up the images here and there with down-to-earth anecdotes. “Two cars wouldn’t give in and like Easter eggs they bumped into each other, there was a head-on collision.” Or “The floor had been sprinkled with blood, a little old woman was holding her head…she said that her husband, with whom she had lived for more than 30 years, had fractured his skull with an axe.” For a butcher’s book, the tone is strangely tongue-in-cheek.

With its ironic mix of carnage and perplexity, Pharmacon has parallels to the Ambulance Chase predecessors. Weegee comes to mind, as do Enrique Metinides and Andrew Savulich. No one can be accused of being disgusted. Police scanners at the ready, they each extended their photo nets to catch tapes of bodies, twisted metal and wreckage. In their respective heyday, photos of all three circulated in the popular press, even on the front page. But this is no longer the case. Contemporary standards exclude explicit content. If an accident is reported in the mainstream press, the photographs are usually tasteful and harmless. War images seem to have followed suit. Recent photos of the Ukrainian conflict taken by Lynsey Addario, James, Nachtwey and Daniel Berehulak, for example, allude to the massacre with innuendo. We can only imagine the horrors these photographers have witnessed, as their public photos are restricted. Instead of gaping flesh wounds, we see prone bodies with obscured faces, walls with bullet holes, or charred vehicles. Given these current mores, Pharmacon takes a throwback quality and a glove veneer of authenticity.

Perhaps it is just as well that mainstream coverage of the war has been sanitized. Newspaper photos of battle scenes with such a degree of bloodshed would be stunning. The same degree of brutality might be easier in the context of accidents, and of course a photobook has a bit more leeway than a daily report for a general audience. This is the equation skilfully exploited by Chekmenev with pharmacy. Commenting on Ukrainian tensions and the constant threat of violence, while depicting no war footage – well, that’s a clever trick. Chekmenev attacks him with subversive glee. One could consider the smiling paramedics in his photos as substitutes for the photographer. They seem upbeat and full of energy as they make their rounds. They may face a nightly stream of disasters with no end in sight. But even buried up to the elbows in blood, an eye scans the horizon. Surely something better awaits us.

Collector’s point of view: Alexander Chekmenev doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. Therefore, interested collectors should probably contact the artist directly via his website (link in sidebar).

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