When I saw the photograph by Sergey Melnitchenko on the tiny screen of my phone, my reaction was physical: pressure behind my sternum, a quick intake of breath. Are they safe? I wondered. It was a photograph of three men, presumably Ukrainian. War changes the way we see images of young men. The young men in the photograph are nude except for sneakers. Their backs to the camera, they jog in a snow-covered landscape, the ground white, the sky almost white, and only a bluish treeline in the far distance demarcating the division between ground and sky. Certain details give the image a playful quality–the sneakers, the fact that the young men are jogging and not running; there is no alarm, no sign of conflict between the men or beyond them. The photograph is part of a series titled Young and Free.
A year ago, just after Russia invaded Ukraine, I met Ukrainian photographer Artem Humilevskiy on Zoom. He was in his car in a field, having fled the city with his family. Humilevskiy was a student of Melnitchenko and the two men, contemporaries, became dear friends. Following the Russian invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law, which meant that that all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 60 were not allowed to leave Ukraine.
War changes the way we view images of young men. Young men (usually ordered by old men) carry out the tragedies of war and are the victims of it, the so-called cannon fodder. Both President Zelenskyy and the first lady have repeatedly acknowledged the contributions of women in the effort to defend Ukraine. Still, young men comprise the majority of military casualties, and martial law only mandates that men remain in the country.
Sergey Melnitchenko’s series Young and Free was made before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Context, in this case war, shifts the impact and meaning of an image or artwork. Melnitchenko typically shoots his subjects nude. This strategy can free a body of its cultural specificity and the distraction of clothing styles. The nude body can evoke eroticism or innocence. The tone of this work is innocence and levity. The young men in these photographs play with an attitude of freedom, apparently without shame. In the context of war, the unclothed bodies of young men seem vulnerable, beautiful and tragic. Ukraine has been engaged in a defensive war for almost a year now. I look at these photographs and I worry about these men. As a mother of sons and as a human on Earth, they hurt to look at. Context bleeds into art, and art bleeds back.