In 2013, protests broke out across Ukraine in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to break ties with the EU to form a tighter economic relationship with Russia. These protests soon escalated into the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, catalyzing Yanukovych’s removal from office.

Ukrainian citizens, whose national identity is fraught with a longstanding threat of Russian dominance, pressed for a new government to be established—but this advocacy only resulted in further unrest.

Drawn to the experience of Ukrainian citizens in the wake of this turmoil, photographer David Denil conceptualized his series “Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking” as a response and embodiment of their national and existential tension. He spent 50 days exploring Ukraine, and the resulting series includes direct input from the country’s citizens in order to create a “visual interpretation” of their reflections on their lives within this conflict. “The series consists of 137 images,” he notes, “which is a direct reference to the number of people who died during the Euromaidan Revolution on February 20, 2014.”

A little girl trying to look inside a covered house. This house was standing in a park next to the river Dnieper. It was covered for years but still inhabited. A family passed by. While I talked to the parents, the girl wanted to see what was inside but couldn’t quite manage. © David Denil, Winner, LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2017

The cinematic styling that defines Denil’s work is accomplished through sharp contrasts and surreal tones, so that his subjects first appear to be playing characters on dramatic sets. In an image of a couple seated in a Sputnik capsule, for instance, Denil directed intense lighting through the capsule’s window, inviting the viewer to question the location of the sitters. This is meant to elicit a moment of pause where the viewer considers whether or not the image might actually be a film still from a science fiction movie.

Denil’s deliberate photographic style is a nod to the strangely surreal experience of living in Ukraine in the present day. Speaking on this cinematic feature of his work, Denil contends, “My intention is to bring awareness about certain people’s lives by using the single frame to build up a narrative. I use photography as a tool to perform research instead of providing answers. As social realism depicted the Soviet past of Ukraine, I extended this visual approach to depict its present, which is still strongly connected to its history.”

Couple in a Sputnik capsule. I met this couple at the nearby university. When I asked them what they wanted for their future, they responded “To find a home outside Ukraine.” This Sputnik capsule was kept safe at the university. It symbolizes the unknown. © David Denil, Winner, LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2017

Denil’s approach to posing his subjects is a collaborative process. He works to befriend his subjects before photographing them in order to create shots that best represent their experiences—an important feature for depicting the aftermath of others’ lived trauma. He concludes, “I collaborate with people I met on the streets—we talk about the conflict and how they interpret their reality. I then integrate these personal contributions to bring the images forward as an exploration of their testimony of life within the Ukrainian border.”

—Cat Lachowskyj

This project was singled out as one of jury’s favorites from the Emerging Talent Awards 2017. Discover all the other inspiring projects from this year’s 50 talents!