With his latest work, Valentyn Odnoviun, a young Ukrainian photographer based in Lithuania, challenges us to mentally untangle a series of abstract photos. At first glance, without any sense of context, we’re attracted to these images as we try to puzzle what they are — petri dishes? distant planets? window views from a submarine?

When we finally get some context, through his short text and captions, we realize that we’ve been lured in to a visual meditation on political prisons, surveillance and control.

Odnoviun has researched and documented political prisons, interrogation rooms and state security facilities that have been used and re-used against political enemies by several regimes in places throughout the former Soviet Bloc over the past decades. What he chooses to share with us is not the big picture of the prison systems so much as small repetitive details, typologies of what he calls the “spy holes” embedded in each of the prison doors.

Some of the spy holes are professional by design and others seem quite makeshift and ad hoc. All of the examples in this series reveal scratches, rough graffiti, smudges or scars that help us to imagine the personalities of these places. They suggest layers and layers of time, lives put on hold, waiting, watching, isolation and observation. The photographs focus on the marks left by people looking in and people looking out, both sides stuck in a system and playing by its rules.

The photographer says, “The photographs created as part of this project are both documentary and subjective at the same time. They embody real traces of events, objects and memories, but they also serve as platforms for imagining these events, objects and memories in a more interpretative form. With an ‘abstract’ photograph the viewer plays a bigger role in the reaction to, and thus the creation, of the image.”

He continues, “If you look at these from the historical point of view, it’s natural to think about what’s happening now and how all of this can be a reflection of what can happen in the future. For now, our society is even more under surveillance than before, but the surveillance methods have just taken a little bit different form, so we don’t need to be in a prison to be totally observed.”

The images were made at former prisons in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Germany and Poland.


Editor’s note: We discovered this work thanks to the residency program sponsored by the photography platform Docking Station in Amsterdam.