“‘Sparks’ is a series about the ongoing war in Ukraine,” starts young Polish photographer Wiktoria Wojciechowska. “The core of which was meeting the people who experienced the war, particularly young, unprofessional soldiers.

“In the beginning, I had many questions: I wanted to know about how people live during war, how they protect themselves, how they survive. I still firmly believe that there is no excuse for the burgeoning military conflict happening in eastern Ukraine, and I couldn’t accept that I was unable to do anything about a war happening right next to me.”

Still, Wojciechowska didn’t want to carry out just any typical war photography, filled only with raw action and people shooting at each other. “The most naturalistic materials came from the soldiers themselves; they gave me their pictures and videos to use. It was easier for them to explain to me the things they had experienced by showing these materials, real documents of their time at war. These were mostly hidden, mundanely, in the soldiers’ cell phones.

“My final work, then, is calm—in a way, it’s less straightforward than typical war photography. It has only small, dynamic accents. My hope is that the contemplative atmosphere allows viewers to get closer to the subject and then ‘understand’ more personally what a war is like.”

“The experience of war changes a person a lot, but it’s difficult to understand the meaning of that phrase without experiencing it yourself,” one soldier told her. Wojciechowska continued:

“The challenge for myself as a photographer and for photography as a whole was this: to communicate the pain these soldiers carry inside themselves from the terrible things they saw.”

“I took my pictures in calm spaces when the subject could relax and tell me his story. The conversation was as important as the portrait I took. Empathy was an essential tool, I think.”

Indeed, Wojciechowska took much inspiration from the stories people told her. “For example, while I was listening to soldiers talking, they often shared their knowledge about their weapon but would say nothing about its purpose: killing. The gun became a tool for defense, allowing them to forget about death. When I was on the front line, I collected shrapnel from the battlefields and gave them to one soldier, whose name was Roman, to describe them for me. He didn’t have any doubts, he could perfectly identify each one: this is mine, this is grad, this is sau [two different kinds of missiles]. All of these weapons are very unpredictable, and some of them kill at the distance of many kilometers, falling like a rain without any target. You can’t protect yourself from them.”

One of the soldiers, Dmytro, explained to Wojciechowska that he couldn’t imagine what it would be like when the shelling started for the first time. “It was a completely alien feeling: you don’t have any control, you can’t escape,” he said. “I heard some of the same stories many times: like one from a woman I met in a frontline city. She described to me the ‘rain of sparkling sparks’ falling from the sky. The rain of burning shrapnel, in other words.”

A short video shot by Wojciechowska—just one of several multimedia elements to this project.

Besides its contemporary relevance, Wojciechowska also wants her work to hearken back to photography’s roots: in its early days, the medium was suspected of stealing the soul of its models. Wojciechowska confronted this superstition while shooting “Sparks.”

“I like to think photography has the ability to capture something beyond the visible. This medium ties together time, death and memory.”

In this vein, some of her photos consist of collages, drawn from the pictures given to her by the soldiers themselves. Poignantly, Wojciechowska covered the faces of those who were killed with gold. Her use of the precious metal emphasizes the feeling of loss, while playing on the idea that one becomes a hero after dying in a war. The promised pride of dying has fortified the hearts of soldiers and sustained their families in mourning for millenia.

In the end, Wojciechowska would like people to stop for a moment and spend more time looking at the faces of those who have suffered from war. “I would like the viewers to identify with the people in my portraits, to feel some sympathy and think a little bit about what is happening in the world. I don’t really trust art as a tool to make change, but I really believe that it has the power to make people think or even sympathize with others. When you look at these faces, perhaps you can transmit your thoughts to these people.”

—Jorrit R. Dijkstra

For more writings on photography by Jorrit R. Dijkstra visit his personal website or read his articles on Silvershotz.

Editors’ note: This compelling project was selected as a juror’s pick in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016. Discover why this caught the eye of juror Chris McCall (Director, Pier 24).