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July 2017 Featured Photographer of the Month

Donbass stories - Spartaco and Liza

Giorgio Bianchi | Ukraine

Organization: Witness Image

Spartaco inside an abandoned house in Spartak, a small village in the outskirts of Donetsk, now used as soldiers’ barrack. Having suffered intense bombing operated with heavy artillery, the village, disputed between Kiev Government and pro-Russian separatists, is now uninhabited.

Right after the outbreak of the conflict in Donbass, Spartaco left his job and the house where he was living with his mother to enlist as a volunteer in the ranks of the pro-Russian militias.  Convinced he had nothing to lose, ideologically very motivated and relying on his previous military training (Folgore paratroopers and Italian Army) Spartaco decided to join the separatist cause finally abandoning his life in the province of Brescia that disheartened and depressed him.
Through Facebook Spartaco met Liza.
Liza is a girl from Donetsk who learned Italian chatting on socials.
Abandoned along with her two children by her husband, who fled to Russia after the beginning of the conflict, Liza and her children live with her parents in the family home.
Liza works as a seamstress in the Donbass Opera Theatre.
During his permits Spartaco returns to his house in the city and Liza, at the end of her shift in the theatre, gets together with him to spend a few intimate hours lingering until he has to return to his post.

Donbass stories

After five trips in Ukraine over the course of four years, I thought I had documented everything that was important, from Euro-Maidan demonstrations  to the war in the Donbass, the mining area in the eastern part of the country.
I portrayed the riots in the capital city of Kiev from November 2013 to February 2014, including the tragic event of the 20th of February 2014 during which 90 protesters died under police fire.
I then moved to the Donbass region to document the outbreak of the war between the government army and the pro-Russian separatists. I witnessed and documented life in the city of Donetsk under siege by the government troops, the fights at the Sergey Prokofiev Airport and the devastation of Debaltsevo in the days immediately following the fights.
I honestly thought I already witnessed everything so, after having captured on camera the violence of those days and sold the pictures, I started covering other stories as many other photojournalists did.
I was totally wrong. My contacts in the country kept writing asking me to go back, to keep on telling the world what was going on, that the Minsk peace agreements were repeatedly violated and that the war was anything but over.
In the end I went back to Donbass. Since the last time I was there, the frontline had moved slightly north freeing from war the city of Donetsk, but embracing instead lots of little villages on the outskirts of the city, small towns hardly visible on a map where life went on unchanged since decades. This fratricidal war changed little agricultural villages into a theater staging the first bloody conflict in Europe of the twentyfirst century.
For these reasons in my last trip back in July I focused my attention on one of those villages, Spartak, and in particular on a group of fighters headquartered in an abandoned small building. Their mission was to spot enemies’ location and inform their fellow soldiers. I documented their daily routine and their life side by side with that of the civilians living next to their building, with a close interest on the human aspect of their actions. I tried to “undress ” the soldiers to highlight the men hiding beneath the uniform.
Since July 2016 very little has changed in Ukraine in terms of strategic assets and their impact on civilians life.
With this in mind I have started asking myself how I could keep working on my project in the long term, carrying on the story of this territory, without repeating what already covered in previous years.
This is how the project I entitled “Donbass Stories” has come to life, with the idea to portray as main characters these invisible actors affected so much by these tragic events. The first purpose of my work will be to tell the stories of the daily struggle these human beings face. I will try to document how these persons manage to overcome the destruction of all certainties in a war that is breaking down whole communities and so jeopardizing their future.


Donbass stories – Spartaco and Liza
 

Right after the outbreak of the conflict in Donbass, Spartaco left his job and the house where he was living with his mother to enlist as a volunteer in the ranks of the pro-Russian militias. Single and childless, earning just 900 euro a month a temporary job, Spartaco is one of the many victims of the Italian economic crisis. Convinced he had nothing to lose, ideologically very motivated and relying on his previous military training (Folgore paratroopers and Italian Army) Spartaco decided to join the separatist cause finally abandoning his life in the province of Brescia that disheartened and depressed him.
Arriving in Donetsk in the autumn of 2014, his military skills allowed him to be immediately enlisted in the Vostok battalion, and then to rapidly move to the front, right after a hasty training and without knowing a single world of Russian.
Those were the days of the Donetsk airport battle: fighting  few hundred meters from the enemy, under the constant artillery and tank fire and with temperatures close to -20 degrees Celsius.
During that battles Spartaco was wounded three times; nevertheless, once cured, he always asked to be reassigned to the forefront.
After the time at the airport, Spartaco was moved to Spartak, a small village in the outskirts of Donetsk, constantly bombed by the opposing artillery; after that in the “promzona”, near Avdiivka and then again at the airport.
In 2017 for the first time in three years, Spartaco went back to Italy for some days to visit his mother.
Through Facebook Spartaco met Liza.
Liza is a girl from Donetsk who learned Italian chatting on socials.
Abandoned along with her two children by her husband, who fled to Russia after the beginning of the conflict, Liza and her children live with her parents in the family home.
Liza works as a seamstress in the Donbass Opera Theatre where she sews the stage costumes of the ballerinas.
Sonja, her youngest daughter, studies classical ballet and dreams of dancing in the theatre where her mother works. Daniil, the eldest son, hopes one day to become a militiaman like Spartaco.
Spartaco’s routine is two weeks in the trench and two days at rest.
Being his new post a few miles from Donetsk, during his permits Spartaco returns to his house in the city: a hot bath to wash away all the dirt gathered during the 15 days spent in the mud, a haircut, a glass of cognac and then the usual greetings on socials; at the front there is no internet connection so the only way to stay in touch with his mother, his friends and fans is to wait for the permit to go home.
During these two rest days, Liza at the end of her shift in the theatre, gets together with Spartaco to spend a few intimate hours with him, lingering until he has to return to his post.

Giorgio Bianchi was born in Rome in 1973. 
In his photography Giorgio has always paid particular attention to political and anthropological issues, and has undertaken a freelance career to focus on a combination of long-term personal projects and client assignments.  He has covered stories in Syria, Ukraine, Burkina Faso, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, India, and throughout all of Europe.  Since 2013 he has made several trips to Ukraine, where he followed closely the Ukrainian crisis from the Euromaidan protests until the outbreak of war between the government army and the pro-Russian separatists.  Thanks to his robust archive of footage and pictures about the Donbass conflict he is making a docufilm entitled “Apocalypse Donbass” in collaboration with the award winning director Matteo Gagliardi.  In 2016 he started covering the Syrian conflict.


Giorgio has won several international prizes and has received many public recognitions, and his pictures are regularly published in newspapers and magazines, both paper and online.  His work has been exhibited in many international and national festivals. Giorgio Bianchi is currently represented by Witness Image.


Main exhibitions: Strand Gallery (London), Royal Geographical Society (London), MIBAC (Rome), A.F.I. Archivio Fotografico Italiano Palazzo Cicogna (Varese), La Fabbrica del Vapore (Milan), C40 Mayors Summit (Mexico City).


Main publications: Guardian Magazine, Internazionale Magazine, Il Venerdì, La Repubblica, Il Manifesto, Gente di Fotografia Magazine, Fotografia Reflex Magazine and in many online galleries.


Awards include: Best New Talent at the 2014 PX3 competition, overall winner at the 2014 Terry O’ Neill Award, Discovery of the year at the 2014 Monochrome Award, winner at the 2015 Lugano Photo Days, finalist at the 2014, 2015, 2016 Manuel Rivera-Ortiz Foundation for Documentary Photography & Film Grant, winner at the Umbria World Fest 016, selected for the 2015 Prix Pictet, Top Finalist at the 2016 Visura Photojournalism Grant, finalist at the LensCulture Exposure awards/17, finalist at the 2017 DIG Awards (pitch session) with the docufilm Apocalypse Donbass.

Name: Giorgio Bianchi
Website: www.giorgiobianchiphotojournalist.com
Email: giorgiobianchi.aki@gmail.com
Istagram: giorgio.aki
Skype: giorgio.aki
Tel: +393402759145

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