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Arts & Culture Photo Exhibit Shines a Light on Jewish Life in Western Ukraine

April 3, 2003
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The first biennial Month of Photography here has provided a glimpse of the Jewish past — and of its present and future as well.

Building on the broad theme “Between the Past and the Future,” project director Yevgeny Solonin has organized some 48 exhibitions. They run through April and feature the work of a wide range of experienced and relatively novice photographers.

The festival is organized by the state-run Union of Artists, but Solonin has also called on a number of partners and sponsors for help.

One supporter is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which, together with the Czech Cultural Center, opened the “Jewish Life in Western Ukraine” exhibition by photographers Karel Cudlin and Igor Gilbo at the Mistyets Gallery on March 27.

“The photos show us what is happening in the Jewish community right now, and that can’t be ignored — because without the present there can’t be a future,” Solonin says.

But in speaking about the photographs — black-and-white studies of couples at home, men praying, war veterans celebrating and children studying — JDC representative Sam Amiel also speaks of the past.

“In every photo, when I looked for a pattern, what I noticed the most was people,” Amiel says. “Each photo tells the story of centuries of Ukrainian Jewry, one of the richest parts of Jewish history” and “they show the centuries of Jewish life that still remain.”

One of the stars of the show is Amiel’s wife, Anna, a JDC program coordinator who organized the exhibit at the Mistyets and served as its curator.

Anna Amiel says that she first met Cudlin in Prague, where he works as a professional photographer, several years ago when the idea for a photo shoot in western Ukraine was born.

She then invited Gilbo, the Kiev-born president of the Optima publishing house and a photographer by training, to participate.

Together with a driver, the three set off on a “photo journey” across western Ukraine in May 2002, visiting up to 20 cities, towns and shtetls along the way. But even then, Anna said she didn’t know what shape or form the final project would take.

“The toughest part of the process was traveling with three men for 10 days, covering 3,000 kilometers and visiting all those shtetls and not knowing at all at the time what the project would look like,” she says.

It came down to one more meeting, this time with Solonin, which clinched the idea of including the “Jewish Life in Western Ukraine” exhibit in the Month of Photography festival.

Gilbo, whose father is Jewish, said the photo journey gave him the chance “to be free in my mind and enjoy the opportunity for self-identification.”

He said his favorite stop on the trip was in Lvov, where several hundred Jewish veterans of World War II were enjoying a Victory Day picnic organized by the local Jewish social service center.

“With 10 days and maybe two towns a day, we experienced a lot of emotions,” Gilbo says. “But the open-air picnic was something special — with people laughing, hugging, drinking and eating or sitting quietly, with their medals pinned to their chests.”

Anna Amiel said the communities welcomed the visitors into their homes. Among her favorite photographs is one taken by Cudlin showing an older couple — Piotr and Sheva Trusovik of Ivano Frankivsk — sitting quietly on their bed and staring frankly into the lens. They are neither smiling nor frowning, neither proud nor embarrassed amid the modest, intimate surroundings.

“Karl was standing only a meter from them, yet you can’t see from their faces that a stranger is looking at them with a camera,” Amiel says. “What you see is what you get — I think because” in part “they lack so many things and have nothing left to hide.”

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