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Darina Rodionova is is a Helsinki-based photographer, videographer, and visual artist – and &&’s digital content creator. In addition to her work in the theatre (and as a freelancer in the field), she’s been travelling to Ukraine, volunteering and documenting the life of local artists. Her recent project was awarded in the Helsinki Photo Festival so we asked her to tell the story behind it.

“I began contemplating this project during the early months of the full-scale invasion. During that time, I engaged in volunteer work, assisting Ukrainian refugees in Europe and delivering humanitarian aid across the Polish-Ukrainian border. Along the way, I crossed paths with several Ukrainian artists, some of whom I have become friends with. It was around that time that I started to feel that, as an artist, I too could contribute in a meaningful way.

In the years 2022 and 2023, I undertook several trips to Ukraine, where I met various artists from the fields of theater, music, and visual arts. These encounters allowed me to collect their stories about life and creativity during the ongoing war. During most of these trips, I resided in Kyiv, where part of my family lives, providing me with the opportunity to spend precious time with them. I spent my childhood in Ukraine (my mother is from Donetskoblast, Donbas region). At the same time, I was born and raised in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and as someone who left Russia many years ago but still feels a connection to its colonial culture, it is important to acknowledge the responsibility that comes with that connection. For me, this means taking action to support those who have been most affected by colonialism and aggression, and actively work towards a more just and equitable future.

This entire experience significantly influenced my own artistic perception. My initial goal was to amplify the voices of Ukrainian artists abroad. However, in the process, these individuals and their stories helped me transform my own traumas and fears into art. This has become a therapeutic journey, and I'm now firmly convinced that, at least for me personally, this represents the true purpose of art.

The project is one of the winners of this year's Helsinki Photo Festival with the theme 'Courage.' It was displayed at Hanaholmen Culture Center from August 5th to October 1st, 2023, and subsequently at Sanoma House from October 4th to October 29th, 2023. The next step is to showcase it at various international photo festivals and to launch a photobook. The most efficient and straightforward way to assist Ukrainians is by donating to NGO organizations. Since most of the activities rely on the efforts of volunteers, it is crucial to support these group initiatives in order to aid them in helping both people and animals.”

May 2023, Kyiv

"I met with Herman Makarenko, the conductor of the National Opera and Ballet Theater of Ukraine. In early March 2022, he went with his orchestra to the main square of besieged by Russian forces capital and played the Ukrainian anthem, along with other compositions, calling out to the Western World for support and protection. The concert was called "Free Sky". The day we met, the Opera was closed to visitors, and we wandered through empty premises. I took photos while Herman talked about the early days of the invasion, the importance of finding the strength to continue working in the first months of the war, to preserve at least a small semblance of normalcy in a crumbling world. "I've seen your photos, they are beautiful but very dark. As for me, I love the light," he said. We went to the lower floor of the theatre, where there used to be a wardrobe. Now the entire space was filled with rows of chairs - a bomb shelter beneath the main stage. The room was pitch black. "Is it dark enough for you, Darina?" he smirked.

The next day, we met at the Music Academy where Herman teaches conducting. Exams were taking place, and the building buzzed with the voices of students, sounds of music, singing, and yes, there was a lot of light. I found it difficult to capture even a single shot there. I had to constantly remind myself why I was there, for whom and why I am collecting these stories, and whether I could really change something. Eventually, we managed to take a few photos, but I kept asking myself why it is so difficult for me to let light into my own work. "I'm doing everything I can" - that has been our motto for the past year and a half, but is it true? What else can I do?"

Olessya Shlyakhtych, artist and ballet director. Founder and lead director of OSDC Dance Theater, Kyiv:

"With the outbreak of the full-scale war, all performances and plans for future projects were understandably canceled; for a time, we were hiding in villages, as the Russian occupation forces was approaching Kyiv and mass acts of genocide against the Ukrainian people began. Bucha, Gostomel, Irpin, Makariv, Borodyanka–you name it. Even so, when the Russian troops were pushed eastward by the Armed Forces of Ukraine and by every Ukrainian, I, already actively volunteering and continuing to do so, have decided to return to the capital through mined roads. My primary goals were to start a volunteer activity in the de occupied territories because people there were suffering from hunger and cold – it was necessary to change this. Secondly, I aimed to continue my artistic endeavor, as the staggering number of other artists who left the country foreshadowed the potential ruin that awaited Ukraine."

Katerina Zhuravlova, dancer of Ethno Contemporary Ballet, Kharkiv:

"Now, Ukraine has captured the world's attention, including our traditions and our perspective shaped by our extended cultural experience. Yet, the source of this interest brings moral and physical pain. I find myself at an impasse, uncertain whether leaving my country was the right choice...The sense of powerlessness in this situation terrifies me. But after our performances, when the audience shares their emotions and expresses a deeper understanding of the heart of Ukrainian people, I recognize the importance of my work. I realize that, no matter how small it is, I am contributing to our future victory. This might be the most significant transformation of my art in my own eyes – I am where I'm meant to be, doing something important."

Nina Bulgakova, director, choreographer and dancer of Ethno Contemporary Ballet, Kharkiv:

"In my opinion, art is also a weapon. And we are a kind of cultural front. And if Ukrainian culture dies, then Ukraine will not exist either.That's why we have to keep going and that’s what we’re doing now."

Anastasiia Mostova, dancer of Ethno Contemporary Ballet, Kharkiv:

"When you find yourself in another country where there is no war, it seems that all of this is unreal and it is a completely different world in which no one can truly understand your feelings and the feelings of all Ukrainians. And when you start working again, it seems that your body does not obey you, that it is not yours, that it is not you at all. But over time, you begin to remember. And at that moment when you are engrossed in the creative process, time seems to stop, and you seem to forget all the pain you feel. This is the magic of art. In the process, you can create something new, dream, invent, experience your different states, transforming them into something else..."

Darina Rodionova

Darina Rodionova is a Helsinki-based photographer, videographer, and visual artist. She graduated as a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer and worked in the film and television industry until she discovered her true passion in the field of theatre. Currently, Darina works at the Espoo Theatre as a digital content creator, producing various types of visual materials for the theatre's productions. Darina also freelances as a visual artist for various theaters while pursuing her own artistic projects.

Darina Rodionova

Support local organisations in Ukraine:

Helping To Leave - this organization helps to evacuate people from areas of military conflict.
Hospitallers - combat medics who save lives of the soldiers on a frontline.
Zoopatrul Ukraine - non-profit organization specialising in full-circle veterinary care for cats and dogs during the war in Ukraine, from rescue, treatment and rehabilitation to adoption.