The Day Before Independence: Images of the ’90s in Roman Pyatkovka’s Project

On the morning of August 23, 1991, Levko Lukianenko and Leontii Sanduliak were composing a draft of Ukraine’s Independence Proclamation Act. The same day, Kharkiv was celebrating the Day of liberation from fascist invaders — but something was different this time. People in Kharkiv were wearing national costumes and singing Ukrainian songs — everything indicated that a new era in the country’s history was about to start. Photographer Roman Pyatkovka, who joined people on the streets, recalls that day.
Роман Пятковка
Roman Pyatkovka

A photographer, teacher and curator, one of the founders of the National Photographers’ Association of Ukraine and coordinator of the creative association “Ukrainian photographic alternative”. The winner of the Sony Photography Awards in 2013. Participated in personal and group exhibitions around the world.

— I shot the “Holidays” project on the 23 of August 1991, on the Day of Kharkiv’s liberation. I’m not a documentary photographer, I was just interested in going out and seeing what I can make of it. There were a lot of national symbolics on that day — flags, music, national costumes — and that was not typical for Kharkiv. I started to wander around, looking for good shots, just like Boris Mykhailov, one of the brightest representatives of the Kharkiv School of Photography, used to do.

But I won’t give myself all the credit. Unlike Mykhailov, it took me a while to understand what fundamental changes I have managed to capture. Young intellectuals knew back then that the Soviet past was worse than the tough present.

It took me a while to understand what fundamental changes I have managed to capture.

I was 36 years old in 1991, but it seemed that it was the first day of my life when I actually thought about my country. The next day independence was proclaimed. A new life began that had yet to be explored. But on the day before that, I was only an observer, who witnessed the emergence of the new national culture.

Many of my projects become popular later on because of the changes in society. That’s what happened to the “Holidays” project. I presented it before and it was well-received. But it became crucially important today when every one of us has finally become a Ukrainian. I’m proud to be Ukrainian myself because of all that love, tolerance, and bravery that our country has. And also because of the irony — we’re the most ironic nation that I’ve ever seen and that’s our power. Probably, it was the reason why I wanted to make this project more kitsch and decided to colorize it.

We’re the most ironic nation that I’ve ever seen and that’s our power.

The project is divided into two parts. The first one is about festive procession and celebrations. The second one contains images of a lonely smuggler. I noticed him straight away, he seemed special. He looked like the loneliest person among the festive crowd. The ‘90s were the times of lost people who didn’t know what awaited them ahead. The smuggler impersonated that feeling.

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