I Joke, Therefore I Am: A Morgue-Themed Photo Project

Maryna Brodovska spent the first days of Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine in a morgue. This is how her series about death and life’s paradoxical nature, value, and beauty came to be.
Maryna Brodovska

A Ukrainian photographer working with photography, graphic design, and video, she studied under Viktor Marushchenko, took Roman Pyatkovka’s classes at PhotoCult Culture and Photography Centre, and finished Bird in Flight Photo School. Her work is featured in public and private collections in Ukraine, Paris, and New York.

— I spent the first days of the war in the Kyiv morgue. I didn’t lose any of my close ones. It’s just that the war caught me, like many other naive people, by surprise. I had no plan or rainy day money. Nor did I pack my bug-out bag. I remember my friend Natalia calling me at 5 a.m. I remember the fear of hearing the sirens blare behind my window. I remember the pain in my chest and the feeling that the room suddenly had run out of air. And then it hit me: I had to find a safe place. This is how I ended up at the morgue.

Actually, my friend’s mum works there. Like me, she wasn’t prepared for the turn her life was about to take. She suggested we stick together. ‘Nobody comes here of their own will, and nobody would shell a hospital, let alone a morgue’, she said. It sounded logical to me at the time.

So, we were hiding in the morgue, under the death’s very nose, and it felt like the safest place in the world. We holed up in the basement, occasionally going upstairs to the Chief Physician’s office to have some tea, warm ourselves up, and learn the news. Between the wailing of air raid alarms, I wandered the hospital’s halls at night, looking at strange medical tools. However, I was afraid to approach the infamous refrigerators.

We were hiding in the morgue, and it felt like the safest place in the world.

I struggled to understand if it was happening for real and when my life became such a surreal nightmare. The day before, we celebrated my friend’s birthday in a cafe in Kyiv, and now I was wandering the morgue’s corridor, unable to sleep.

I didn’t feel scared at all during the day when more doctors returned to the hospital. The people who are no strangers to death know how to value life and be confident in their abilities. Also, they tell rad jokes.

We spent three nights in the morgue’s basement. The dead silence there reassured me that death would pass us by. It happened just as I hoped. The surreal dream didn’t end, but I feel I know how to live in it now. I have adopted a pathologist’s attitude. As long as I keep joking, I exist. And yes, I learned that during those days in the morgue.

I Joke Therefore I Am is a series about the paradoxical nature of life. During the first days of the war, the morgue felt safer than my own home or my city’s streets. This place is surrounded by terrifying myths, but it didn’t seem frightening to me at all. There are dead people there, that much is true. However, they can do you no harm. And the doctors, who are no strangers to death in their everyday work, have an incredible sense of humour. I was lucky to experience all that. It taught me to cherish life and appreciate its beauty and value.

While in the morgue, I took photos with my phone, but those pictures were impossible to work with. They don’t convey my feelings but state the facts. In this series, my focus was communicating feelings, such as playfulness, tenderness, and nostalgia. Therefore, I worked with associative images. It’s a therapeutic project. I wanted to play around with cliches and joke a little about our ideas of death that goes hand in hand with the war.

It’s a therapeutic project. I wanted to play around with cliches and joke a little about our ideas of death.

In this series of digital collages, I used fabric cut-outs from the photo of my mum’s headscarf, among other things. I used them to overlay a pattern reminiscent of taped windows on our family photo. It was my way of channelling my wish to protect my family. Also, the headscarf is very much a Ukrainian element to me, as well as the red colour.

The collage with a hand holding a leaf features a microscope photography element. There was a powerful microscope in the Chief Physician’s office, so I took a half-dried leaf from a flower pot and took a couple of pictures of it. With a microscope, you can see the cosmic beauty of life with your own eyes.

The collages have a lot of air — this is my way of conveying the state of uncertainty when you find yourself on tenterhooks, unsure if everything that happens is real. This feeling haunts me to this day.

Also, I cut out the fish and put them on an empty bedsheet as if they were swimming. That’s my tattoo. In fact, this photo is inspired by a joke one doctor told me in the morgue, ‘I love tattoos. First, they are beautiful. And second… the sheer diversity of tattoos on dead bodies makes a pathologist’s everyday work that much more enjoyable’.

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