Capturing Absence: Photographing Families of the Missing in Ukraine

Tatiana stands near the International Committee of the Red Cross office where she came to talk about Pasha, her brother, who went missing 703 days ago. ICRC/Brendan Hoffman

Tatiana stands near the International Committee of the Red Cross office where she came to talk about Pasha, her brother, who went missing 703 days ago. ICRC/Brendan Hoffman

August 30 marks the International Day of the Disappeared. In war, both civilians and combatants go missing, leaving behind anguish and uncertainty for their loved ones. International humanitarian law and human rights law require parties to a conflict to take measures to ensure that people do not go missing in an armed conflict and if they do, that all possible measures are taken so that their fate is known and their families informed.  Through its Restoring Family Links program, the ICRC works to help reconnect these families.

In Ukraine, hundreds remain unaccounted for following the conflict that began in late 2013. Brendan Hoffman, an American documentary photographer based in Kiev, recently spent time with family members of those missing in Ukraine and spoke to Intercross about his experience and why he is compelled to photograph this often vastly unacknowledged and under-reported tragedy.

Intercross: Many of the photographs you take of families of The Missing in Ukraine are of women. What do you find are some of the unique struggles female-led households face?

BH: This is something we were conscious of in the production of the work - most, but not all, of those missing are men, so the women are left behind. Ukraine's economy has been weakened by the conflict, and like many places it has a pay gap between men and women. A combination of these factors causes women to struggle financially as the head of a household, especially as the sole income earner. Many had moved in with family to help make ends meet.

Intercross: How do you approach taking these images? Essentially, you are trying to capture the essence of someone who is no longer there. What are you looking for? How do you work with your subjects to capture this?

BH: It's a real challenge to photograph the absence of someone. For this particular project, I was hoping to not just allude to the missing family member, but to somehow describe the unique struggle for the family members left behind, of simply not knowing what happened, or even if your loved one is alive or dead. There's no possibility to mourn but it's sometimes hard to maintain hope. I decided to focus on the subjectivity of memory, trying to bring the missing person into the picture through their family member's specific way of remembering or thinking of the person who has disappeared. Often that was by taking them to a place they associate with the missing person, either because it was somewhere he spent much of his time, or because of a strong memory the photo subject has of the disappeared in that place. I hope that by doing it this way, the pictures find a balance in relating ideas about both the disappeared and the family left behind.

Intercross: Could you share a story that really stood out to you as you were photographing?

BH: Meeting Olena and her young daughter was really affecting. She was literally unable to talk about her husband, who disappeared while she was still pregnant. She tried, but words wouldn't come out as she fought back tears. To see how raw that emotion is, and to see her being strong for her beautiful little daughter who has never met her father, was incredibly hard and made it painfully clear what is at stake for so many people.

Intercross: One of your photos was selected for Time's '29 Instagrams that Defined the World in 2014.' How do you think that social platforms such as IG and/or FB help when it comes to making real change around issues such as The Missing? Are you seeing the impact?

BH: I love Instagram as a platform to reach a wide audience directly. I still strongly believe in the role of the media, but I'm also aware that, at least in the U.S., its reputation has diminished after being attacked for perceived biases over a number of years, and its generally weakened reach because of financial challenges and the fractured media environment. Credibility in talking about controversial issues comes not only from the reputation of the newspaper or magazine publishing the work, but now it is also based on the individual journalist and their history of covering all sides of a story fairly. Social media is my tool for establishing my own credibility as a real person trying his best to adhere to the principles of objective journalism. I hope that for people who either don't place a lot of trust in traditional media or younger people who get most of their news through social media, maybe I can provide information in a way that will reach them when it otherwise wouldn't. It's hard to say I'm seeing the impact all the time, but the response to The Missing on Instagram has been encouraging; I've also seen it during other major news events in Ukraine like the Maidan protests or crash of MH17, both of which I covered.

Intercross: Why are you compelled to cover this issue?

BH: When I really think about it, having someone close to me disappear without a trace is one of the worst things I can imagine. The pain for family members is almost unbearable, and the injustice for the disappeared is incredibly potent. It's also a huge challenge to convey that pain, as the experience is so unique and isolating, and something I've never experienced personally. I hope I can continue finding ways to talk about it that bring the necessary attention and eventual resolution for as many of these cases as possible.

For more information on the ICRC’s work on the Missing, click here.

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