David Denil was awarded one of four Alexia Student Award of Excellence Grants this past April for Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking, which depicts the psychological state of Ukraine, haunted by its past and memory as it looks to the future. The images are metaphorical representations of everyday life where time seems frozen but dreams and hope linger.
In this new interview with Denil, we talk about what this work means, where it came from and what he plans to do with it next.
Alexia Foundation: Where are you from? What is your background?
David Denil: I was born and raised in Belgium. While working as an engineer, I became interested in different aspects of photography after seeing the work ‘How the Other Half Lives’ of Jacob Riis. It was not only the harsh esthetic he used, but also, the overall project intention he explored that made me reflect on the potentials of photo documentary strategies. He used the medium both as a tool of representation and as a gateway to explore and understand.
Alexia Foundation: How did you start working on Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking?
David Denil: While exploring the Southeast parts of the Ukraine, I talked with people I met on the streets to understand how the political situation had an influence on their lives. What was noticeable and in contrast with what I had assumed, was that the situation connected people of different generations. They shared a pride in their nation and a strong sense of hope towards a better future.
In October 2015 I went to Kiev for the Biennial organized by the School of Kyiv (http://theschoolofkyiv.org). It was a very well curated exhibition. It featured a diversity of works spread throughout the whole city. It functioned as an extension to the overall psychological atmosphere at that time in Ukraine.
While doing research, I felt like a big part necessary to understand the gravity of the conflict was missing – the impact caused by the instability that the conflict brought to every day life. Still today, the devaluation affects most of its citizens. That, in combination with the pride and hope of the people to protect their values, is the main subject of the project.
Alexia Foundation: What are these images? How do you come up with images that represent a psychological state?
David Denil: Some images are moments that happened spontaneously just before and inspired me for use within the context of the project. Some were interpretations of reality. These were an extention of my dialogue with the people depicted. It was a mutual creative collaboration, so to speak. And some images came from no real situation, but merely from a collection of thoughts that resonated in me from other moments experienced during my time in Ukraine. I never asked anyone to act out an emotional state and left them free to adjust their behaviour as they felt at the time. The camera was never set up to shoot a fixed frame so I adjusted myself during the process and repositioned myself according to their movements and surroundings.
Just as any other art form, photography a tool to represent and express. Bounded by its technical limitations, it cannot operate within non-realities, just as it should not be bound to rules defining its use to document. The apparatus is a tool to direct and the way it is deployed is similar as words are to a writer.
The images of ‘Let Us Not Fall Asleep While Walking’ are truthful to what happened in front of the camera and no invisible alterations were applied. Just as there are doubts in truthfulness within the world facts that are represented to us on a daily basis, every image has its own narrative and meaning. By shifting between multiple approaches the interpretation of the individual image become live within a grey zone.
In relation to this, moments ‘as is’ were explored, while others reenacted from moments that happened just before, which I call ‘prolonged’ moments. Some were interpretations of reality coming from the person depicted in the frame and some were reinterpretation of another reality encountered. The graphical context of the book was kept in mind throughout the process and this added content, as backdrop will create confrontations with reality keeping the uninformed observer in mind.
Alexia Foundation: Who are the people in the photographs?
David Denil: It was important to incorporate an overall diversity of subjects in the images because conflicts affect the whole society. Without having images, in mind I explored the city to understand the present condition of how it is to live within Ukraine today while encountering the unknown.
The people depicted are random people encountered on the streets of Kiev. Every person tells their own story, the way they are dressed, their pose, the expression, etc. Even though there is nothing more to show than the image itself, they function as a mirror of recognition, both for the Ukrainian people as others. That is also why I incorporated the image of a mirror, which conveys the witnessing functionality of the apparatus as witness of itself.
Alexia Foundation: From a technical standpoint, how are you shooting the project?
David Denil: I have always felt a certain dissatisfaction with depicting people without establishing contact first. This contact is more truthful and real to me then a snapshot of a stranger. Paul Strand once quoted ‘It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness.’
By integrating intentional personal contributions of the depicted, the images became an exploration of a truthful testimony. As the title mentions, this work is about the people from the people. The images function as a reflection of the lives and experiences they share within the borders of a Ukraine at war. For the gear, Ricoh/Pentax offered me the opportunity to use their material as an instrument of research and were a great contributor to achieve the required result.
Alexia Foundation: How are the people of the Ukraine? How would you describe their emotional and psychological state?
David Denil: A country at war is always difficult to operate. Many doors are locked and the ones that are not, are opened with caution. The conceptual idea was well prepared to present to several organizations and institutes. Because of the intention of the work, most of them gave a positive response and some even proposed their full collaboration.
Most people I met on the street were very open, friendly, patient and excited to be a part of the project. On the other hand, the people at work were much more hesitant. Not because of the intention of the project but out of the fear of losing their jobs because of making a decision which they do not have authority to make
Alexia Foundation: Why is this work important?
David Denil: There is much more to lose if Ukraine would be left alone in this war. For the ones who don’t know the history; On November 21, Ukrainian students gathered on Kiev’s Maidan Square to demand that the EU agreement would be signed after the last minute refusal of Viktor Yanukovych. On the 20th of February, more then 100 people died during these protests. By March 2014, Crimea had been annexed by Russia followed by the invasion of the eastern territory.
Since then, the situation lingers on and there is no sign the war will end soon. To me this project was an exploration to understand. For them, it is a sign of gratitude and support in their situation that seems to be forgotten.
Alexia Foundation: Where are you in the project? What are your plans for it?
David Denil: While also working on a new project, I am working together with the Swiss artist Melina Wilson on a first dummy book. Melina also worked on a project in Ukraine in 2014 so she understands the gravity of the conflict and the intentions of this project. The objective is to combine 4 different components together.
Our main goal is not to make a book with a collection of images but to connect them with other aspects that bring an insight in the daily experience the people share. Once we are both satisfied with the result we will start working on a final book publication. In December a first preview will be the presented at the Voloshyn Gallery followed by a solo exhibition for the public early 2018 in Kiev.
Alexia Foundation: What did winning the Alexia Grant mean for you?
David Denil: I am very grateful being selected for the Alexia Grant. It was the first time I entered the project and they shared a strong confirmation of the result. Besides the visibility and use of their network, their support also gives me the opportunity to work on the physical dummy and to explore different materials.