2012 — student runner-up
Oxana Onipko, b. 1980 in eastern Ukraine, is a Russian photographer based in Moscow focusing on the contemporary social issues of the former Soviet Union. After four years in finance, Oxana decided to pursue a career in photojournalism and documentary photography. She likes the fast pace of daily news as well long-term documentary work. Oxana’s work is based on the principles of humanism.
Oxana Onipko has been awarded second place in 2012 Alexia Foundation Student Awards. These are the portfolio images which she submitted reflecting her project. The images will be updated when Onipko submits her final project.
The Caucasus is not Asia. Neither is it Europe nor the Middle East. It is its own world. Packed into the geographical boundaries of several nations, more than 50 ethnic groups carve out life the craggly mountains. The northern section: Chechnya, Ossetia, Kabardino- Balkaria, Adygea, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, currently all part of the Russian Federation, have a long-running history of religious, political and military conflict from tsarist times to the present.
In recent history, two ferocious wars in Chechnya in the 1990s resulted in high casualties, long-term psychological scarring, and a deep-rooted sense of foreboding toward the entire region. While that conflict may have subsided, others have arisen. Most notably, in the republic of Dagestan, recently named the most dangerous place in Europe by the BBC. Here Russian Federal forces fight an increasingly horrific campaign against an insurgency increasing in size and tenacity.
Behind it, the self-styled Mujahideen leaders of the “Caucasus Emirate” claim responsibility. They have declared jihad to establish strict Sharia law. It is the latest installment of struggle for the region.
This jihad is not a traditional war with opposing sides and front lines. It rears its head temporarily then disappears. More than anything, the idea of the Caucasus Emirate blankets the region in fear of violence. Ordinary people are forced to go about their daily lives looking over their shoulders. Ironically, many feel secure only in the brief moments following a fresh outbreak of violence. My project looks at the psychological state of these people, who grow up in the historical chain of conflict and violence. What is it like never to have felt safe?
Dagestan is the most ethnically diverse of the Caucasus republics. It was the entry point of Islam into Russia in the 8th century. It is considered the hideout for the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate. These factors have made it the most difficult and the thus most underreported republic in the mountain range. It is nearly impossible tell whether any progress toward peace has ever been made there.
Away from the headlines, the conflict takes its toll on ordinary people. Every month brings new disappearances and murders. Often, the family members claim their loved ones have no connection to the militants, and it almost always remains unknown what, if anything, they have done to deserve such harsh punishment. There is no rhyme or reason to the pseudo-judicial executions, as if a misplaced word here or there, is sufficient invitation for a visit by a shadowy squad of armed men.
For over a year I have been traveling to Dagestan to document the stories of women who have lost sons and husbands to the conflict. My work is done with a local Dagestani NGO called “Advocacy” who are dedicated to stopping violence and dealing with the effects of its aftermath. Through them I am able to get to the heart of the complex issues. Like Advocacy, but with my photos I am trying to put a human face on the conflict in the hopes of stopping it. Through the use of my photographs the head of Advocacy Gulnara Rustama has been able to open a centre for widows of militants who face discrimination.
With the support of the Alexia fund, I would be able to push this story to the next level. With new skills and knowledge and by harnessing modern technology I could bring larger international attention to this diverse culture and its intertwining conflicts. And somehow, begin to comprehend how these tenacious peoples survive through it all.