English, please / Ukraine

Larisa Kalik: "I'm not afraid of explosions, but I would be afraid of harming a person with an inappropriate photo"

By Ioana Pelehatăi, Photos by Larisa Kalik

Published on 22 February 2024

I scroll through Instagram to find out when I first interacted with Larisa Kalik, a journalist born and raised in Transnistria, but who relocated to the capital of Ukraine long before the full-scale war began there. On October 18, 2022, I posted a story linking to her first text published in Scena9: an account of the destruction and corpses that the Russians left behind in Izium, a city in the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, liberated after six months of occupation. Larisa replied with 🖤🖤🖤 – and since then, for the past year and a half, we have continued to write to each other.

Our digital conversation, teetering on the border between the personal and the professional, is a strange and telling mixture of the times we live in – I (the editor) here (in peace), she (the freelance reporter, who goes to the frontline alone or accompanied by friends) there (a single border separates us). She sends me her texts and photos, I let her know when I have comments and feedback and inform her when we publish, we talk about fallen or liberated cities in Ukraine, about vareniki and the videogame The Sims (we both like both those things), about how many people will no longer die in Avdiivka, about my own travels in Ukraine, about the text on which we worked together.

Last year, Larisa should have been in Bucharest, because her reportage from Donbas, "I am alive, I ate, I slept", won the First Prize in the Reportage category of the "Superscrieri" Awards. Instead, she was preparing to leave again for eastern Ukraine, the most disputed strip of territory in Europe. I accepted the award on her behalf and conveyed her only request to the journalists in the audience: a moment of silence for her friend Artur, who had just fallen on the front, and for others like him. Every time I look into the eyes of the people Larisa photographs, I have to ask myself: is he still alive? Or, as she asked herself in one reportage:

"How many more like him will die? Will Vlad survive until the end of the war? Will he know we won? Or will a Russian drone, missile, projectile, bomb, shrapnel, bullet reach him? Why do we have to bury people so young? (...) Will they survive? Will I live?”

Larisa Kalik was born in 1998 in Tiraspol, in the separatist republic of Transnistria, torn by Russia from the body of the Republic of Moldova. At the age of 21, she wrote a book, The Year of Youth, about the experiences of 12 young people in the Transnistrian army. Between the lines, the book talked about the shortcomings and poverty there, about the limited perspectives of young people like the conscripts and herself, about what it's like to not live in a democracy. A criminal case was opened against her and she left – first to Chișinău, then to Ukraine. The Russians found her there too, when, on February 24, 2022, they launched a total invasion of the country that Romania borders to the north.

Then, the young woman made up her mind. She would stay and work in and for Ukraine. A year after the start of the full-scale war, she wrote:

"I worked hard. As much as I could. I believed, and still believe, that journalism is one of the most important weapons in the fight against Russia."

I feel like I both know and do not know Larisa, although soon we will have been working together for a year and a half. But now she's coming to Bucharest, for FRONT, a war photojournalism exhibition, so I asked her a few questions. About her work, about courage and youth, about Transnistria and Ukraine, and, of course, about the war. Read her answers, in order to be reminded how much some people can live through and process, even though they’re only 25 years old – and how much we stand to learn from them.

A relevant selection of Larisa Kalik's photographs, together with images by Romanian photographer Vadim Ghirda, whose war photojournalism career spans over 30 years, will be on display at Rezidența9, as part of the FRONT exhibition. The exhibition is designed by Scena9 and is open from Friday, February 23, until March 24.

What was it like for you growing up in Transnistria? What should people in Romania (and beyond) know about life there?

On the topic of growing up in Transnistria, I can speak, of course, based on my experience and the experience of people around me. Therefore, my words should not be taken as objective truth.

For me, life in Transnistria was an unpleasant experience. I was born and raised there, and I managed to leave at the age of 19. Of course, many aspects of life there are the same as anywhere else in our world – a bicycle, school, delicious grapes, sisters, girlfriends, the river and the first kiss, books, sunsets, the loss of loved ones. People in Transnistria go to work, they live and laugh, they get married and raise children. But the question is that there is nothing in the future for these children.

When I began to become a teenager, many things around me raised questions. Why is the Transnistrian passport not recognized by anyone? Why can’t I go to university in a country other than Transnistria and Russia with my school certificate? Why are there armed people with the “peacemaker” symbol? Why are two armies located on the left bank - Transnistrian and Russian? Why does the Russian flag hang on administrative buildings, but not the Moldavian flag? Why is the Moldovan language taught in Cyrillic at school, and why is it not Romanian?

I knew one answer to the most important question - there is no future for me here. In truth, it is not for anyone, it’s just that few people understand it. It was important for me to wait until I graduated from school and start living for real, because before that I didn’t feel that the world belonged to me. If your “country” does not exist on the map, then you are unlikely to feel confident in anything.

In addition to the challenges of unemployment, poverty, low levels of education, and lack of human rights, growing up in Transnistria also causes an identity crisis. At school they told us that we were Pridnestrovians. But no one knows who the Pridnestrovians are. An artificial and meaningless concept that they are trying to impose on people and children. And sometimes successfully, unfortunately.

I think for people who know little about Transnistria, it is important to understand that there was also a war in Moldova, and people also died, and the responsibility for these deaths lies on the shoulders of Russia. We are now seeing the result of the “frozen conflict” on the Dniester - stagnation, deadlock and lack of understanding of how to change the situation. The war in Ukraine is not the first attack by Russia on the freedom of another people, but it is necessary to help the Ukrainian army with all our might so that this is the last war unleashed by Russia.

What was it like for you to work on your book, The Year of Youth? How did you choose the subject, what was the research process like, and what feedback did you receive? (As a bonus question: I noticed it’s no longer available online, do you think there’s a chance it will be made available again?)

I started working on my book when I returned to Transnistria for a short time. My grandmother was very ill and I needed to look after her and my little sister. I was 20 years old, I had been traveling a lot for the last year and a half, and at some point I decided that I needed to stop and think about what to do next. Therefore, it was not a burden for me to help my family.

One day I was on my way to visit my friend, and at the bus stop I met a soldier from the Transnistrian army. We were on our way and we started talking about his service. Before meeting this soldier, I knew that the Transnistrian army was the last place where I should spend my time. Many of my friends served there and shared brutal stories of their experiences. The conversation with this soldier was open, and he shared his opinion about the service, talked about some cases, and I took a completely new look at this topic. Due to the fact that for some time I had no contact with Transnistria, my perception changed - the familiar became unusual, and the absurdity in which people live became even more absurd. During the conversation, I thought that I should interview him - I did not know and did not imagine what exactly I wanted to do with this interview, but I knew that it was necessary to start talking about violence in the army, about corruption, about human rights. I took his phone number and wrote to him that evening, but he refused to speak again, especially on the record. He can be understood.

I decided to turn to my friends who served in the army and start communicating with them. These interviews lasted for several hours, I recorded them either at these guys’ homes or in a cafe, and still did not understand what exactly I was doing. My best friend, my brother Misha, he is older and wiser, he once said - make a book. And I made a book. I don’t regret it, on the contrary, I’m proud of myself - the girl is 20 years old, and she begins to go against the state, even if this state is illegitimate.

Larisa Kalik. Photo from her personal archive

Word of mouth started, some people gave contacts to other people, and so gradually the number of stories that were later published was collected - 12 stories of young soldiers who either served in the army at the time of the creation of the book, or were demobilized several years before publication. At first I did everything on my own, and then I managed to get a grant of 1000 euros to implement my idea. I printed a couple hundred copies, I don’t remember exactly how many there were. There was an online version, but at a certain point I wanted to stop being associated with my book, so it is no longer available online. But I think it’s worth returning to this again and giving the book a second life. Although I’m not sure how necessary and relevant this is.

After three presentations of my book in different cities of Transnistria, strangers began to write to me and thanked me for starting this conversation. Mothers of young guys who served in the army and returned with serious health problems wrote to me. Even schoolchildren wrote to me because the army was waiting for them in the future. The soldiers themselves also sent me messages, recognizing their experiences in many stories. So the book was received with warmth and understanding. I received a lot of support.

What is the current status of the criminal case against you? I know that, at the time, it brought quite a lot of attention to the undemocratic practices in Transnistria.

I do not have any information regarding my criminal case. I remember how I once wrote a letter to the military prosecutor’s office - they were the ones who opened a criminal case against me. In the letter, I asked them to give me at least some information about the criminal case - I know, I know that they are accusing me of extremism and how many years in prison I face for this, but I was unable to find out anything more. In their response letter, the prosecutor's office told me that if I come to them in person, they will tell me all the information. This made me laugh a lot, I’m smiling even now. This was a very cunning answer. I think it is unnecessary to add what would have threatened me if I had arrived. From three to five years of imprisonment. That is, theoretically, I would be free again next year. A criminal case was opened a few days before my 22nd birthday. This is a security threat.

When you first moved to Ukraine, before the breakout of the total Russian invasion, what were your plans? How did you adapt to life there?

Ukraine has never been a foreign country for me. I always felt at home there. I feel like I’m in another country when I come to Moldova, but in Ukraine I’ve always felt at home. This is due to the fact that almost all of my ancestors are from Ukraine and Poland, even Austria, and there are a couple of people from Russia. But I have no origins from Moldova. Therefore, for me, moving to Ukraine after a criminal case was opened against me felt like repatriation – as if I was returning to where I was supposed to be.

As children, we often came to Ukraine to spend time with family or just on vacation. And when I became an adult and independent, I also came to Ukraine very often. I didn’t have to adapt, I just returned home - I always had many friends in different Ukrainian cities, and I was to some extent happy about the new stage in my life. The only thing that was not easy for me and is still difficult for me to come to terms with is that I cannot see my two sisters, my mother, my niece and my cat as often as I want. I can't even visit my father's grave. We meet with our family in Chisinau a couple of times a year, because they still live in Tiraspol. This brings me a lot of pain because I miss all the important events in the life of my family, I am always far away. This is the fault of specific people in the so-called Ministry of Security of Transnistria.

Looking back, almost two years later, what were your coping strategies when you learned that russia’s invasion of Ukraine was actually going to take place? (I know you wrote about this last year for Scena9, but I was wondering if your perspective has changed in the past year.)

When I was a child, my grandmother, who was born during the Second World War, told me that her generation lived a relatively quiet time, apart from childhood. She said that severe pandemics and wars would come to my generation. I was indifferent to this, because I was 12 years old, and war did not fit into my ideas about the future. Four years later, the war began in the east of Ukraine, but due to the fact that it was far away and did not directly affect me, I did not pay enough attention to it. Although I knew and understood a lot, and my heart ached for people, I still did not realize the scale of the grief that destroyed thousands of human lives.

Before the start of the full-scale invasion, satellite images were published every day showing a huge amount of military equipment on the border with Ukraine. At this time, I was already brave enough to think realistically, and I knew that a new phase of the war would begin very soon. Then all conversations with friends began with the question: “What are you going to do, leave or stay?” Later, everyone made their own decision.

I can't believe that almost two years have passed. I still live in 2022, and it makes me very sad to know how many people lost their youth and childhood in the war. I think that from the beginning to this day, ordinary human kindness, friendship, love, laughter have helped me. You have no idea how much a dear friend's smiling face can mean when you're walking through an open area at the front and can be easily seen by a Russian drone. Or when an explosion from a Russian missile sounds outside the window at night, and your partner doesn’t hesitate to cover you with his body. This is what saves us.

How do you think your style of writing and photography have evolved since the beginning of the war?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. I noticed that over time I changed my focus from text to photography, and photography is what I want to continue to do. My texts are becoming shorter and more to the point, without unnecessary words. And although I understand the value of text, and I truly love to write, and I will not stop doing it, photography is a priority for me now.

I am very glad that you and I have been working together for more than a year, Ioana. And I am grateful to you that the texts are published exactly as I created them. I’m glad that I don’t have to write an absolutely classic and boring report, and I can sometimes add personal experience, which is unacceptable in classical journalism. And in general, I am even more grateful that you still publish texts and photographs about the war - this confirms your editorial position, which I deeply respect.

I think writing takes a backseat for me because writing is sometimes hard - I mean emotionally. In the last published text, I recorded some conversations that I heard on the radio when I was with the soldiers in the dugout. On the radio I heard a man dying. It was hard for me to return to this and write this story down in text. It’s also hard for me to return to some photographs, but writing, of course, is more difficult.

Perhaps I should change the format of the text, I think the way I write now is not the only option that exists. So either I'll find another form or I'll focus on photography.

There is also something to think about with photography – the exhibition that will take place thanks to you will be the summation of everything that I have photographed over the past two years. This looks quite symbolic, I like the clear edges in what I do and how it changes. Next, I want to shoot less journalistically and more documentary-like – work with interesting and important topics in Ukraine, but do it a little differently and show in more detail specific problems or phenomena. I hope that you will support me in this too.

 What is one photograph you wish you had taken, but didn’t?

I am one of those photographers who are very delicate in relation to the person and the moment, so I saw the frame with my eyes many times, but did not press the camera button – I did not want to destroy what I saw in front of me. One of these moments was a meeting with a wounded soldier.

Last spring, I worked with a medical team on the medical evacuation of wounded soldiers. We received a patient with multiple fragments, a broken hip and ribs, he miraculously survived - it seems that I also wrote about him in one of the materials. In short, despite all his injuries, he flirted with me and the nurse, and it was wonderful - a person has a large part of his body damaged, and he smiles at girls. We took him to the hospital. The last few days have been grey, April was very cold last year. But when we took him to the hospital and carried him outside on a stretcher, the sun was shining brightly, a very pleasant light rain was falling, and all the new foliage on the trees sparkled with such a green light that I can still see in my head. The soldier asked me to find him a cigarette, I found doctors who smoked and brought him a cigarette. He lit it, began to look at the sky and smile, and small drops of rain fell on his face. He was very handsome, such people should appear in films. And he was a builder before the war, and then became a sniper. I didn’t take a photo, and I don’t know what his fate was like next. I hope he has recovered and regained his health. I'm glad that this moment remained only in my memory.

In terms of style, almost everyone I ever talked to about your work mentioned two things: a poetic quality and a lot of bravery. How would you describe your work? What are some of the biggest influences you have incorporated throughout the years?

Thank you very much, I am always pleased to hear good reviews about my work. I think I could describe my writing and photography as “sincere” and “honest”. I photographed dead people, living people, heroes, enemies, and ordinary people. I didn’t try to hide or, on the contrary, put anything in a better light than it really was.

I think my greatest influence and inspiration do not come from the visual work of other photographers or film directors, or from literature and music. Although this is very important for me. But the kindness of people has a big influence on me, and I often wonder how my photography will help others. And will I be able to please anyone with the experience of working with me? In war photography you need to be a sensitive person, understanding and empathetic. I try to bring into my work only what will not harm people. I'd rather not take a photo than upset someone. I have witnessed how many photographers work only for the sake of their photographs, their name. They can be as insensitive as possible towards people who are experiencing terrible grief. I'm not afraid of explosions, but I would be afraid of harming a person with an inappropriate photo. For me, more important than the visual component is kindness. I don't know if I answered the question, but I tried.

We’ve been working together for over a year now and, while I don’t know you personally, I feel like I do :) I know you’re a very good reporter and a photographer whose sensitivity I admire. But, aside from your work, how would you describe yourself?

I think that now I would describe myself as a growing person. Although war brings very serious changes to life, and traumatizes many people, it does not guarantee growth - perhaps it even sets us back in some aspects. Because that time when people gain new knowledge, travel and develop in different directions, I was waiting for the air raid warning and shelling of the city in which I live to end. The war added gray hair to me at the age of 25 and took away a close friend. War ages people, but does not automatically make them wiser - it is a process and a path that you need to choose yourself.

The courage that you indicated in the question, I am gradually starting to rethink - am I sure that the risk I am taking is worth it? I had a very high chance of being seriously injured or killed. And I would have to place responsibility for my life on the people close to me, this is in the best case if I remained alive. So in the last two months I've been taking a closer look at my courage and trying to figure out how to limit it. And I noticed this process not only in myself. Many of my friends, journalists and photographers, are also at a turning point now. It’s as if in these two years we have already approached our limits a little - it is impossible to constantly put our future under a question mark.

You still asked how I would describe myself outside of work, and I am so closely intertwined with work that it is difficult to find the line. But I will try. Let me take Proust's questionnaire as a guide.

The most important virtue for me is anonymous kindness. When you do a good deed for the sake of helping another person, and not for the sake of your ego.

My favorite pastime is being outdoors in any weather.

My dream of happiness is a childhood without war for future generations.

My favorite color is yellow, my favorite poet is Walt Whitman, my favorite character in real life is my friend Francis, my favorite drink is lemonade.

The ability I would like to have is to heal people and sleep at will, not because of need.

If this terrible, unfair war was over tomorrow, what would be the first things you would like to do?

If the war ended tomorrow, it would be the best day of my life – it sounds very corny, but it's true. I think on this day we will all go crazy with both joy and grief. Because it is impossible to be completely happy knowing how many people sacrificed their lives for the sake of our future. I would bring pink tulips to my friend's grave. I would bring flowers to many who died. But it’s scary and impossible to imagine so many flowers.

Translated from the Romanian by Ioana Pelehatăi

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