by Leah Quinn
“The art world pretends to be at the cutting edge of attitudes around all sorts of issues. But it’s always two or three steps behind society, and it’s deeply conservative in its thinking.”
London-born photographer Mark Neville has been documenting life and conflict in Ukraine since 2015. Now, with tensions at a boiling point between Russia and Nato, Neville wants to pull the world’s attention back to the people on the frontlines of this crisis.
Mark's latest work, ‘Stop Tanks with Books’, directs our gaze onto the lives of the people living on the frontlines of the Russian invasion.
He is sending out 750 complimentary copies to the book’s target audience: those members of the international community— politicians, celebrities, ambassadors, negotiators, and the media—who have it in their power to help Ukraine.
I spoke to Mark over a weekend in mid-February when Russia amassed 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border and the White House has instructed American citizens to leave the country immediately as it fears a Russian invasion could start “at any time”.
That invasion, as we all know, is now in full swing, with huge convoys of tanks bearing down on the capital of Kyiv.
"People here have been living with war since 2014, when Russia invaded and illegally occupied parts of Donbas and then illegally annexed Crimea,” Mark explains.
He criticises Western media’s coverage of the invasion and their military response, saying that the problems that we’re seeing now are a result of the West’s complacency since 2014.
"Ukrainians are incredibly resilient and proud,” Mark says. ”They are used to living with the pressure of an invasion… and they will fight if the invasion escalates."
“The art world pretends to be at the cutting edge of attitudes around all sorts of issues,” Mark tells me, “But it’s always two or three steps behind society, and it’s deeply conservative in its thinking.”
The real impact comes through what he terms his “public art projects” which position people from “non-art demographics” as both his primary audience and the beneficiaries of his work.
It was through these projects that Mark began “to see a real and meaningful connection develop” between people and his work.
When he created his photo book ‘Battle Against Stigma’ in 2015, following a stint as a war artist in Helmand, Afghanistan which left him struggling with PTSD, he received thousands of emails from veterans and their families recognising their own struggles in Mark’s accounts.
The emails went into heart-wrenching detail about the mental health impact life in the war zone had had on people and their struggles to re-adjust to civilian life.
Mark says: “It was immediately possible through those emails to see that this project was connecting with people.”
He says that art can "result in social change, and can open up dialogues and make visible things which are often not discussed openly."
Mark is no stranger to creating art in new and challenging settings. From his work in Afghanistan, to photographing contrasting communities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - including former steel town Braddock that felt both the impact of the collapse of the United States steel industry in the 1970s and ‘80s and the effects of the crack cocaine epidemic of the early ‘80s.
I asked how creating art in Ukraine compares.
"I love Ukraine," he tells me, "I immediately fell under a spell when I first came here in 2015.” Mark goes on to explain that, since 2015, he’s taken every opportunity he’s been given to take photos in Ukraine. One involved a commission from ZOiS, or The Centre for Eastern European and International Studies in Berlin, to document people displaced by war throughout Eastern Ukraine. Another involved an assignment from New York Times magazine, photographing holiday makers in Odesa.
In a way, Mark believes that his love for Ukraine has made taking photographs here more challenging. "I am seeing things through a more emotional prism," he explains.
Despite his devotion to Ukraine - Neville moved to Kyiv permanently in October 2020 - he tells me his photography process here is the same as it is anywhere in the world. He visits the same locations and people time and again - so they get used to him, he says. He asks permission before taking a photo and tries to speak to people in their native language. He adds that he’s currently learning Russian.
Consisting of Mark’s photographs, Lyuba Yakimchuk’s short stories about living in Russian-occupied Donbas and research carried out by ZOiS, ‘Stop Tanks with Books’, Mark says, is a “call to action”. He is now sending out 750 complimentary copies to politicians, celebrities, ambassadors, negotiators and the media - anyone who, he says, has it in their power to help Ukraine.
When I ask what he believes ‘Stop Tanks with Books’ will achieve, his response is as much personal as it is political. Mark explains that he doesn’t want to lose his "adopted home, nor see [his] friends and their families lose their lives defending the country’s independence." He returns to the book’s social impact: “Each of my book initiatives have had a social purpose… This one is no different.”
‘Stop Tanks with Books’ is published by Nazraeli Press and Setanta Books. Mark Neville is continuing to work on projects in Ukraine, as well as another major project about childhood poverty, commissioned by GRAIN projects, in Birmingham, England.