When war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, transforming thriving communities into ghost towns overnight. As classrooms became sniper nests, family homes became barracks and community centres turned into ammunition caches, precious remnants of peacetime life were consumed by the war. Among these lost relics are the remains of a bombed-out Soviet photographic lab – with hundreds of rolls of film left rotting among the rubble.
The photojournalist Samuel Eder found the film in April 2019, while in Ukraine representing the Foundation For Independent Journalism (The Wire) and working on a photographic series for the War Photo Limited Gallery.
Most of the photos appear to have been shot during the Soviet period, and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service was able to identify several locations as being in the Donbas region and Russia.
Samuel describes coming upon the building. “On the front lines of Ukraine’s war zone, I was met with a strange yet oddly familiar sight. My partner and I had spent the day trudging through the ghost towns of the eastern front, capturing the bombed-out remains of peacetime life. The room I found myself in was different, odd twisted pieces of metal and an overwhelming smell of vinegar eerily reminiscent of my home – I was standing in the disfigured remains of a photographic darkroom.”
Most of the film had been severely damaged by the elements, but much of it is remarkably well-preserved, giving a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in the region’s Soviet-era rural communities, and often on colour film.
A large proportion of the photographs were shot with 35mm cameras while others, like these of the wedding party and football team, were shot with 6x6cm medium-format cameras, which was unusual during the Soviet period.
A school in the Ukrainian town of Opytne, likely during the Soviet period, and the same location photographed by Samuel in April.
The lady in this photograph got in touch after some of the images were first published, but did not want to be identified. She said to Samuel: “This photo was taken in May 1992. At that time, I was in seventh grade. This day is still in my memory. Everyone was so excited and solemn my heart was racing – photography was at that time a rarity for us. We were all photographed with our classes outside the school, and then we took separate pictures with friends, boyfriends and so on. I still have a framed photo of my friends and myself from that day, standing by the lilac bushes. These photos and memories are very dear to me – especially now when one realises all those homes were destroyed. Take care of these childhood memories.”
Samuel recalls finding the negatives: “I began sifting through the rubble and spent bullet casings, scanning for booby traps and unexploded ordnance. I unearthed a mouldy box of negatives and, curious to see if any photographs remained, I carefully unravelled a roll. Against the grey sky, I was able to make out the decaying remnants of a school dance – recognising the building I was now standing in. After examining a few more rolls, I realised I was standing amongst a goldmine of memories, fragments of history abandoned and left to rot on the front lines.”
Samuel was given permission by the soldiers to take the film, and hopes tthat publishing the photographs will help him to return the abandoned negatives and slides to their owners: “With my military escort enjoying a cigarette outside, I began cramming my pockets with every roll I could find, fearing I would not be allowed to recover these potentially sensitive bundles of history. With time running out, we returned to the military outpost, cautiously hiding the archive of film I had taken with me. However, as we sat down for tea, the image of the remaining rolls and the mysteries they held continued to haunt me, eventually pushing me to gingerly ask the officer in command if I could return to the building to collect what I had discovered. To my astonishment, he replied with: ’Sure, take whatever garbage you want.’
“As we returned to the darkroom, with a tight deadline, we began cramming rubbish bags with hundreds of rolls of film, the onlooking military personal amused to see two young journalists frantically diving through what they thought to be trash. Eventually, as the fighting grew closer, we were forced to leave, our little car filled to the brim with rolls of film as we trundled in between minefields under the cover of darkness.”
Samuel spent the next week sorting through the collection and began piecing together a picture of life before the war: “As an analogue photographer, I came to feel a connection with the photographers behind these images – envisioning their process of winding on each new frame, waiting to pull the trigger and the quiet hours spend developing in the now desecrated darkroom.”
Many rolls were damaged after exposure to years of fighting, the emulsion of the film melting away. “The war left its mark upon these memories, as it had done to the lives of those in the photographs. Eventually, I began scanning the archive, in hopes of reuniting these priceless memories with their rightful owners – returning some of what they had lost.”
Thankfully, this story and the accompanying photographs have already managed to reach a small number of people from the now-abandoned village in question. One resident named Valentina, the granddaughter of the darkroom’s director, recently reached out to Samuel to help unveil some of the mysteries among the historical archive.
Valentina, who made contact with Samuel, is the second child from the right in this image. Below are photographs of her aunt, sister and grandmother.
“I want to express my deep gratitude to you for recovering these images; they are priceless … I am touched and shocked. When I saw these photographs, I cried; they are part of my and my family’s history. When the fighting first broke out, no one believed the war would escalate as it did, families planned on leaving only for a few days and ended up never returning. It is not possible to describe the war to someone who has not experienced it. You become filled with animalistic fear for oneself and one’s loved ones – these events change people irrevocably. People didn’t want this war. They simply wanted to live. Donbas was a beautiful and cultured place, filled with hardworking people. By the age of 27, I considered myself successful. I had an apartment, car, leadership position and a large family – the war took all that away. What you have found is very valuable, thank you for preserving the memory of my ancestors – now we can honour and be grateful for the history of our family, which we thought we had lost. Valentina.”
So far, Samuel has only been able to digitise a handful of images from this mammoth collection, with more than 600 rolls waiting to give up their secrets. Encompassing every aspect of life – work, leisure and even death – this archive offers an intimate insight into life in Donetsk, dating back to the height of the USSR. If you were a resident of Donetsk or the surrounding area, please feel free to reach out.