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'Saints:' Photographer Sasha Maslov on documenting self-sacrifice in Ukraine during war

by Masha Lavrova June 6, 2024 6:10 PM 6 min read
Screengrab from Sasha Maslov's interview for The Kyiv Independent. (The Kyiv Independent)
by Masha Lavrova June 6, 2024 6:10 PM 6 min read
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Sasha Maslov is a Ukrainian-American photographer who divides his time between Kyiv and New York. At the start of the full-scale invasion, he returned to Kyiv to document the war.

His work, which has been showcased in galleries and art spaces across Europe and the United States, includes regular contributions to prominent magazines and publications. But Maslov's most recent work is the photo book “Saints.”

The book captures the stories of individuals during the Russian war against Ukraine from 2022 to 2023.

Through this work, Maslov explores the concepts of modern-day sanctity and self-sacrifice among Ukrainians, which have evolved over a decade of the war.

Front cover of "Saints" photo books. (Courtesy of IST Publishing)

The book showcases more than 100 photographs and stories of people serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, dedicated volunteers, and ordinary citizens contributing to their nation’s defense.

Many of these courageous men and women have been killed or are missing, making the photo book a poignant tribute to lives lost and a celebration of those saved.

The Kyiv Independent: Who first put a camera in your hands? What inspired you to pursue photography?

Sasha Maslov: My father is a photographer, and I grew up around photography. Like any other boy, I wanted to be like my father, so I picked up a camera when I was a child and have never stopped taking pictures since then.

The Kyiv Independent: What was the inspiration for the book?

Sasha Maslov: The inspiration behind this book is the stories of personal self-sacrifice. In the first month of the full-scale invasion, I met many people who put everything on the line. I realized these stories needed to be told, and that's when the idea to make the book was formed. I approached (the social enterprise) Saint Javelin with this idea. They were very excited about it, and we started working together in May 2022.

The Kyiv Independent: The book is titled "Saints." Can you explain the significance of this title?

Sasha Maslov: The title itself is interpretive, but in this context, I wanted to call it "Saints" because the people whose stories are featured in this book have become saints for somebody. Each individual story represents personal sacrifice and sainthood. Ukrainians have sacrificed a lot in this war. People have put their own lives, families, businesses, and everything they had on the line to save others. Some have made the ultimate sacrifice, and each person, knowingly or unknowingly, becomes a saint for somebody, which is why the title is "Saints."

Maryna Koneva, who helped to get Sasha Maslov's family out of Kharkiv. (Sasha Maslov)

Sasha Maslov: When the full-scale invasion began, I was in New York and started making arrangements to travel back to Ukraine. Meanwhile, part of my family was still in Kharkiv. My good friend Maryna Koneva, who we all called “Miss Mouse,” helped get my family out of Kharkiv. It was a very dramatic escape, but they were able to leave Kharkiv, and I have everything to thank Maryna for. That’s why she became my personal saint, and that's why I wanted to open the book with her portrait and short story, which is nestled within my preface to the book.

The Kyiv Independent: What is the story behind Maryna's photo?

Sasha Maslov: This photo was taken when Maryna actually came back to Kyiv after spending a few months in Kharkiv. She was very worn out because she volunteered mostly with evacuations and delivering medicine and goods to elderly people. The first few months were very intense in Kharkiv. She saw Kharkiv being destroyed in front of her eyes and people suffering. She saw a lot of stuff there. She needed a break, and she came to Kyiv, and that's when I took her photo.

The Kyiv Independent: What is the story behind Yevhen Baboshchenko's photo?

Sasha Maslov: I met Yevhen Baboshenko in Kherson, I believe, on the third or fourth day after the city's liberation. He was working at a tire repair shop. At the beginning of the invasion, he joined the territorial defense forces, but he decided to stay when the Russians surrounded and occupied the city.

Yevgeny hid his weapons and uniform, continuing to work at the tire shop while secretly passing information to the Ukrainians. He was so secretive that he didn't even know his nephew, who worked in the same shop, was also assisting the Ukrainians. He only discovered this a few months into the occupation.

After Kherson was liberated, Yevhen rejoined the armed forces. Later, I texted him, but his wife responded, telling me he had been killed near Bakhmut. I asked for permission to include his photo and story in the book, and she agreed. This is one of the stories that truly touched my heart.

Selecting individuals for this book was incredibly challenging because there are so many stories that deserve to be told. We aimed to capture a wide range of experiences, from small miracles to enormous ones and from minor sacrifices to significant acts of selflessness.

We included people from various fields, diverse backgrounds, large and small towns, villages, and the countryside. Our goal was to illustrate the vast scale of self-sacrifices during the full-scale invasion.

Evhenii Baboschenko, 44, a tire shop manager in Kherson, was at his local military recruitment center at 8 am on the 25th of February. (Sasha Maslov)

The Kyiv Independent: What camera and lenses do you use for your photography?

Sasha Maslov: I take all my portraits with a medium-format camera. Some photos are taken with a 35mm Leica, which is much faster, but I usually use medium format for portraits.

The Kyiv Independent: The photos have a relatively deep focus. Is this important to how you capture your subjects?

Sasha Maslov: For this project, yes. I wanted to separate the background from the subjects, giving the portraits a Renaissance or icon-like feel to portray people as saints.

The spread of the "Saints" photo book. (Courtesy of IST Publishing)

The Kyiv Independent: What is the core message you hope to convey with this book?

Sasha Maslov: I wanted to document the stories of people and share them with the world, highlighting the personal sacrifices made by individuals.

Often, the images of destroyed buildings and soldiers in trenches seen on TV fail to capture the extent of what each person has risked to help others and fight for their people's freedom. By telling a few of these stories, I hope to provide a glimpse into the immense sacrifices Ukrainians have made. This is just a drop in the ocean, but it's a step towards helping people understand the true cost of their struggle.

The Kyiv Independent: What do you hope the world understands about Ukrainians through your work?

Sasha Maslov: I don't hold any illusions that a photograph can stop the war or make people truly understand the reality of what's happening here. Unless they are here, it's impossible to fully grasp.

However, I hope this book will serve as a small reminder of the immense sacrifices people make for the values that most of the world shares. It's a way to honor their bravery and keep their stories alive.

Sasha Maslov will present his book in the SENS bookstore on Khreshchatyk  in Kyiv on June 6 at 7 p.m. local time.

Author of famous Azovstal photos on documenting Ukraine’s iron resistance in Mariupol
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. While hiding from almost non-stop Russian bombardment in the dark and cold bunkers of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Dmytro Kozatskyi took his most famous and arguably most valuable photographs. He showed the world wha…

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