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Are you ever struck by the perfection or the stillness of an everyday moment? Sergiy Barchuk seeks these little moments of wonder. Photographing everyday objects and bringing them to life in his own version of inanimate portraiture, Barchuk’s photography sparks intrigue and mediative reflection through minimalism.

We talk to him about his inspirations, and his recent aims to raise money for the children’s hospital Ohmatdyt in Ukraine through his photos, which reflect on his childhood in idyllic countryside Ukraine and remind viewers that Ukraine was something completely different before war.

You’re a Ukrainian photographer based in New York who captures the meditative silence and harmony in everyday objects, striving to show the beauty of stillness in your striking minimalist still life photos. How would you describe your work?
That’s a pretty great description! It’s like portraiture for objects, I want each thing I photograph to feel unique and special. I’ve always loved tinkering and playing with little objects as a kid, so the root of my practice really goes back to being three or four years old, when everything felt magical and so new.
You define your style as “the transcendent moments that happen in the mundane.” Can you expand on this?
To me, photography is very meditative. The best photograph happens when I feel that I am truly lost in the present moment and open myself up to paying really close attention to what’s in front of me. That kind of stillness isn’t always readily available, but when it does arrive, I find it incredibly inspiring and beautiful. That’s when a regular mundane object, like a pear on a kitchen table, or a fork or a spoon seem to present themselves, and then I feel like I’m making a portrait of an object. Sometimes those moments jump out at random, at other times it takes a good while photographing and trying different things until I feel like I get there. But in the end, it’s always about a feeling I get, something about it feels special, like I received a gift.
How long does it take to set up one of your photos? I’ve noticed that a lot of your work is based around small objects, intricate detail, how they balance on one another, or the space they take up – like matchsticks set out in ordered rows, or stones assembled in a delicate tower. Is every photo set up by you, or are any of them organic?
It’s both really, and varies photo to photo. Sometimes I see an object and need to photograph it undisturbed right then and there. Any intervention feels unnecessary. Other times, I may see something in the woods or an antique shop and decide to bring it in to the studio, it may sit there for days or weeks before I feel ready to photograph it, and then a chance placement of another object next to it may make it feel alive and ready. When I set things up I strive to find a balance, both literal and in composition. I think of my photography as being formalist, I want it to feel beautiful whether or not you recognise what’s in front of the camera, something about the shape and the set up needs to draw you in.
Silence is an overarching theme in your work, and you’ve been said to remove the visual noise from human life in your photos. I read that you find this aspect of your work crucial currently due to our overstimulation and constant technological use. Do you think creating this idyllic and quiet space acts as a haven for ordinary moments and personal intimacy without current day distractions?
Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, photography is meditative for me and I think of it as an opportunity to create my own world. Ideally, it provides a sense of calm, consists mostly of natural materials and makes you question whether the tin can or a rock you’re looking at has a soul.
My work is certainly less about documenting the current reality and implications of human existence and more idealistic and hopeful in nature.

This quiet space has also been said to take the ego-centric view out of photography, as it focuses on subject matter that lives on without us there as the viewer and will still be there once we are gone. Your photography seems to tackle the idea that life and the planet moves in a silent routine without our influence, constantly – flowers blooming and wilting, sunlight refracting against glass, fruit being grown, all without our involvement. Can you talk to us about this idea?
That’s a great observation and I could not agree more. In my worldview, humans are a part of the world, as equal in it as a mouse or a tree. However, over the centuries we’ve developed this ego-centric worldview where we see ourselves as the centre of the universe, but objectively it’s the wrong kind of perspective to have. We are not the centre of the universe.
Life existed before humans and will exist after we’re gone. The thing that makes us special and stand out from other animals is our ability to be self-aware of our existence and observe life both subjectively and objectively. I find that to be really beautiful, to exist and revel in the beauty of life and yet to be aware that one day I will not longer be in this body.
I don’t think my dog has the same experience of life. She seems to be a lot more present, 100% of the time, yet unaware that this experience is temporary. That’s where photography comes in for me, it’s a practice of that subjective observation. Yet, as a photographer you also realise that all of these special moments will occur whether or not you capture them. For me, it’s an opportunity to make notes of what I found beautiful while I was here.
Your ongoing collection When Sky Was Earth is a testament to these intimate moments hidden in daily life and documents your own private moments of transcendence, in a way that is relatable to all people. I’ve read that it’s an investigation into how these moments shape both the past and the future. What is the idea behind this? Is it to use these moments to reflect and to look forward?
Yes, exactly. That project is kind of a personal photo album and meditation on life. The image taken in the present, will have a new meaning in the future and will also re-frame the past because we view the past differently once we know what future it led to. For instance, when I was a kid my parents would recreate photos of myself in the same positions that there were photos of my dad and grandfather when they were kids. It creates this kind of dialogue of images over the years and also makes you realise again that life is a cycle and you too will age one day and maybe there will be another baby getting their photograph taken laying butt naked on a blanket.
Documenting daily moments of stillness like this, you of course have chosen to portray how you – as a Ukrainian artist – have been affected by the horrific recent events in your home country. In particular, you provided a photo for the cover of Puss Puss Magazine, the international and free-spirited culture, music and fashion platform. I read that this photo of a large yellow sunflower in front of a blue sky not only represents the national colours of Ukraine, but the sunflower itself is the country’s national flower, carrying values of energy, life, fertility and unity, and has a more personal tie to you as you played in the fields in Western Ukraine near your grandmother’s dacha as a child. Can you talk to us about this photograph, and how it felt to capture something so nostalgic in relation to war?
The photograph was actually from my archive, it was taken in Kingston, NY. That’s another example of past and future reframing each other. I photographed that flower in passing on a peaceful sunny afternoon because it looked beautiful. There was no conscious intent to evoke any feelings of nostalgia or memories of my childhood or to speak about Ukraine specifically. But as time past, that image really grew to have a lot more meaning for me because it was reframed by the war. Although native to North America originally, the sunflowers really permeate Ukrainian existence. Visually, they punctuate the landscape and we would also consume copious amounts of sunflower seeds as a snack. The variety found there are these really oily seeds with thin black shells that are easy to break open. Grandmothers would be selling them in large bags in the farmers markets. When we were kids, if we didn’t have any change to buy them, we would just walk around the market and get small amounts to sample from each old lady selling them and fill our pockets like that.

You have also raised over five thousand dollars in a print sale for the children’s hospital Ohmatdyt in Ukraine, selling photographs of a juicy bitten plum, a pear core, a pear from behind, and the sunflower featured on Puss Puss – the collection of photos referencing the fertile soil and moniker of Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe. Once again, these photos relate to your childhood, due to the amount of fruit you would eat while with your grandparents, and the fact that you were a patient at Ohmatdyt as a child several times. How does it feel to raise money for a hospital you visited as a child, to support their current efforts to treat those injured by war?
It feels like life is a lot more connected than perhaps I realised. I found it really meaningful to be able to do something helpful for my community in Ukraine. I’ve lived in the United States for the past 17 years and in many ways before this war got started I saw my life as linear and more individualistic. Now, I feel like my life is a lot more circular and integrated, I realised that I’m a part of a larger historical community of people and that there’s a certain amount of responsibility that comes with that. I am not a fighter, but I try to find the ways in which I can help Ukraine and Ukrainian culture both now and in the long term.
Talk to us about the old family photographs you’ve paired with this collection on social media, that show you and your mother swimming in a river outside Kyiv. Does this act as a reminder of the people living happily in Ukraine before war?
Precisely, it’s meant to serve as a reminder that at some point violence and destruction felt as distant there as it may feel in the UK or US today. It was breaking my heart seeing all these images of war on social media and also realising that for many people that’s the only version of Ukraine they may have ever witnessed. That kind of imagery is important to document so people know what’s going on but it also normalises it. Now, when people think of Ukraine they will imagine bombed out buildings or people hiding in the basements, including those personal photos was meant to show that it’s not the norm and it wasn’t always like that and it shouldn’t be like that.
Thinking about your prioritisation of silence in your photography again, I have to wonder if the simple subject matter of flowers and fruit that are almost accompanied by a summers breeze is an intentional contrast to the constant noise and barrage of press coverage surrounding the war just now. Are these photos intended to show the war in a different perspective – focusing on the beauty and peace of what came before the invasion, rather than the current calamity?
It is meant to remind people that even throughout death and destruction, the world is still wonderful and you can find moments full of love, beauty and hope. I love seeing all the images of Ukrainian fighters having tender moments with kittens and puppies they live with, this gentleness paired with war and horror.
Ultimately, life and beauty on this planet will remain and will exist, even if we are too busy fighting each other to notice it.
Your work is deeply intimate, intricate, and nostalgic, while also thinking to the future. Where do you intend to go with this style next?
I think my biggest fear is becoming too callous and distracted with all the noise of society to notice how special this experience of living is. I want to continue feeling connected to life. I believe Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”. Well, I would like to continue practicing seeing the world like a child.

Eve McIntosh

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