Exodus it is what it is: you’re driven out, expelled but ultimately to finish that story there’s a return and at least that story existed in the minds of those people I had met on the border
On the 30th of June Jonathan Small, one of our artists, opened his first exhibition in Berlin. “Well, where do we go now?” is a photographic record recounting the travel of Ukrainian refugees via the Ukraine-Slovakia border in a three-point route. The main focus is presenting the manifestation of unconditional and hard-wired love of mothers to their children while fleeing from the war. Emotionally overwrought, dazed and confused countless mothers move strictly forward until it comes to a physically demanded break, and after adrenalin slumber has set them free for some minutes they burst into tears. Through this visual narrative, the photographer made it accessible for the beholders to incorporeally witness the exodus of these several Ukrainian families.
First of all, La Livella congratulates you on your new project! Would you share with us what was it that triggered and pushed you to take off to the Ukraine – Slovakia border and collect the footage you are displaying within your exhibition?
There were two big deterring factors. One is that I was reading the news over and over and was so mad. Like we talked about someone watching TV and screaming at the television and feeling helpless. But at about a perfect time I found out that a friend of mine, a Russian-Israeli filmmaker, was going to Slovakia to make a film. I directly contacted him. On our way there we picked up some of his crew and went to the border together.
We didn’t know what to expect. Having arrived there, we realised that the border of the refugee camp was very well stocked and they didn’t need more stuff, but what they really needed was volunteers who would interact with refugees. We weren’t trained social workers and were not for emotional support there, but we had a feeling like that’s what maybe we could do. So, we ended up travelling with families: carrying their bags and playing with children.
Beyond the anger and frustration, there was something else that pushed me to move. I hadn’t realised it until halfway through there. My grandmother was from Odessa and she fled Odessa in 1890 something because of her Jewish origin. The Cossacks came during the pogroms and they had killed her father. Halfway through our trip, I saw women and children fleeing war, exactly like my grandma did with her mother 130 years ago.
One of the descriptions of your photographs contains the word “exodus” – a pretty historically rooted word with a certain message behind it.
Flight is to me like a one-way thing: these people are leaving but there’s no real sense of how much they want to go home. For me, an exodus is an expulsion but it also implies “we’ll return to our homeland”. I thought: “exodus, it is what it is: you’re driven out, expelled but ultimately to finish that story there’s a return and at least that story existed in the minds of those people I had met on the border”. I like the way this word looks and sounds and I also like its biblical implication. I think it gives more weight to the movement of the people.
Apparently, there is still something wrong within our society. Despite the unprecedented access to the Internet and social media, people of different origins, cultures or generations are not attempting to simply hear and see one another.
Absolutely. One of my first exhibitions was in Tel Aviv where I did portraits of my friends from Eritrea. In that society, you see people working in kitchens together but there is no room for interaction. It’s very segregated. The idea of the exhibition was to have everyone meet each other. The portraits would be on the wall but the subjects of the portraits would be there to talk to this other community that they generally would not have met.
I remember feeling like the idea itself was really simple but at the same time, I didn’t underestimate how much cut-off people are from each other. And, if you could do the basic minimum – open the door and invite people into a room – you realise that they are actually talking to each other and laughing with each other. It turns out that they all want the same things: food, safety for their kids and moving ahead. But the biggest hurdle is having people understand each other and being able to live with each other. If my work sparks you or makes you a little more empathetic, it would be the best reward for me.
 For those who wants to visit the exposition: https://www.visitberlin.de/de/event/well-where-do-we-go-then