PHOTOS: Inside a new Portsmouth exhibit documenting the Ukrainian refugee crisis

Photographers Anastasiia Zazuliak and Patrick Patterson had never met in person before deciding to meet on Ukraine’s border with Poland. But in March, they brought their cameras and spent a week there together, filming people crossing the border to take refuge from war in Ukraine. Their photograph is now on display at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth.

Patterson lives on the coast. When news of the war in Ukraine broke, he started looking for a Ukrainian photographer to work with and found Zazuliak on Instagram. Zazuliak is from Ukraine, but moved to Poland two years ago where she continued her photography. After just a few days of exchanging messages on Instagram, the two put their plan into motion.

“I think there was an apparent sense of honesty and authenticity with [Zazuliak’s] work and his style matches my style,” Patterson said of discovering Zazuliak’s work. “I decided to reach out and cosmic alignment happened and we were able to connect and make it work.”

Zazuliak and Patterson said it was initially difficult to build relationships with refugees coming from across the border. Authentic photography requires trust. But as the days passed, they met more and more people who opened up to them, often with the help of native-speaking Zazuliak.

“I think photography is about good quality images, but it’s also about confidence and building that bridge,” Zazuliak said. “That’s what I try to achieve with my art.”

Patterson clarified that Zazuliak was not traveling to translate for him. She was there as a photographer just like him. But he said the connections she was able to make as a Ukrainian woman were invaluable⁠⁠, especially because the vast majority of people crossing the border were women and children.

“I think her natural personality and the way she carries herself allows her to connect with just about anyone,” Patterson said. “But in those circumstances, I really think it opened the doors to a lot of opportunities.

Many of the photos Zazuliak and Patterson have taken show children facing what might be the most difficult time of their lives so far. They said part of their process of building trust was to get involved and help mothers with distressed children.

“You see [a] crying child and you just want to put your camera aside and help [the mother] just to calm his kids down and just to make them feel comfortable,” Zazuliak said. “They don’t know what’s going on.”

In addition, they provided transportation and helped house the refugees they worked with. It wasn’t the way you’d think a traditional journalist would act, but they said that’s not what they were trying to do. It was important for them not only to observe, but to help.

“I’m glad we put our cameras down most of the time and helped people out,” Patterson said. “The last thing I want to do is walk into a place and treat it like a zoo.”

Zazuliak said she hopes the exhibit will inspire clients to think differently about how photographers operate.

“I think the most important thing people will take away from this exhibit is [a] different understanding of the role of the photographer,” she said. “[A] photographer is not only a journalist, but also a person who can help others.

Patterson agreed, adding that he hoped when people looked at the photos they thought more about the differences in how the global community responds to crises.

“Thousands of women and children cross the border every day. [They’re] just like the people who are currently in the same situation and in northern Ethiopia. They are human beings,” Patterson said. “I would like to start a conversation about how we can be more equitable and how we respond to that.”

Zazuliak and Patterson’s exhibition, “Dispatches From the Border,” runs at 3S Artspace May 6-29.

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