Photo exhibit reveals people and culture of rural Ukraine

Renton History Museum displays Anna Mia Davidson’s photos in “Ukraine: Carpathian Mountain Villages” exhibit.

For most of the summer, black-and-white photographs of the people and villages of the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine have graced the Renton History Museum, allowing the folks of Renton to peek into the lives of rural Ukrainian people.

Though some photos look to be relics of the early 20th century, with knitted sweaters and horse-drawn carts, they were all taken in the early 2000s by Seattle-based photographer Anna Mia Davidson.

“I was seeing a lot of war-torn images of Ukraine and I was worried and heartbroken that the history of Ukraine and the ways of life, and all of the things that had transpired for people over the course of time, would be lost with the devastation of the war,” Davidson said. “I wanted to tell the visual story of a time right before the war, in 2004, which was when I was there.”

In the spring of 2004, Davidson and her interpreter and guide traveled to the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, where the Hutsul people live in remote villages and homesteads.

During an Artist Talk at the museum on Sept. 8, Davidson spoke of how the Hutsul and Carpathians have always helped harbor and shelter people, even now as Ukrainians flee the Russian invasion. The Carpathian Mountains reside in the western part of the country.

“I know a lot of us are thinking about the people of Ukraine right now,” said Renton History Museum Director Elizabeth Stewart. “It’s a very difficult time, so I think it’s a good time to look at Anna’s beautiful photographs and just become more familiar with people in this part of the world who are really challenged right now.”

Davidson spent about six weeks in Ukraine and she said that it felt much like a time warp. Davidson met a young woman who was transporting loose hay in a horse-drawn cart and she photographed a 90-year-old woman who was stacking firewood to warm her home.

“For me, with a camera, feeling the responsibility at the time to document and photograph some of these older ways of life that really felt at risk of just disappearing,” she said.

Davidson spoke of feeling like there would be a point where the culture wouldn’t be there anymore, especially considering how the youth of the villages were likely to move away to the bigger cities.

“I became interested in the youth of Ukraine and that’s the biggest question in my heart now: what is to become of these young people who either left or stayed and the country they had known and what it will become inevitably,” Davidson said.

After showing her photographs of the Ukrainian villages in a slideshow, Davidson switched gears a bit a talked about her Cuban photography project that she had had actually put on hold in order to travel to Ukraine.

“Cuba and Ukraine connect, to me,” Davidson said as she revealed lush black and white photographs from her time in Cuba. “Most obviously because of the ties to Russia.”

Davidson’s photographs in Cuba span over ten years from her first visit in 1999 and are immortalized in one of her two published books, “Cuba: Black and White.”

She talked about being a “witness to real life and not just tourist life” when in Cuba and spoke of a rhythm of life.

“There were strong feelings of community,” Davidson said of her time in Cuba. “Things didn’t feel taken for granted there.”

Davidson then spoke about her photographs from her other book, “Human Nature : Sustainable Farming in the Pacific Northwest”, and how she found a connection between the sustainable farmers in Cuba with the sustainable farmers in the Skagit Valley and how she needed to document it.

“I need to show an alternative and a farming movement,” Davidson said when describing the farming photographs and how an image of a Skagit farmer’s back when bending over resembles the greenhouse structure behind him. “It’s like the veins in the Cuban farmer’s neck looking like the leaves of the tobacco leaves he’s picking in that earlier photo.”

Davidson’s current photography project is a series on American Muslim women, which came about in 2017 during the Muslim Ban.

“My camera has been my tool for social change,” said Davidson.

“Ukraine: Carpathian Mountain Villages” will be displayed at the Renton History Museum until Sept. 16.

Davidson was given special permission from the Ukrainian government to travel through and photograph the villages, towns and people in the Carpathian mountains. Photo courtesy of Anna Mia Davidson.