One picture says more than a thousand words – journalist Jacob Rebicki on the role of art in wartime

He tells interesting stories and publishes – as he calls them – “beautiful pictures”. On his website, photographer and reporter Jakob Rebicki presents “Seeing Stories” of the world captured by the eye of the lens. The artist’s portraits are enriched with descriptions of the situation and context. He was in Ukraine in 2014 during the Euromaidan War and the Donbas War. Also went there this year. We talk with Jakub Rybicki about war, nature revival, environmental disasters, the Chernobyl power plant, and art.

What are the consequences of the nature of military operations?

In addition to the obvious losses, such as ordnance at the bottom of rivers and water tanks (and thus the spillage of fuel and other toxic substances), the burning of fuel bases and oil tanks is also more deadly pollution, such as “collapse” Ammunition and bullet casings and missile components.

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Ukraine 2014, Special material provided by Jakub Rybicki

So a lot of lead…

Toxic lead. But it should be noted here that, for example, in the Polish forests, bullet ammunition (mainly used in hunting weapons, so such ammunition would not be common in Ukraine) is a problem. In Poland (and not only), waterfowl eat pellets at the bottom of tanks, and predators eat them in the meat of victims. Every year in the European Union, poachers leave up to 50,000 tons of lead in fields, forests and water, which is a highly toxic element.

As of 2022, the use of lead in wetlands is prohibited in the European Union.

Since we are with animals. We cannot forget that they are also victims of war.

Definitely. War puts enormous pressures on animals, which may lead to behavioral disturbances, but also lead, for example, to reduced fertility. Flocks of frightened birds are known to use more energy and therefore have to consume more food – under normal circumstances, this bothers farmers who eat grain from their fields. But what if the fields are not planted? Where will they look for food?

The problem of food shortage will also affect people.

In every war, food is scarce, agricultural production and supplies are interrupted, and if the conflict continues, animals can be treated as food. Both Russian and Ukrainian soldiers (if they went to guerrilla operations) could search for food in the forests and steppes.

Fires are also a major threat to nature.

If there is a drought, we can expect arson as a result of hostilities. This is very dangerous.

In early April 2020, massive fires broke out in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. They could have released radioactive elements into the atmosphere, not to mention carbon dioxide and losses in nature. Soon, a fire broke out in the Biebrza River. Droughts in unusual seasons will affect us more and more. If it interferes with military actions, it can lead to more fires.

Unfortunately, the climate change we are seeing is making the situation worse.

Moreover, climate change also contributes to wars! An example is the war in Syria. The outbreak of social discontent came on the heels of a prolonged drought. Many Syrians were forced to move from the countryside to the cities, where they often had no work and no means to live in dignity. This situation was favorable to extremes of mood.

You mentioned Chernobyl. This is a place where nature has shown its power.

Chernobyl is now one of the largest wild nature reserves in Europe. In total, the restricted areas of Ukraine and Belarus occupy an area of ​​just over 4,144 square kilometers. Although national parks are not established in “exclusion zones,” strict protections are in place in reality. The only exception is managing forests to prevent fires that can release pollution into the atmosphere. Intensive afforestation also occurred in the Belarusian part. Today, more than 70% of the most polluted area is located within the borders of Belarus and serves as a Polisskyi Radiation and Environmental Reserve. The possibilities to visit the area are limited, but not impossible. On the Ukrainian side, the Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve for Eco-Radiation was established.

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Ukraine 2014, Special material provided by Jakub Rybicki

What does this mean for human life and the balance of nature?

It turns out that humans are more of a problem than radiation. Animals instinctively avoid the most contaminated sites and the number of mutations is moderate. Scientists argue about its size, but there are certainly no wolves or three-headed snakes that glow green. After the people left, the area was restored very quickly. The meadows and fields became overgrown, the orchards became wild, and the drained swamps returned to their original state after the sewage channels were flooded. The reconstruction of the fauna in these areas is fascinating in itself – it began with the infestation of rodents for which the homes of humans and grain were the true paradise. Currently, the number of animals is stable and much richer than in the forests of Europe.

What man appeared after a long absence in the region?

About 70 species currently found in the region are listed in the “Red Book of Endangered Species” or in the “Belarusian Red Book of Animals”. He returned, among other things, a brown bear, not seen here in 200 years.

It is a great place to see nature.

I expect that in the coming years there will be a wider opening of the area to both tourists and naturalists, assuming, of course, that we will return to normal. On the Ukrainian side, preparations for this have already been made. I mean not only regular excursions to the deserted city of Pripyat that have been taking place for many years, which in themselves show how nature triumphs over civilization, but also cruises around Pripyat, whose bed has been deepened, and other forms of tourism in them. Region.

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Ukraine 2014, Special material provided by Jakub Rybicki

You deal with the art of photography on a daily basis. Tell us how images affect us and what role they play in our lives.

This is a beautiful and difficult question. Most of us are visual learners. The saying that “one picture says more than a thousand words” came out of nowhere. Currently, we can actually watch the war live – at any time we are overwhelmed by a constant stream of movies and photos from the battlefield. No matter how terrible they are, sooner or later they will become familiar. The human brain has already been built in such a way that we are unable to react with the same force to repeated images.

How does it affect people, and how does it shake them so that they do not remain indifferent to suffering?

Either you provide them with more and more radical images, or you take them to a different level, which is what we call art. Art is a dialogue between the work and the viewer and evokes feelings in them. How do I do it? This is a question for the artist. It can be a reference to cultural cliches, the multiple dimensions of an image, unique aesthetics, or a combination with a suggestive commentary that suggests an interpretation. A good image (including an image, of course) is always a metaphor, a reference to a higher level. Here I see the role of the artist.

What is your way of releasing your thoughts while staying on top of war reports?

art is useful. From the previous conflict in Ukraine – the European field – I brought posters / paintings by Andrei Yermolenko. They are hung in my house now and remind me of these events, as well as some pictures. The work is timeless and the movie lives for minutes, hours, and days. That’s why I’m now looking for artists, not just Ukrainians, to get out of the flow of information and stop and think. It is not easy to pick out gems from the images that come to us every day, but I highly encourage you to do so, perhaps it will give us more than just watching the news.

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Jacob Rebicki

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