Sowing seeds of hope

Shrimansi Kaushik

HYDERABAD: Inspired by the viral video of a Ukrainian woman offering sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers so that ‘sunflowers grow, when people die’ photographer Saurabh Narang started a  multimedia art project titled, ‘Sunflowers Will Still Grow.’ The project documents the stories of Ukrainian refugees who fled to Gummersbach, Germany after the Russia-Ukraine war started on February 24, 2022. 

Narang, an award-winning Indian visual storyteller, collaborated with Anastasiia Reshetnyk, a Ukrainian refugee in Gummersbach, who helped him establish communication with the refugees, translate their stories into English and do the writing for the project. Born and brought up in Delhi, Saurabh has been into photography for the past ten years. Through this project, the banker-turned-photographer aims to preserve cultural stories that serve as important visual evidence in the history of human culture and migration. 

Anastasiia Reshetnyk

“This project sanctifies the life of Ukrainians in times of war and sheds light on how people continue to live by their culture despite difficulties. The project raises pressing social issues of interpersonal relationships. It helps people get acquainted with Ukrainian culture and also, perhaps, find answers to their pressing questions. How Ukrainians dress, cook, communicate, think, raise their children, observe traditions and forgive—one can learn all this, thanks to the heroes of the ‘Sunflowers will still grow’ project,” said Anastasiia. 

Walking us through the process of documenting these unique stories of Ukrainian refugees, Saurabh said, “In my story, it’s more about curiosity. I was really curious to know more about my new neighbours. I moved to Germany in 2020 and in February 2022, the war started. My first thought was to go and cover the war around the Ukraine-Poland border, where a lot of Germans were going to bring Ukrainians to host them at their homes. But I am not a trained war photographer or a war journalist, so I did not act on that thought. After some time, the refugees started to move to my neighbourhood in Gummersbach. Slowly, I started meeting them in playgrounds, in local churches and cafes.

I found my collaborator, Anastasiia, who is good in the local language, Ukrainian, Russian and English. She helped me find people who were interested in sharing their stories. We were trying to focus on Ukrainian culture and how the refugees who are now settled in Germany, pass on their cultural heritage to younger generations and their journey of integration into Germany. We have been doing it for more than a year now and have covered seven families who have shared their very personal and sensitive stories about Ukrainian culture.” 

Narang added that the similarities between Indian and Ukrainian cultures helped him connect with his subjects on a deeper level. “I was able to find a lot of similarities. Be it the hairstyle or the food. One example is about parents living together with their children. They have a very strong bond. Like in India, we have a strong bond with our family. They trace their ancestral and historical roots to the Cossacks, the brave warriors who defended the freedom of Ukrainians. I come from a Punjabi family and I can relate to their fighting spirit and the idea of service is also similar to the Punjabi community in India,” Narang said. 

Saurabh Narang

On being asked how he approaches his subjects, he said, “I started meeting a lot of refugees in my neighbourhood. Just going and talking to them and trying to understand what they are going through. There is a lot of empathy involved because as I moved to Germany I witnessed a very different culture. It’s not easy for somebody from a different country, especially from a warmer culture to settle in. It’s very hard to make friends. The language is quite difficult. I was able to relate to what they were going through, in terms of integration into a new country. Anastasiia’s role was quite significant at this point. She established the basic rapport with the subjects which helped me a lot.”

Saurabh specified that the idea of the project was to focus on the elements of culture and history that the subjects are proud of. Talking about war and its ramifications was not put at the forefront. “We didn’t ask them directly. If they wanted to share, we were there to listen. Another process was to just go and listen to stories without the camera. We have met them without the camera and just listening to their stories, whatever they were comfortable in sharing with us,” he said. 

On being asked what was the most memorable story, he said, “I love all portraits but I think Kateryna’s story is really interesting and Raisa, who is about 75 years old. She has a very different energy. She would talk about the Cossacks. When enemies came from the south, the Cossacks sent their wives and kids to the north and when they defeated their enemies, they would call their wives and kids back home and that’s how things are going on right now. Also, many of them are going back to Ukraine, leaving all the Western comforts. Talking to Raisa was an enriching experience because she could talk at length. Each time I would get goosebumps listening to her, with all her expressions.” 

Saurabh’s advice to aspiring photographers is to focus on covering neighbourhood stories with in-depth research and persistence. Instead of choosing exotic locations to shoot, establishing rapport with communities, and spending time with them helps bring out a richer piece of work. 

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