Story #133. Behind Blue Eyes Project: Children Document the War

January 24, 2024
The story of how children from the de-occupied and frontline territories document the war with disposable film cameras.

Behind Blue Eyes is a project founded by two Ukrainian activists Dmytro and Artem who, in addition to giving food and gifts to children, provide them with disposable film cameras. In this way, children become documentarians, capturing the essence of war through their unfiltered and liberated childhood perspectives, making their accounts truly unique.

How does it work?

Children in the de-occupied and frontline oblasts of Ukraine receive disposable film cameras with which they document their childhood without any guidance, intervention, or supervision. This work is then shared with the adult community, and funds are raised to help children realize their dreams, written in letters, which the children return with the films.

One of the children's letters in which the boy Nazar asks for a toy tank with a remote control and candy
Dasha, 14 years old: I dream of becoming a more or less famous artist; tasty food for Murochka the cat; my parents not to be sick; money.
A tablet to study; a Chihuahua dog; to see the sea; a box of Mars chocolates; wireless headphones; a new phone for my mom.
I want to travel, to play with my friends in a place where it's calm and there is a table. Yegor Gulenko, 10 years old.

UkraineWorld spoke with Artem Skorokhodko, co-founder of the Behind Blue Eyes project. Here is their story.

Co-founder of the project Artem Skorokhodko
Co-founder of the project Dmytro Zubkov

Before the full-scale invasion, Dmytro owned a chain of pizzerias in Kyiv. At the start of the full-scale war, activists used the restaurant's basement as a shelter.

That marked the start of Artem and Dmytro's volunteer work. They cooked for pensioners, territorial defence, and the military. The activists learned about the de-occupation of Chernihiv Oblast while communicating with the military at the end of March.

"We were asked to deliver food to the surrounding villages. We were among the first volunteers to take this route: Yahidne, Sloboda, and Lukashivka."

The activists communicated with the local governments of these three villages and began delivering food.

"On Monday, we collect the request, spend a week formulating it, and on Sunday, we supply everything people need," says Artem.

"Lukashivka has always been the final destination. We ended up making friends with local kids and teenagers. It was like a kind of community. They met us when we arrived and saw us off upon leaving. We developed our own kind of traditions."

"At the time, Dmytro and I realized that, while we were doing a good thing by providing humanitarian aid, it was rather monotonous. We had children from those villages contact us, telling us how they have survived the occupation and each has their own story. So, in an effort to console them in some way, we brought not only matches and fuel, but also toys. We had a lot of ideas: we wanted to bring someone famous along, organize an event, or do something else."

"Somehow, we came up with the idea of cameras because we used to use the tool of disposable film cameras for advertising purposes before."

Since Artem and Dmytro had a background in marketing, they came up with a creative solution.

Dmytro suggested handing out cameras to the locals and raising money from the upcoming photo exhibition to buy gifts for the children.

"Later, we concluded that it would be more interesting to give these cameras to children because their vision and mood are different from adults"

"Even in times of war, children are still children."

"This contrast was very striking. You arrive in a destroyed village, see tanks, and then suddenly, children are running about, playing ball, and joking about Putin."

"We had nine cameras," recalls Artem. - "We threw them in with the toys, to those interested, and taught them how to use them. Dmytro and I agreed that we would not tell them what to shoot and would instead let them take photos on their own until our next visit. It was the last week of April."

"In May, we received the cameras, developed the film, and realized that the photos were incredibly moving. They have both artistic and documentary value."

The activists made contact with local schools in order to take back the cameras. Teachers would mail cameras to Artem and Dmytro so they could develop the films and return to the village with paper photos. The activists encountered logistical challenges at times. Some villages lacked a post office. People had to travel to the nearest settlement and send cameras.

After seeing the first photos, the activists realized that this could be a long-term project rather than a one-time exhibition.

So far, the activists have already brought film cameras to Prymorske, Chornobaivka, and Sviatohirsk. Now Artem, Dmytro, and their team of 5 more people are on a tour of the southern part of Ukraine.

When this cycle is completed, there will be 10 villages on the project's route.

The project's archives include approximately 2,000 photographs taken by children.

The activists observed that the project has evolved into more than just an attraction for children,but also a form of therapy.

According to Artem, it is often difficult for children to discuss their experiences of living under occupation. The photographs allow them to voice themselves.

"We return and show the children their photos - a stage of personal communication."

"Children are very excited by the fact that they don't see what they're photographing until the film is developed. It takes about a month before we return. During this time, children may forget they ever took a photograph. They forget who we are. When we bring these photos back, they go absolutely crazy!"

"Looking at their own photos, it becomes much easier for them to talk about traumatic experiences. When they begin to describe what is in the picture to us, they find it easier to speak because they have images to reference from."

In their photos, children emphasize what they love.

"If a child loves animals, then the whole film will be full of pictures with animals," Artem says, smiling.

The most common photos are of sunsets, cats, and dogs, followed by friends and their surroundings.

"When the weather was bad and there was no school, children resorted to photographing their homes. In comparison, an adult would first clean up, arranging everything to make the scene aesthetically pleasing. Whereas Children photograph 'everything as it is.'"

Laughing, Artem recalls one of the photos.

"The mother of the child taking the photo is posing on the couch, putting her hand on her knee to make the photo look good." Meanwhile, the child is photographing her, recreating everyday life with no decorations, and it's clear that mom is unaware of the outcome of the photo shoot. Behind the mother is a pipe that heats the room, and socks are drying on the pipe. It's a child's perspective; an adult would never take a picture like that."

"It's funny to think about what expectations adults have of these photos."

Unexpectedly for the activists, these disposable cameras have become a bridge that forms a community: children teach their friends how to take pictures, or children teach their parents.

The project's authors have already presented the photos taken by the children at a significant exhibition in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts.

They intend to publish a photo album containing de-occupation stories and are already gathering the materials to make the photo album as best they can.

To continue their humanitarian missions to the de-occupied and frontline areas of Ukraine, the activists enlisted the support of USAID. Meanwhile, generous people are helping to buy gifts for the children. Anyone can become a donor by visiting the project's website.

More photos taken by the children can be found on the project's Instagram page.

Nika Krychovska
Journalist at UkraineWorld