“There is never one truth in a war. But years later we can look at events from the outside”

Photographer Artur Bondar about the unique photo archive of the Great Patriotic War he found

“There is never one truth in a war. But years later we can look at events from the outside”
Photo: courtesy of Artur Bondar

Ordinary family archives of the war in the USSR did not actually exist, photographer Artur Bondar told Realnoe Vremya. It was impossible to simply go outside with a camera: under the laws of wartime, this was equivalent to espionage, and the violator was threatened with execution. Only those who were accredited by the state could take photos. That's why our soldiers never took photos, Bondar explains. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, he spoke about his unique collection of negatives from the Second World War, photographer Valery Faminsky and the informal side of the war.

“After looking at Faminsky's negatives, I realized that these are not the photos that we see on posters and on TV”

How did you get the collection of photographer Valery Faminsky?

After moving to Russia from Ukraine, I was engaged in self-education, studied books on the history and culture of Russia and continued to be interested in the topic of the Second World War, including photography. In 2016, my friends sent me a link to the ad: Valery Faminsky's negatives were sold on Avito. I saw a lot of photos of the Second World War, I knew the names of many photographers of that time, but I had never heard of Faminsky, and there was no information about him on the Internet either. However, his negatives were put together by the classic Soviet method of archiving: each negative is wrapped in a piece of paper, signed what, where and when. It was obvious that this was an eyewitness to those events and a professional, not an amateur, a person who understood that he was saving something important.

Photo: Valery Faminsky / private collection of Artur Bondar
After looking at Faminsky's negatives, I realized that these are not the photos that we see on posters and on TV

I often saw soldiers' albums with printed photos at flea markets, but it is very difficult to find negatives. In the pre-digital era, during the Second World War, it was the heyday of photojournalism. It was time when small-format cameras like Leica and Kodak, it became possible to shoot events from the inside. But is a rare success to find negatives of that time, primary sources, not manipulated or staged shots, which were very numerous in Soviet times. After looking at Faminsky's negatives, I realized that these are not the photos that we see on posters and on TV. And I bought the entire archive for a fairly large sum, which I have no right to disclose under the contract.

How did you establish the authenticity of the archive?

I scanned a small part of the negatives and went to the international photo festival in France. There I showed this archive to a friend of the editor from The New York Times, he said that this was a great archive, it should be published. But first we sent it to Houston. There is a museum of war photography, we wanted to know if there are any traces of Faminsky in the world war photography, whether we really were pioneers. We were confirmed, after consulting with Russian experts, that there were no traces of Faminsky either in Russia or abroad. There we also made sure that these are photos of the highest class. At the end of 2016, we published part of the archive in The New York Times, as well as on the photographic resource Bird in Flight, after which Faminsky's name appeared all over the Network.

“Faminsky shows not battle scenes but inhumane conditions and consequences of the war”

What did you find out about the fate of Faminsky himself?

In January 2017, I received a call from a woman who turned out to be the photographer's granddaughter. Her name is Yulia Svyatova. When her mother, Faminsky's wife, died, she started searching for information about the family on the Internet and came across this archive of her grandfather, about which she herself knew nothing.

This is how we learned that Valery Faminsky died in 1993. He was born in 1914, worked at Aviakhim factory and had his own darkroom. When the war started, he really wanted to go to the front as a military photojournalist, but he had poor eyesight, he wore glasses and was exempted from military service. He managed to get to the front only in 1943. His stepfather, artist Kotov, worked at the military medical museum, and this museum sent artists and photographers to the front to record how first aid was provided to the Red Army in order to further study this topic. And Kotov took Faminsky with him as a photographer. Faminsky had been on seven fronts since 1943 and recorded everything he saw. Its archive consists of two large parts: Crimea 1944 April-May and Germany 1945 April-May. Faminsky filmed both Red Army soldiers and German civilians who suffered from the war.

It is clear that he had a humanistic view, no matter which side of the barricades people were on. Faminsky doesn't have any combat photos. It shows not battle scenes, but inhumane conditions and consequences of a war, which are much more terrible than the war itself.

During his lifetime, he had one exhibition. He did not work on the front line, and his photos were not intended for publication in the media, which is why they have been preserved. As we know, there was very strong censorship in Soviet times. Today it is extremely difficult to find negatives of Soviet photographers. Those negatives that showed the war and the Red Army on the wrong side were severely destroyed. Therefore, the Faminsky archive is unique.

Photo: Valery Faminsky / private collection of Artur Bondar
It is clear that he had a humanistic view, no matter which side of the barricades people were on. Faminsky doesn't have any combat photos. He shows not battle scenes but inhumane conditions and consequences of a war, which are much more terrible than the war itself

Why the archive was sold on Avito?

Faminsky had two families. When his first wife died and his daughter was an adult, he married another woman who already had a son. When Faminsky and his second wife died, his adopted children found this archive and decided to just make money. And secretly from the first family sold this archive.

Where can I see photos from his archive?

Faminsky always wanted to publish a book, and we decided to publish it. However, I gave all my money for the archive. But there were people who helped do it for free, for the idea: designer Konstantin Yeremenko, author of the text Irina Chmyreva, editor Andrey Polikanov, and so on. To publish the book, we raised money through crowdfunding, 11,000 euros. We did not take assistance from the state to keep this archive at least included in the political agenda.

We also did an exhibition at the gallery of classical photography with the condition that we take funding only from private, non-state sponsors, as a result, the gallery itself arranged an exhibition for its own money. We also organised an exhibition in the Bauman Park, which was the view of the window of Faminsky's apartment. We presented the book in Germany, many people of different ages attended the exhibition, and we realized that the Germans are very interested in this archive. They see in the photos a city that is no longer there because Berlin was almost completely destroyed in 1945. We hope in the future to create a resource where you can view both the Faminsky archive and other negatives that are in my collection. In May of this year, a large exhibition of Faminsky was planned in Berlin under the title '75 Years of Freedom'. But because of the quarantine, we moved it to September. We can say that, unfortunately, now Faminsky is more popular in Berlin than in our country.

Why?

Because in our country, most people still have a narrow view of the history of the Great Patriotic War. I suggested organising an exhibition of Faminsky in St. Petersburg to a state organization. Their response well describes the official approach to war photographs: “We will show our verified archives.”

What does 'verified' mean?

Let me explain. After buying the Faminsky archive, I started collecting negatives taken during the Second World War from different sides — both by photojournalists and ordinary citizens. And I found that there were no ordinary family archives from the war in the USSR. Because it was impossible to just go out with a camera on the street. According to wartime laws, this was equivalent to espionage, and the violator was threatened with execution. Recently, a case of amateur photographer Alexander Nikitin surfaced. During the war, he managed to take three photos of the bombed Leningrad, after which his own citizens handed him over to the police, he was sent into exile, where he died. Only those who were accredited by the state could take photos. That's why our soldiers never took photos. It is impossible to find negatives of an ordinary Soviet soldier taken during the war.

Photo: Valery Faminsky / private collection of Artur Bondar
Only those who were accredited by the state could take photos. That's why our soldiers never took photos

But in Germany, it was different. Western culture has gone far ahead in terms of visual development, and the camera was a tool for conducting a photo journal. We still had a developed culture of writing during the war. We used to write “I was here” on desks, on trees, on walls, and so on. Therefore, when the Soviet soldier came to Berlin, he signed the Reichstag, but not photographed on its background. But the German, British, French, and American negatives show that there was a very different approach. Almost every other soldier had a small camera. That's why I find a lot of negatives of foreign soldiers at flea markets and auctions. Now my collection includes more than 10,000 negatives made from different sides of the front.

You see, the history of the Second World War is being very much rewritten in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries. Why? Because the people who fought in the war left, and it became easy to manipulate history. But when there are photo facts, it is difficult to distort the history. For example, I have negatives where Crimea was taken by both by the German and Soviet sides. My job as a collector-publisher and photographer is to let people look at events from both sides and think. I don't call for anything, I don't propagandize anything, I don't take sides.

How has your attitude to the war changed as you study this topic?

My attitude to the war has been and remains negative. I am against any military action. There is no justification for war. Because the only thing we get after the war is destruction, suffering and pain. I did a little shooting of the war in Eastern Ukraine, on the Maidan. And if before I only theoretically understood that war is bad, then after I found myself in the thick of military events, I realised from my own experience that war is an absolute nightmare and chaos. There is never one truth in a war. No matter which side you are, each has his own truth. But years later we can look at events from the outside and more objectively. If you take the war in the Donbass, it is difficult to look at this event without a personal emotional attitude to it. But 75 years later, we can look at the Second World War soberly, and not just give a festive picture from year to year, which, I think, has become palled for everyone.

By Natalia Antropova