Anton Shebetko, Kinder Limo (left) and Laslo (right), from "To Know Us Better"

Visibility of a community – Anton Shebetko’s photographs of a queer Ukraine

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

Included in the Graduation 2022 Show at Melkweg Expo and the fifteenth jubilee edition of Galerie Ron Mandos’ Best of Graduates 2022 exhibition where he received the RM Residency Award 2022, photographer Anton Shebetko talks to Joris van den Einden about his research surrounding the forgotten queer history of Ukraine. Dealing with topics of memory, identity, and plurality, Shebetko’s practice is rooted in making visible those things that may otherwise go unnoticed.

—Joris van den Einden To you, what does it mean to be visible?

—Anton Shebetko ‘It can be a referent to many different things. Personally, I really have no idea what to answer. For years, I was more focused on dealing with the topic of anonymity, until I actually became more open to my own identity. Many of my projects had this strong autobiographical element to them, and I think that my interest in visibility grew from the overcoming of that anonymity. I was thinking about how to make a change to society at an individual or personal level. That’s why I am always interested in the stories of each person; I care for the plurality of histories and their interconnections, especially thinking about the small details that make us all different. Visibility is so important, also at a personal level. Seeking visibility is like a type of personal activism that anyone can pursue. While it is not a magical pill that works for everyone, aiding others in establishing their own visibility is important to me.’

—Joris van den Einden As a photographer you are naturally working with making things visible. How do you work with that conception of visibility within your practice?

—Anton Shebetko ‘Again, firstly I was focused on making the problem of anonymity visible. Like in the project Common People. Consisting of these faceless portraits of closeted gay men, the series showed this certain kind of fear that those men didn’t reflect on properly; they were fearing something that didn’t really exist. When they came out, for many of them there was actually a lot of acceptance and support. There was that problem of anonymity within the LGBTQI+ community that I wanted to work with.’

'Aiding others in establishing their own visibility is important to me'

Anton Shebetko, Installation shot of "Common People" in Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, Ukraine

—Joris van den Einden How did that develop?

—Anton Shebetko ‘As an artist and photographer, I am always trying to find a specific visual language for each of the projects I am working on. Naturally, themes and approaches overlap every now and then, but that’s my way of working; all these different languages allow you to see which ones are most applicable for what situations. I tend to work with portraiture, and I am quite collaborative, but even that changes. My series that was on show at FOAM in Amsterdam, To Know Us Better, is the most documentary-esque thing I have ever done, for example. But even then, I always gave the photographed people the chance to choose the final images. They could decide on their own visibility in a way. With that project, the idea of a photographer making all the decisions just didn’t fit, so I sent my selections to the people so that they could select their favourites. Maybe I didn’t like the images I received from them, but that was okay; if the person recognised themselves, and felt represented by it, it cannot be my choice to make a different decision. But then in other projects, like Common People, the main focus was to create these big, new narratives. The images themselves became less important, I think. And in We Were Here I was thinking about duality and creating images that feel more like archetypal posters, or something.’

—Joris van den Einden The visual language of We Were Here, which appears highly staged and performed, differs greatly from To Know Us Better, which feels more candid. Is that diversity that resides within your practice something that you cherish, then?

—Anton Shebetko ‘You cannot put a very non-homogeneous group of people in a certain box and decide that “this is who they are”. Everyone’s opinions, stories and memories are different! It is strange to capture the community, in a way, and to define it as a community. There are many ways to work with that diversity, and there are many ways to show it.’

'You cannot put a very non-homogeneous group of people in a certain box and decide that “this is who they are”. Everyone’s opinions, stories and memories are different!'

Anton Shebetko, To Know Us Better, installation shot from Foam Amsterdam

Anton Shebetko, Vlad (left) and Sofia (right) from We Were Here, C-print on dibond, 80x120cm, 2018

—Joris van den Einden Is that then how you would typify your own work?

—Anton Shebetko ‘In photography, you can grasp at details, but you can’t grasp the whole persona, or the whole idea. That’s impossible, there is always your own projection that gets in the way. This is what I am working with: I am classifying something that simply can’t be classified. You can’t take the same approach to every person and every project. I am trying to go from that, to not stick with one approach. I don’t want to decide what type of artist I am. It’s all fluid and developing, all the time.’

—Joris van den Einden To me, it seems that there is also a type of archival interest or practice that permeates much of your work. Especially in projects like House of Culture, where your attention to time and space comes to the forefront, but also the systematic way in which some of your work seems to be built up and presented. Do you consider your work to function as a type of archive?

—Anton Shebetko ‘It has those elements for sure. I always think that you can’t take on whole histories; again, we latch on to details. Like in the show at FOAM, it is certainly some type of archive, but parts remain inaccessible and unorganised. But then I also work with archival images. Especially images I find through social media, like in the project Simeiz. I didn’t take any of the images in that series, but instead wanted to research those images to find out how communities can come to be.’

'I don’t want to decide what type of artist I am. It’s all fluid and developing, all the time'

Anton Shebetko, "House of Culture", installation shots from Graduation show at Rietveld Academie

Anton Shebetko, from "Simeiz"

Anton Shebetko, from "Simeiz"

—Joris van den Einden You often interview the people you photograph. I read somewhere that you don’t always present those interviews alongside the portraits. Is that correct?

—Anton Shebetko ‘Yes, that is correct. I started doing that with Common People, where I only presented the interviews in a recent book for the first time. In We Were Here, the interviews were really connected to the people I took photos of, but then the images look more like archetypes; they are not necessarily representing the individual people themselves. That made it feel unnecessary to present the interviews with them properly. With To Know Us Better, it was a conscious choice to present both image and interview, but apart from one another. It wasn’t important to connect the face to the story, instead I just wanted to show: “These are the people”. And to say: “These are the stories”. It is not about having opinions about people and what they think, but about building up knowledge about the community.’

—Joris van den Einden Your work is very much rooted in this specific Ukrainian context, also before the full-fledged Russian invasion earlier this year. What initially drew you towards this national framework?

—Anton Shebetko ‘I felt that there was no artistic representation from this historical, archival perspective that dealt with the queer community in Ukraine. It really felt like a personal responsibility to me. An earlier version of Common People, in its autobiographical nature, even included a self-portrait. But then I figured out that it was important to actually talk about these problems and, again, make them visible. For me, it was important to first have these conversations in Ukraine, because it meant that there would now be that archive to which we can start referring. And it is done through art! There are many texts, like academic research and journalistic or activist writing, but I think that you can reach totally different audiences through art, too. So I felt the responsibility and growing interest to form that bridge. So even though there is that overarching umbrella of the geographical location of Ukraine, I feel that each of my projects builds onto the previous ones to head into new directions that take us to new places.’

'I felt that there was no artistic representation from this historical, archival perspective that dealt with the queer community in Ukraine'

Anton Shebetko, installation shots from "Best of Graduates" at Ron Mandos Gallery

Anton Shebetko, installation shots from "Best of Graduates" at Ron Mandos Gallery

On the right: Anton Shebetko, installation shots from "Best of Graduates" at Ron Mandos Gallery

—Joris van den Einden You further zoom in to the celebration, and especially the acknowledgement of queer communities within that national context, which you do in a way that feels very sincere and full of care. How is it to be working from the Netherlands while dealing with these locally rooted topics?

—Anton Shebetko ‘I think that is why I turned to archives in a lot of projects. I find it very interesting to not be in a place, and still be working on a project about that place! You can do this research from anywhere. You find people online, you talk via Zoom, record their voice, and use that recording in your projects. Even if I am not physically there, I still feel like I am a part of that community. I still know the people.’

—Joris van den Einden How has it been to create work about that other place, especially at these times that are marked by such extreme inflicted pain and violence?

—Anton Shebetko ‘Actually, the works I am creating now are mainly not done at a distance. Like To Know Us Better; it’s not a finished project. I don’t think it will ever be finished. It is this project, and others, that keeps me so connected to the community and my fellow Ukrainians. So the distance doesn’t seem to exist for me, at the moment.’

Anton Shebetko, It's not your problem, Neon, 38x87cm, 2022

—Joris van den Einden What’s next?

—Anton Shebetko ‘I am starting a residency in Vienna soon, firstly. But then I also had some agreements with a gallery in Kyiv, which unfortunately couldn’t happen, yet. So, hopefully I can finish that, one day. And then I have this idea for a project connecting to Ukrainian art that is often described as queer art, even though it is all done by heterosexual cis men. So I was thinking of redoing those projects from a different perspective, to reclaim them in a way. I guess I always have five projects going on, but the problem is time.’

—Joris van den Einden You won’t be sitting still then.

—Anton Shebetko ‘No! I’ll be leaving for Vienna soon, I have some projects that are almost done, and then, hopefully, I can show those finished works at some point. Plenty of stuff to do.’


Graduation Show '22, Melkweg Expo, t/m 9.10.2022

Best of Graduates 2022 is on view until September 17th at Galerie Ron Mandos

Joris van den Einden
is a writer and artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023