Images by New Hampshire photographer tell a painful story
Published: 11-25-2023 12:01 PM
Modified: 11-28-2023 9:59 AM
His name is Misha, and photographer Patrick Patterson of Newington wants you to meet him.
He’s an electrician in Ukraine, in a town called Izyum. He had a wife of 41 years named Valentina and a 3-year-old granddaughter, Iryna. He had two other grandchildren, a daughter, a son-in-law and an aunt. They lived together.
Patterson – in Ukraine to photograph the horrors of war, attaching faces and names to its people – said that on the morning of March 9, 2022, Misha made porridge for breakfast on the second-floor balcony of his home, a block-shaped cement apartment building with perhaps nine floors.
The family ate in the basement, huddled there for its perceived safety. Afterward, Iryna asked for tea, at which time Misha walked to the door frame, on his way back upstairs to make tea. Valentina said she’d go with him and began putting on her boots.
That’s the last time he saw her alive. A bomb dropped from a Russian plane destroyed the building at that moment, splitting it in half and killing 54 residents, including the seven members of Misha’s family.
He was the lone survivor. He regained consciousness six hours later, under the rubble, before learning that his family was gone. “Oh God, oh God,” Misha said, according to Patterson. “Why?”
He returned this summer with powerful images from the 1½ years he spent in Ukraine. With the help of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who invited Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova to meet Patterson and view his work, his photos were recently displayed in the United States Capitol’s Senate Rotunda, a space below the dome visited by thousands of tourists each day, serving as a national showcase for art.
His images, shot in black and white, showed what he called “regular people” in what has become a way of life since Russia invaded Ukraine 20 months ago.
“I wanted people to bear witness to that and see the people that the war is impacting,” Patterson said. “It creates an empathetic response. I went to recently liberated territories and got to know the people and spend time with them. I wasn’t going in to get a quick picture. I felt invested in areas where I worked.”
For the most part, the theme was Ukrainian people fleeing their country, mostly by train, heading to Warsaw, Poland, to live as refugees.
He devoted a lot of time photographing Misha and his nightmare. There’s an image of him sitting on cinder blocks in front of his crumbled home, expressionless. One from a distance, showing the building neatly split into two. Another long-range shot of the makeshift soccer field in back, where his children and grandchildren once played.
Others show little children on the move, petting a cat; a 16-year-old girl and her 9-year-old sister riding on a train, escaping the carnage; mothers consoling children and babies, jammed into the backseat of a car; a grandmother traveling with her daughter and granddaughter from Kyiv to escape the constant shelling, aware that this could be the last time she sees them because she’s heading back to Kyiv after seeing them off.
It’s his way of waking America up to make sure support doesn’t waver in the face of a brutal dictator.
“Like anything, I wanted to understand what was happening and to bear witness to the largest crises since World War II,” Patterson said. “The day I got there, there were more than 120,000 people who crossed (into Poland) that day. I wanted to better understand what experience they were having that forced them to go.”
So touched was Patterson by what he saw during his brief visit in March 2022 that he chose to return two months later and stay for another 14 months, absorbing the nuances that Americans could never understand.
He saw a bigger picture, learning about the history of the two countries. He said Russia wants to replace Ukrainian textbooks and history books with Russian literature. He called it a genocide, an ethnic cleansing. He said former Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union until his death in 1953, killed millions of Ukrainians, starving them and shooting them.
“One thing I learned was Ukrainians are not surprised this is happening,” Patterson said. “Immersing myself within the community, I began to understand the historical relationship. It paints a picture of what is happening there today.”
He learned by spending time with people in shelters as warning sirens blared and bombs exploded. He traveled on trains with them. He sat at their kitchen tables with them, eating borscht for dinner.
His work meshed perfectly with Shaheen’s feelings on the war. Her vision, if Russia succeeds, is frightening. She sees President Vladimir Putin longing to return to the days of the Soviet Union.
Shaheen and Patterson are allies in this effort. They believe it’s important that the United States continues to support Ukraine.
“I had a chance to meet with women members of the Ukrainian military late last year,” Shaheen said by phone from Washington, D.C. “One of the things they said to me (was), ‘You need to give us the weapons so we can fight the Russians so you don’t have to.’ Anyone who thinks that giving Ukraine to Russia does not know (Russia’s) history. I think they are being naive.”
Patterson hopes his experience with Misha will help Americans see the light. He spoke to him in the rubble of his old home.
He said debris covered the floor. Children’s toys, too. The Russians refused to allow heavy equipment into the area, forcing Misha to use a shovel and his hands to find the remains of his family.
He buried them in the family cemetery.
These days, Misha lives at a friend’s house. Patterson said he walks 3.7 miles each day, back to the rubble where his family died and he lay unconscious for six hours, eventually digging himself out.
It’s the last place he saw his family alive.
“I think we need to acknowledge, in any war, that there are this mass number of innocent deaths, mostly women and children,” Patterson said. “I wanted to amplify the story at the Capitol about a man named Misha. I wanted people to know what happened.”