Ukrainian Railroad Ladies is a recent documentary photo project by Sasha Maslov. Ukrainian Railroad Ladies takes over and expands the photographer’s long-term photographer's interest in marginalized and invisible professional or social communities.
In late July the photo project came out as a Ukrainian Railroad Ladies book in Osnovy Publishing. The book is available to purchase at the Osnovy website and at The Naked Books corner. The project was awarded with World Photo Awards and LensCulture. It was published in leading international media such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Wired.
Maslov's previous project, Veterans, presented portraits and interviews with participants of World War II from all over the world — from Finland to Japan. In his first project, Maslov has already figured out his method— a detailed documentary portrait of a person in his/her interior. Yet, it is not a portrait of a specific hero, but rather of a socioal-political context that surrounds a person. This context scarcely reveals itself in a number of paintings, books and records in athe cupboard, in a lamp-less bulb hanging like an icicle in a kitchen, in the meaningless glitter of medals against the background of a miserable interior and even through the colours of shades on a heroine’s eyelids. Even though a human face always stays in the center of a shot, these silent details are the most emotionally colored objects in Maslov’s photos.
Although Maslov hasn't been based in Ukraine for more than 15 years, all of the photos for the project were taken here. Maybe this very experience of observing a well-known context from the outside let him grasp the spirit of contemporary Ukraine in a very persuasive image of a traffic controller.
The railway is the most branched and available type of transport in Ukraine, in absence of well-made roads and half-alive air communication. But Maslov's project is not really about transport, but rather about the culture of everyday life that is produced by this transport. Unlike the aesthetically neutral and functional western railway or the futuristic and fast eastern one, Ukrainian trains and other infrastructure are glaringly slow, old, and inconvenient. This obstacle is often compensated by a special kind of a long road romantic aura, with strangers travelling by your side and the practice of domesticating uncomfortable conditions. Dressing up in pants, inappropriately festive dinners and breakfasts, warm conversations over a drinkglass, and ordinary flirtation with travelers intend to socially normalize this quite cruel experience of traveling by the Ukrainian railroad.
In this context, railroad ladies are engaged in, perhaps, the least promisingperspective and honourable work in the world. In the times of Tesla and AI being much smarter than human onesone, these women still open and close barriers at rail crossings manually—with their bare hands. But in this senseless and poor world of the Ukrainian railroad, they are posing against the background of their post stations like owners of fairy palaces, where each differs from the previous and represents their mistress's character and taste. Despite exhaustion in their eyes and objectively bad conditions of work, "railroad ladies" emancipate from this context, enchanting the viewer with a perfect composition and sweet aesthetics of everyday life.
This aesthetic turn can be seen exactly because of Maslov's method, which heirs from August Sander's approach of "new objectivity" and also considers the whole history of classical painting with ceremonial portrait as a major genre of it. Particularly because of this attentive and thorough photographer's look, trivial traffic controllers are becoming “railroad ladies”, full of dignity and life.