“Man does not need society at all, it’s the society that needs man. Society is a forced measure of protection and survival. Unlike a gregarious animal, man must live alone – in nature among animals, plants and in contact with them.” – Andrey Tarkovsky.
Escape, a recent book by the young photographer Danila Tkachenko has received a lot of press so many readers will already be familiar with the work. Escape is a photo project about “escapers,” men who have decided to live alone as hermits in the wilderness of Ukrainian and Russian forests.
The photographer explains on his website: “The main characters of my project violate social standards for different reasons. By a complete withdrawal from society they go live alone in the wild nature, gradually dissolving in it and losing their social identity. While exploring their experience, it is important for me to understand if one is able to break free from social dependence and get away from the public to the subjective – and thus, to make a step towards oneself. I am concerned about the issue of internal freedom in the modern society: how feasible it is, when you’re surrounded by a social framework all the time? School, work, family – once in this cycle, you are a prisoner of your own position, and have to do what you’re supposed to. You should be pragmatic and strong, or become an outcast or a lunatic. How to remain yourself in the midst of this?”
Escape starts off by leading us directly into the forest, through a hole in the foliage as dark as a cave. We then tread through several full bleed spreads of very dense and dark wilderness until you have lost your bearings – then we come face to face with a man with deep wrinkled eyes, a bit indifferent to our presence. He isn’t welcoming or curious or nerved. We then come upon his home in a clearing, a hut made from tree branches and died grass.
Tkachenko takes us from hermit to hermit in this manner of sections divided by the full bleed dark sections of forest; a man missing fingers who covers his face; a man so thin he seems not much more substance than the branches he is collecting; a man (the cover image) with a grass camouflage head dressing. By the end of the book we read short passages of text presumably about each character we have met printed on dark grey paper.
Escape is just long enough at 120 pages and 44 images to keep us engaged, it is well designed and the printing has a continuous palette that sustains the darker tone of the content. In short, I like most everything about it with one strong exception – the photographs.
With respect to Tkachenko, every photo he presents here is almost exactly formally the same. The subject is maddeningly centered in every photo, the distance from the subject is mostly uniform, and he uses only horizontals with little else of interest in the frame besides a wall of foliage. In fact, I looked at the photographer’s website and every photo in his other projects as well had all the same formal qualities.
That is the fatal flaw in the work for me, and a perceived flaw which very few other viewers even seem to care about. Perhaps they are transfixed by the rarity of the subject and the thoughts of access afforded to Tkachenko by the men he portrays, to see otherwise. Or, I am certainly a dinosaur that still believes that there is a base criteria for me in photography – that a photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness – here they are not even close.
Peperoni Books, 2014