Interviews, News, Photobooks, Portrait

The lasting effects of World War Two in Veterans

"In 1940, the Polish resistance was becoming more organized. Our group that was already part of the Gray Ranks began reporting to Armia Krajowa, which was the primary resistance force at the time. Our functions soon varied from underground parcel and mail delivery to sabotage. We were young and very reckless and some of us were caught and killed. The Germans didn't tolerate or spare anyone they suspected as taking part in any resistance." An extract from maslov's interview with Urszula Hoffmann, from Poznan, Poland. From the photobook, Veterans © Sasha Maslov / INSTITUTE

Sasha Maslov's photobook takes a non-partisan look at a generation of people whose lives were shaped by combat in World War Two

Sasha Maslov is back in New York after travelling extensively around the world to shoot his recently-published photobook, Veterans. A portrait-based project, it’s a testament to one of the biggest events of the twentieth century, and the men and women who fought in it – the Second World War.

Veterans shows some of the conflict’s last surviving combatants, regardless of their original nationality or allegiances. In doing so, it aims to capturing the experience of a generation, beyond the partisan ties. “I was in Russia at the beginning of the project; I found a few veterans there, photographed them, and then photographed some in Ukraine,” says Maslov of its humble origins.

“Then I thought I would include five more countries, maximum, and that seemed crazy to me at that time. Then I started realising how many different movements, how many different sides and stories that conflict had, besides just what is common knowledge. Party movements, resistance movements, it was insane.”

As the project grew, Maslov needed help to find and locate the veterans and turned to local organisations, journalists and social media to track them down. It was not always a simple task, particularly as they are now so old. “Oftentimes, I would find [a veteran] and ask them about their comrades, and they would say ‘All my friends are dead now’,” he explains.

“In India, for example, I had immense trouble finding veterans. No one would help me, no one would answer emails or calls, until someone from one of the British organisations that helps Indian WW2 veterans who fought under the British crown helped me to establish contact. Once that contact came through, I had much better luck finding people there.”

“The Pathan insurgents hid behind stones in the sandy mountains firing at us from a distance. We couldn’t always see them, but they could surely see us. They would even cut our telephone lines so we couldn’t communicate. They would kill us then steal our ammunition. I can remember entire 25-30 men platoons being murdered by the Pathan, who would steal all their weapons and artillery.” An extract from Maslov’s interview with Shiu Narain Dagar, from New Delhi, India. From the photobook, Veterans © Sasha Maslov / INSTITUTE

“The Battle of the Bulge was our first point of combat that was happening in a small town called St. Vith in Belgium. Our division got wiped out by the Germans, practically all, and I became a German prisoner of war. We spent approximately 19 days in combat, and the Battle of the Bulge was completely unexpected.” An extract from Maslov’s interview with Jack J Diamond, from Miami, Florida. From the photobook, Veterans © Sasha Maslov / INSTITUTE

Each photograph was shot in the veteran’s home, and provides an insight into how his or her life has progressed since the war. Some have moved on more and others have not, but, seven decades later, it seems the war still defines them all. “It is essential for the project to photograph them in their apartments and in their living space,” says Maslov.

“The environments convey the message as much as the portraits themselves. We can tell so much about their lives, about their cultural background, about their ethnic background, sometimes about their habits. They also speak of the more peaceful side of their lives, there’s no more destruction, there’s no more violence. This is post-conflict. Putting things on shelves, organising their lives.”

Maslov also interviewed each subject – a process that often took two hours and was always “gut-wrenching” – and includes extracts from those conversations with each portrait. “It’s essential to have that text,” he says. “Just so people understand how deep and impactful that conflict was on the lives of others and the history of civilisation.”

Maslov’s photobook comes at a salient time, as many WW1 centenaries take place and as films such as Dunkirk hit the screens. But as our political rhetoric intensifies, it’s also taken on a more contemporary resonance, one which terrifies the photographer. Maslov’s family comes from Ukraine, and he says he’s noticed a marked turn for the worse over the six years he’s been shooting, both at home and back in the States.

“I’m afraid that looking at the world today, things are spinning out of control,” he says. “In my home country everything is turned upside down right now. It’s been feeling turbulent for a few years.

“The projects span over six years, and the world has changed so much. The last interview I conducted, which was last year, was with a holocaust survivor who was a Trump supporter. It was a very interesting and strange experience because, after the atrocities that they went through, it was hard for me to understand why they would support someone with a rhetoric like Trump’s.”

Maslov is now beginning a new portrait project on people who live and work along the Mexico-US border, but says he’d love to think that politicians might read Veterans, and take heed of the message it delivers. Sadly, he also believes there’s little chance of it.

“I’m afraid that the people who should be reading these stories, and thinking about the scale of the catastrophes that conflict bring, will never do so,” he says. “They have such a different mindset.”

Veterans is published by Princeton Architectural Presshttps://sashamaslov.com/

“One particular fight was crucial for my regiment. We were going back and forth to the Great Wall for a few days trying to confuse the enemy and get them where they least expected us. But at some point we got surrounded by the Chinese army and my whole regiment was practically wiped out. I got shot in my right arm during that fight and I was among the very few who survived.” An extract from maslov’s interview with Tadakazu Usami, from Narita, Japan. From the photobook, Veterans © Sasha Maslov / INSTITUTE

“At the time, our duties were mainly digging trenches. So I was doing that during the day, and in the evening I started taking medical courses to become a nurse. I became a field nurse, giving first aid to our soldiers before sending them to the hospital. I was on the front lines until Stalin ordered all underage volunteers to return to their studies in November of 1943.” An extract from Maslov’s interview with Anna Nho, from Almaty, Kazakhstan. From the photobook, Veterans © Sasha Maslov / INSTITUTE

“I used to carry messages. I would go retrieve messages from a hotel, where they were hidden behind a radiator there and I would bring them to my grandmother’s house. I kept them in the handlebar of my bicycle, and I cycled the 25km distance. It was very difficult to get out of Le Mans at the time, because of the German and French police everywhere. But I could manage. As a child, it was quite easy. I never had problems.” An extract from Maslov’s interview with Jean Jacques Auduc, from Le Mans, France. From the photobook, Veterans © Sasha Maslov / INSTITUTE