As people’s lives have been uprooted by Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine, one local photographer has stayed in her country and shifted her content from travel and portraits to documenting the bittersweet reality of sheltering in an underground bunker.
From Chic Portraits and Travel Photos to a Dark Bunker
20-year old Valeria Shashenok is a freelance photographer who now shelters with her parents, dog, and two family friends in Chernihiv, north of Ukraine.
Her aspirational travel photos, sensual portraits of young people, and beautiful selfies have now been replaced with videos that show destruction and rubble-filled city with blown-out windows but with a touch of dark humor to help make sense of the new reality for those who remain in Ukraine.
There is no right way to cope with the brutal realities of war, and Shashenok is the proof of that. Her TikTok account has almost 800,000 followers and her content now centers on her everyday life — from what it’s like to live in a bomb shelter without electricity, to the groceries she managed to get from a shop, to witty digs at Vladimir Putin for “helping” repair a hospital that now is completely destroyed from airstrikes.
Above all, however, Shashenok’s content brings attention to the destroyed cities and lives of innocent civilians whose lives have been turned upside down.
@valerissshUkraine never forget it🇺🇦♬ Alice in Wonderland – Joanna Wang
@valerisssh I found the last avocado in the supermarket!!!!! #ukraine #stopwar #russiastop ♬ Sleigh Ride – Leroy Anderson
@valerissshWelcome to my 5 stars hotel 🥰🥰🥰♬ original sound – allrapperlations
In an interview with The Cut, Shashenok reveals she uses humor as a coping mechanism. Having said that, she wants to make people care and to see the devastation, too. Using her experience in creating TikToks for businesses in Ukraine, she now makes her content using English captions to reach wider audiences.
“[My audience] need to know that Ukrainian people are the strongest,” Shashenok tells The Cut. “I wanted to show that one man, one Russian man, president, stupid man, destroyed my native country. And I am a small girl who can’t stop this man. I wanted to show what really happened. How I see, in my style.”
“I feel it’s like my mission to show people how it looks in real life,” Shashenok says in an interview with CNN. “That it’s real life, and I’m here.
“Many Russian people write me that we are with you. … In Russia, (there is) a lot of fake news. And most of the people don’t believe that in my country we have a war. … My mission [is] to show [the] whole world that it’s happen[ing] now in real life, and you can see the war on TikTok.”
Dark Humor and the Equally Dark Reality
Shashenok says that the situation is getting increasingly worse each day and she wants to leave the country, as does her mother. But, her father wants to remain in Ukraine so the family decided to stay together.
“I’m always trying to go outside, but it’s so dangerous,” she tells The Cut regarding her daily life in the shelter. “Most days I spend one hour or two hours outside. To pass the time I answer messages, make TikToks, speak with friends, eat, watch something.”
@valerisssh Third Word War! Putin, thank u #ukraine #stopwar #russiastop ♬ Je te laisserai des mots – Patrick Watson
@valerisssh I’m in love of my life! 🥰🥰🥰 #ukraine #stopwar ♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey
@valerisssh Do u have a brain, Putin?🤔 #ukraine #stopwar #russiastop ♬ New York Herald Tribune (A bout de souffle) – Martial Solal
There is no time for Shashenok to plan her content. If it’s safe to go out or to enter a building, Shashenok makes a spontaneous decision to go for it.
Uplifting Comments From Audience Worldwide
Overall the response has been positive with the worldwide audience following Shashenok’s content daily.
“I’m a 65-year-old in Los Angeles, and it’s so moving to see that just a few weeks ago you were having fun, going out, and now you are chronicling this situation from a bomb shelter,” writes one online user in response to Shashenok’s videos. “And you are doing it with smarts and making it upbeat. It’s hard to believe that someone can be as evil and destructive as Putin. I feel so much for all of you who are enduring his senseless attacks, and I send you love and support. You go, girl!!”
@valerisssh DAMMMNNNNNN IM SHOCKED! #ukraine ♬ original sound – Valerisssh
Shashenok is hopeful for the future even despite Russia destroying any chance of evacuation from cities like Chernihiv.
“People need to value freedom,” the photographer tells CNN. “It’s the most important (thing) we have.”
Update: Valeria Shashenok has published a new video where she says she has successfully evacuated to Poland.
It’s the most horrible trip! Thanks Russia