“I look for the people that nobody knows, the people that are off the front pages after 24 hours, because the bomb goes off, the suicide bomber strikes somewhere else, and the attention shifts,” she said. “But there are always people left behind, whose lives are shattered and they have to deal with the aftermath. No one cares, no one cares who they are, but I do.”
In her latest project, Bronstein, a Massachusetts-born photographer now based in Asia, went behind the frontlines of the unrelenting war in Ukraine, largely absent from the headlines but raging nonstop since 2014, where she turned her lens on the plight of the elderly, scores of whom are cut off from society because of a battleground that is constantly shifting and where average Ukrainians are caught in the middle.
Some 800,000 civilians live in homes on or near the frontlines of the war in the eastern part of the country, in a region known as Donbass. An estimated 100,000 live in the region, which many describe as the gray zone between positions staked out between the Ukrainians and Russian-led separatists seizing land in the former Soviet republic.
The ongoing conflict has resulted in a border that is often shifting, cutting right through neighborhoods on the outskirts of Donetsk, one of the major cities in the region. While it’s still possible for residents to cross, it’s tremendously difficult, given the shelling and gunfire that often breaks out in the middle of the day.
And for the elderly, crossing the border “is almost next to impossible,” Bronstein said. Though they can do it with help, many older residents of the region have been cut off from family and friends and now live alone — their only guests an occasional visitor from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the humanitarian groups working in the region.
For some, it’s more than just the loss of companionship. In what is already an impoverished region, many elderly Ukrainians living in the area now controlled by pro-Russian forces have been cut off from their pensions — their main source of income. The Ukrainian government requires those who receive pensions to come across the border to pick up their checks — a journey that older residents often cannot make.
Others have lost their paperwork and other documents that offer proof of their pensions when their homes were burned or destroyed in the ongoing conflict. Some have suffered grievous injury, losing limbs to mines and bombs, while many are sick with debilitating illness, unable to leave the house and suffering, with little help.
“The elderly are certainly the most vulnerable, more vulnerable than children,” Bronstein said. “They are impoverished, they can’t get their pensions. … They live in the homes where they grew up or where they used to live with their families, and beyond all of that, they are alone.”
Last winter and again over the summer, Bronstein visited the region, where she crossed the frontlines to photograph elderly Ukrainians as they struggle in their day-to-day life. She found women living in homes with no heat, a man who had lost a leg and was fumbling in a wheelchair in his home alone. Many lived in squalor — with no money to repair their homes that had been damaged in the war. Some had lost toes to frostbite as they stood in line trying to cross the border, trying to get their pensions. Others had suffered multiple heart attacks because of the stress they live under.
For some, their only joy is the few warm months of the summer, when they can go out into their gardens and tend to the berries and flowers that continue to blossom, season after season, after nearly five years of conflict. But as one woman gave her a tour, showing off all the beauty, Bronstein was startled to hear gunfire erupt nearby — a surreal reminder that her subjects reside in the center of a battlefield.
“She didn’t flinch,” Bronstein recalled. “Just like we have learned to ignore the sounds we hear every day, sirens and traffic, they are numb to it. … It’s their reality.”
See the photo captions to read their individual stories.