UJA photojournalist sheds light on suffering of Jews in Ukraine

Millions of elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union suffer from lack of food, medical supplies or basic companionship.

Sharon Faulkner's photo-essays bring the faces of those people out of the darkness and into the sight of those who can help.

Faulkner, a photojournalist for the United Jewish Appeal, has visited Ukraine twice in the past two years to document the lives of those aided by the Joint Distribution Committee, an international relief organization funded by the UJA.

Faulkner did more than snap pictures of the 250,000 elderly Jews left in Ukraine. Her images show the story of the people behind them. She shared some of these tales with Sacramento Jewish Federation members Monday and Tuesday.

Most of the elderly Jews left in Ukraine suffer from the economic chaos caused by the transition from socialism to capitalism and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

They receive humanitarian aid from the JDC and other organizations, but it is not enough.

Such aid only meets 20 percent of their needs, National Conference on Soviet Jewry says.

One of Faulkner's photographic subjects is a stark case in point. Bella Viselman, whom Faulkner met during her first trip in 1996, sits facing the camera, one hand clutching her crutches, the other next to the stump where her right leg used to be. Faulkner said the woman lost her leg because her monthly $25 pension was not enough to pay for rent, food and medication.

Being without a leg meant Viselman was trapped in her 10-by-12-foot room, dependent on the food, medical supplies and companionship of home health-care workers provided by the committee, Faulkner said.

Yet the photograph captures more than suffering in her face.

"She was so dignified and so intelligent," Faulkner said. "She told me, `My pension is not large enough to let me live, not small enough to let me die.' "

Unfortunately for Viselman, JDC's aid was not enough. When Faulkner returned to Ukraine in August, she found Viselman had died the year before after losing another leg. "More help could have saved her life."

Based in New Jersey, Faulkner is a commercial photographer and photojournalist whose work for the UJA has fine-tuned her focus.

"I decided I'm going to use photography as a tool to help people, to shed light on the place where there's generally darkness," she said.

What struck her about Viselman and other older people she photographed in Ukraine was their similarity to family and friends in the United States.

Faulkner photographed Bronislava Rozenblum, 91, sitting with her back against the wall in her kitchen.

"That could be your grandmother," Faulkner said of Rozenblum. "You can see she's so small and frail. She was very weak, very lightheaded; for her to move was a tremendous effort." Rozenblum's only food came from the JDC. Its workers also provided companionship.

Although the elderly woman shared a flat with three or four other people, "they didn't talk to her," Faulkner said. "They were anti-Semitic. They resented that she received money from the JDC. That's probably worse than being alone."

Some of the elderly Faulkner met do have food, but it is inedible.

That's the case with Ziama Tikhonov, 72. His photo shows a man with almost feral eyes sitting on the edge of a disheveled bed staring at a meager pile of potatoes.

"Looking at the photograph, you can't smell the odors of that room, or of him," Faulkner said. "He would bathe in a nearby stream, which is polluted, and also drink that water."

He would dig up and eat vegetables. He didn't know they were contaminated by Chernobyl's fallout.

Tikhonov's pension was $15 a month, but Faulkner said the state would often underpay him, leaving him with as little as $8 every three months. That money would buy 3 kilograms or about 1-1/2 pounds of meat.

His only other uncontaminated food came from hot lunches provided by the JDC soup kitchen, Faulkner said. The committee provides the twice-weekly meals at a cost of $3.

"What we [in the United States] spend $3 on is a pack of gum and a Snapple," she said.

Faulkner learned photography at age 9 after her baby sitter taught her to use her father's Nikon camera. Later, she became a commercial photographer, which led to her work with the UJA for the past 11 years.

What she has recorded has turned her into a tireless fund-raiser.

"If you were there, you would understand," she said. "I saw something I was so moved by and these people do not have a voice. They said, `Please promise to help us let people know what's going on.' And I'm going to do this. I'm not going to stop."