INSTITUTES - A Science Odyssey

INSTITUTES celebrates science through research centres built in Soviet times and facing all kind of challenges.

Travelling in Ukraine in 2021, I met in the city of Kharkiv a scientist who agreed to show me his laboratory classified as "National Treasure of Ukraine". I discovered a fascinating universe that reminded me of the comic books of my childhood. My curiosity was aroused and I decided to find out more, embarking on a journey that took me from Ukraine to Georgia, Latvia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Romania. Finally, I returned to Kharkiv at the end of 2023 to find out how scientists are facing up to the war.

INSTITUTES is a documentary project that bear witness to the human unstoppable quest for knowledge. Over the past hundred years, science and technology have deeply transformed our societies. Among the various political regimes of the twentieth century, communism happened to be the most exalted by the power of science, up to the point of irrationality. The Soviet Union promoted the cult of science as an ideological tool to unseat the religion and rapidly modernize the country. These utopian worlds of Soviet modernity were embodied in "big science" projects with research institutes involving up to several thousand researchers. The state spent lavishly to build ever bigger and more sophisticated machines. With its atomic and space achievements, the USSR grew into a technological superpower. Science flourished but despite its prestige, the research work, designed mostly for the military, was carried out behind closed doors in an atmosphere of complete secrecy. Scientists and engineers, albeit kept under a tight control, became an active part of the elite. Declining in the 80s, their situation radically changed after the collapse of the system. In the turmoil of the 90s, the institutes were virtually abandoned with no funding. The priority was to limit the damage and preserve their scientific potential. The extremely low salaries - sometimes $5 per month - led to disillusionment and a brain drain. Notwithstanding the difficulties, some scientists resisted and dedidacted their lives to maintain these facilities that are also amazingly complicated to operate. These are people who are devoted to science and do not want to leave their homeland. Today, while some institutes are in a downward spiral of decline, others are finding their place in the worldwide research community.

INSTITUTES highlights an overshadowed heritage that deserves more attention. Synchrotron, high voltage laboratory, nuclear research reactor, radio telescope, cyclotron, linear accelerator, stellarator... are like science sculptures. The photographic work focuses on utterly unique scientific installations, spanning one hundred years of physics all the way to today's state-of-the-art laboratories. Details, portraits, archives and documents complete the work, around 150 images.


Specific publications on the consequences of the war for Ukrainian scientists:

-Physics World (UK): Physics in Ukraine: scientific endeavour lives on despite the Russian invasion

-Science (US): A shattered window to the radio sky - Amid Russian attacks, Ukrainian astronomers fight to salvage a unique observatory

Donations to help these scientists are welcome.