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Photographing limbo

The word limbo, signifying a state of waiting and uncertainty, used to be the name of a theologically-based location.


Florian Bachmeier. “In limbo”. Kertsch, Ukraine, 2015. Verlag Buchkunst, Berlin.

Sean Sheehan


It was a place, neither Heaven nor Hell, an in-between spot in God’s landscape that had a geographical exactitude: existing on the border of Hell – the name comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an edge or boundary – Limbo was a vast waiting room whose residents included infants who died before they were baptized. Such unfortunates lacked a visa for Heaven but hardly deserved the rigours of Hell; stuck in Limbo, hope was at a premium.

The documentary photographer Florian Bachmeier knew what he was doing when he chose “In limbo” as the title for his photographs taken in Ukraine over the last eight years. It serves as a metaphor for the state that Ukrainians have been placed in since early 2014 when political conflict within their country took a violent turn.

Since then, some 10,000 have died and one and a half million citizens have been displaced from their normal places of residence. They have become refugees within their own country; inhabitants of a new Limbo.

Florian Bachmeier. “In limbo”. Prypjat, Ukraine, 2015. Verlag Buchkunst, Berlin.

The political and economic factors that lay behind Ukraine’s turmoil are well documented. The nation is a victim of the legacy of the Cold War, with the US and Russia supporting different political groupings, and Bachmeier documents the human cost of a proxy war that continues to divide the country.

The cumulative effects of a political, social and military conflict is rendered not just in the individual photographs that make up “In limbo” but also in the book’s highly distinctive design that succeeds in conveying the sense of a relentless disorder scarring Ukraine’s body politic. Form and content work together and the result is an outstanding photobook.

There are over 100 photographs and while some have a whole page to themselves others are presented in sets of three across two-page spreads. Each of these spreads has one central image while to the left and right are parts of other images that appear to have leaked over from the preceding or succeeding page. The effect takes the form of a triptych and it conveys the impact of an ongoing disarray that worms itself into different situations and moments of life.

What appears on the periphery of a spread unfolds, on turning the page, into the central image of the succeeding page and this embodies the ongoing nature of a schism in Ukraine’s identity that manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Florian Bachmeier. “In limbo”. Mariupol, Ukraine, 2014. Verlag Buchkunst, Berlin.

Early in the book, a photograph shows the pensive face of a Ukrainian employee as he looks out the window of the train which carries him to the Chernobyl reactor disaster site. He is working for the French Novaka consortium which was set up to build a protective shell around the site. It was in 1986 that the nuclear power station went out of control and released radiation into the atmosphere; in retrospect, the disaster appears as a premonition of an internal explosion yet to come.

“In limbo”, by Florian Bachmeier, is published by Buchkunst Berlin.

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