I have never thought that being neutral is a good thing.
Images of war can change their connotation as they become distanced from the immediacy of conflict. Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phúc fleeing naked from a burning Vietnamese village; Joe Rosenthal’s shot of US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima… such images have become more than simply records of a moment in time, they have respectively become icons of terror and heroism. And the further the representation becomes distanced from the experience, the more the general is abstracted from the specific. Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’, the vast embroidery at Bayeux, the Roman sculpture of a dying Gaul have long since become disconnected from individual and community memory, acquiring more universalised interpretations in the imagination of an ever-evolving present.
While these are particularly eminent examples, they illustrated a more general tendency of certain images to transcend their original historical moment. To speak in an emotionally evocative and timeless way. It is an undertow felt by the Ukrainian documentary photographer Maxim Dondyuk, forever shifting the conceptual sands on which his practice stands. For him, it demands a continuous rebalancing through which he has come to understand the importance of embracing the subjectivity of a felt response. A response that guides him in what he does and the means by which it is achieved. That trust in a subjective approach to documentary became all the more urgent as he found himself amid a conflagration sparked by the abrasive friction of divisive geopolitical allegiance.
I first met Maxim Dondyuk in Colombia where the National Museum of Photography was presenting his large-scale images of the Euromaidan protests at the Fotográfica Bogotá festival. Since then, I have followed his work with interest, learning too about the subjects he documented before events thrust him into the theatre of war. They chart the creative journey of an artist prepared to face up to, and engage with, uncertainty. Not simply in the volatility of the situation in which he and his compatriots now find themselves, but in the potential long-term meaning and affect of the images he creates in response to these tumultuous events. And, in so doing, to place his trust in the intuitions of human subjectivity.
How did you begin in photography?
I had taking pictures as a child, but my enthusiasm had not lasted long. I came back to photography when I was twenty-four. I was working in a completely different field at the time, and this was my hobby. I spent all my free time studying photography and taking pictures. A year later, I quit my job and began as a photojournalist. However, after two years working for mass-media outlets in Ukraine, I understood that I need a lot more freedom than they could offer. I became a freelancer pursuing long-term documentary projects. Today, I use multiple mediums including photography, video, text, and archival material. I’m interested in issues relating to history, memory, conflict, and their consequences.
How has your approach to the medium changed over time?
Documentary photography allows you to immerse yourself for long periods in different cultures, professions, social contexts; to be there, to understand it. Inevitably, this kind of life experience has an effect on your world view, your philosophy of life. It changes you. I am not much influenced by the work of other photographers. My inspiration comes from books, music, paintings, philosophy. I love the work of realist artists that painted important battle scenes but never forgot the aesthetic side. Their paintings are very beautiful.
After 2014, when I had spent much of my time at the front line in the east of Ukraine, people disappeared from my photos. I think that overwork, disappointment, and emotional fatigue played a big role. Now my photographs are more desolate, empty of human life.
He worked in a mine. In 2007, he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis, for which the doctors prescribed a treatment. As soon as he felt better he started to drink a lot of alcohol. In 2010, he suffered acute abdominal pain. Numerous ulcers had formed in his bowel; the diagnosis was intestinal TB. The doctors demanded that the patient be immediately moved to a TB hospital or taken home, they would not allow him to stay on the post-operative ward. He was transported by taxi, as the ambulancemen also didn’t want to help. Following the operation, all the sutures in his abdomen dehisced because of multiple ulceration. The doctors gave him just a couple of days to live. The family decided to take the dying man home. For a whole month he was walking around the apartment and brawling, with an open wound in his abdomen. His wife had to beg the doctors to readmit him to hospital. He died on 23 December 2010. This photograph was made two hours before his death.
Tell me about your early project on the tuberculosis epidemic in Ukraine.
The first region I went to was Donbas in eastern Ukraine. What I saw affected me greatly. These patients understood that they were dying and that I would be the last person to whom they could tell the story of their disease. It made no sense for them to hide anything from me and so, in addition to the photographs, I have gathered a large number of personal stories and memories of people who had experienced tuberculosis.
One of the first patients I photographed was suffering from gastrointestinal tuberculosis. He was lying naked on a hospital bed and staring at the ceiling. A week later, I was with him in the last hours of his life. He couldn’t move or talk; his body was like a skeleton covered with skin. He clutched a cross to his chest and prayed. Shortly afterwards, I met his wife, and she told me how he had walked around the house with a burst stomach and his intestines hanging out because the ambulanceman refused to transfer him to a hospital. She had had to call a taxi.
© Maxim Dondyuk ‘Valentin, b.1972. Diagnosis: MDR TB + HIV. Feodosia TB hospital, July 2012.’ from the series ‘TB Epidemic in Ukraine’ 2010–2012
During the Soviet era he was sentenced to eight years in prison for the theft of state property. This is the third time he has been treated for TB. He is currently homeless.
© Maxim Dondyuk ‘Andrey, b.1974, and Inna, b.1969. Diagnosis: MDR TB. Yenakiieve TB hospital, Donbass, December 2010.’ from the series ‘TB Epidemic in Ukraine’ 2010–2012
They became acquainted in the dispensary during treatment. They refer to each other as [de facto] husband and wife. He was recently released from prison, which is where he got ill. While he was in prison, his mother died, his house was robbed and everything was stolen, including his documents. Since he now has no fixed address, he cannot register an official residence and so they cannot register their marriage. The couple sleep in different wards, only seeing each other in the daytime. They hope one day to register their marriage and have a family.
© Maxim Dondyuk ‘Tsurupinsk children’s TB hospital, September 2011.’ from the series ‘TB Epidemic in Ukraine’ 2010–2012
This little boy is taking his TB medication.
How long did you work on this project?
Two years, from 2010 to 2012. I hoped my photographs could change the situation, to attract funding for the treatment of tuberculosis. To improve the horrible conditions in which patients were forced to live out their final days, without medication, or proper care and nutrition. At the same time, I wanted to change public attitudes toward the disease, to rid tuberculosis patients of the stigma that hung over them.
How did your ideas change over that period?
After a while, I rethought my project, which I had originally conceived as social activism. Now I see the work forming a kind of memorial – a book of memory – about the people I met in the tuberculosis wards. Perhaps I can be their voice; to speak for them even after their death. But this is a project for the future. It requires financing, a publisher… and I need more time.
‘Crimea Sich’ focuses on a military bootcamp in Crimea where Cossack children learned to handle weapons. What was it drew you to this subject?
I discovered the camp in 2010, and for three years I kept going back there to try to understand why children, some as young as seven, needed to be taught how to handle real weapons during peacetime. The camp was hosting and training many children. These young Cossacks [an East Slavic, Orthodox Christian people originating in the Pontic–Caspian steppe] came from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, and Belarus. What was it all about? The organisers didn’t hide their activities, yet I was surprised to find most people in Ukraine were unaware of its existence.
You also made a film at the camp…
Spending time there, it became clear to me that documentary film could tell this story more deeply than still photographs. In August of 2013, I returned to the camp with my brother Mykola Dondyuk to start shooting. While we were there, the Cossacks didn’t perceive us as strangers, we were a part of the group. We lived in the same conditions as the campers, ate from the same pot, played cards, went with them on training, all the while shooting video.
[All Images Above] © Maxim Dondyuk – from the series ‘Crimea Sich’ 2010–2013
The documentary [a five-minute sample of which can be see here] raises a lot of questions. Why would adults, former military officers, want to teach armed combat to children? At such young age, do children realise what they are being taught and why? Religion played a vital role in this training, but what was its true purpose? Is this type of ideological indoctrination healthy or even ethical for the young impressionable minds? And how might this influence these children – who, while they come from several nations, consider themselves as brother Cossacks – to take different sides in a conflict?
How did subsequent events change the meanings associated with this documentary work?
That’s a good question, because right now [in August 2023] it has been exactly ten years since I finished filming this documentary. In that time, we have seen revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the occupation of Donbas, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For me, this project proved to be a kind of prediction of the events that followed. On the example of a small camp that gathered Cossack children from different countries, we can see and understand how the education of the younger generation affected the future decade. The priests at the camp were former members of the KGB who blessed them to die for the motherland. Officers taught the children to hate western culture and to solve almost all issues by force. I have tried to finish the film four times, but always I have been frustrated by a lack of financial support. Together with my brother, I am trying again now because this film raises issues that remain highly relevant today.
The series that projected you onto the world stage focused on Euromaidan, which began in November 2013, leading to the Revolution of Dignity. Your images seem closer to history painting than the traditions of conflict photography; they have a certain, almost mythologising, beauty about them. Why did you take this approach?
In the beginning, this project was a real challenge for me. I had always worked alone; here, there were hundreds of other photographers from all over the world. I realised that I needed to find a unique way of capturing these events. To me, the revolution felt like a performance, with scenes of carnage interweaving with incredible beauty. The battles on the streets appeared almost surreal – like the paintings in a museum – as though occurring in some medieval fable or legend. I became completely immersed in a subjective perception of what was occurring around me. While I was still documenting real events, what I tried to capture was the more abstract, universal conflict between light and shadow, between the thick black smoke and whiteness of the February snow and, in some sense, between good and evil.
[Left and Right] © Maxim Dondyuk – from the series ‘Culture of Confrontation’ 2013–2014
Making ‘Crimea Sich’ I had come to feel that only documentary film could tell the story in its entirety. On the Maidan I rediscovered my love of photography, but my attitude toward the medium had changed. Now, for me, photography is emotion, colour, rhythm… closer to music than to the written word.
Why do you call this series ‘Culture of Confrontation’?
Everything that happened in Ukraine, beginning with the Maidan, is a confrontation between two different cultures. One is filled with nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the other craves an independent European country. What happened on the Maidan wasn’t merely a clash of two different generations. There were two layers of culture colliding on the territory of a single country. This confrontation is eternal. It transcends Ukraine, and it definitely transcends that city square where the revolution took place.
When the Russian army invaded Ukraine in February 2022, how did you first become involved in photographing the war?
Early in the morning of 24 February, I awoke to dozens of phone calls and messages; outside the air-raid siren had started. I didn’t understand what was happening and was shocked to find out that all our major cities had been bombed and the Russian army had invaded Ukraine. I felt anger, disappointment, and despair, but also a determination that I should be there with my camera. I bought the last train ticket to Kyiv and did not return home for five months.
How did you approach the task of photographing the war?
I never intended to be a war photographer. But this is my country, and I feel that it is my duty as a photographer and a Ukrainian to capture these historical moments for the present and for the future. I have a whole archive of work made during the conflict that followed the events in the Maidan. Yet I haven’t shown it anywhere. I was younger then and still idealistic about war photography. I wanted to be close to the military, to show their heroic struggle. But by the end of 2014 – and with even greater force in 2022 – I was filled with a hatred of war and contempt for militarism. What before had seemed like heroic images of soldiers, now seemed very much like propaganda.
[Left and Right] © Maxim Dondyuk – from the series ‘Invasion’ 2022 onwards
What is it you now wish to make evident in your photographs?
I want to show the true face of war, without romance, without embellishment. War is abhorrent, there are no winners. It brings only destruction, death, and mental suffering. I want to evoke disgust with war. I photograph devastated towns and villages; the blood, pain, and suffering of both civilians and soldiers. I don’t want to be part of the propaganda machine, nor do I want to side with militarism. I want people to feel the grief and senselessness of war itself.
How do you go about this?
I have never thought that being neutral is a good thing. I put my emotions into photography. All that I experience: anger, fear, disappointment, pain, tears, joy… the photographs are filled with life. I believe that the more you experience any feelings, the stronger your art will become, be it photography, painting, literature, or music. That is why objective photojournalism, which denies subjectivity, can very often simply be boring: informative, but emotionless.
And so, I believe in subjective photography. For me, objectivity is senseless; it contains nothing but facts. You don’t need a human being for that, a machine could do it. But subjectivity requires humanity, reflection, emotion… an aesthetic voice.
[Left and Right] © Maxim Dondyuk – from the series ‘Invasion’ 2022 onwards
So, can photography change things for the better?
In times of war, photography can be used as propaganda, or to convey truth. But the truth doesn’t need propaganda. When the western governments allowed photographers unrestricted access to shoot whatever they wanted during the Vietnam War, it sparked an anti-militarist movement. Now the authorities control every photographer at the front and don’t let them shoot anything they don’t want people to see. But even if photographers were once again able to move freely in a war zone, few magazines these days have the level of public influence they once had.
For me, photography is a visual and emotional diary. It is primarily an attempt to collect affective visual images for future generations and for people who have not experienced such events firsthand. I would like my photos to be the antithesis of propaganda.
Truth is a contested notion and, in these days of hyperreality, even the sense of what is real is being eroded. Given this context, what is it that photographs can usefully do when faced with profound events such as war?
A photograph, if we are talking about the documentary component, can freeze a moment, turn it into a physical object. After that, it can be used in very different ways. It can be modified depending on geopolitical and historical context. The photographer does not control this process, but their images can become proof of a crime or a historical event; they can be used as propaganda or considered as visual art. But this is something the author can’t influence much.
That said, I do not exclude the possibility that photographs might affect the progress of a war. Images from Bucha changed the German government’s mind about supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. Would that have happened, had there been no photographs and videos of the aftermath of the massacre?
My grateful thanks to Irina Dondyuk for her assistance with this interview.
Maxim Dondyuk was born in Slavuta, Ukrainian SSR, in 1983. His work has featured in twenty-three solo and eighty group exhibitions internationally at venues such as the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, France; the Kunstverein Hamburg, Germany; the Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI secolo (MAXXI), Rome, Italy; Somerset House, London, UK; and the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, USA. His images have been widely published in magazines such as Bloomberg Businessweek, Der Spiegel, GEO, The New Yorker, Polka, Rolling Stone, and Time, and he works with international NGOs such as the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation. He published the monograph ‘Culture of Confrontation’ in 2019.
Maxim Dondyuk has received many prestigious awards. In 2014, Magnum Photos included him in their ‘30 under 30’ emerging documentary photographers worldwide. In 2015, he won first prize at the PX3 Prix de la Photographie in Paris, the Grand Prix at the UNESCO–CFPA Humanity Photo Awards, and he was named International Photographer of the Year at the Lucie Awards. In 2016, he was awarded an artist residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, and in 2022 he received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. His work is held in a number of prestigious collections including The National Museum of Photography, Bogotá, Colombia; the Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece; and the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II, Kyiv, Ukraine.
Photo: Sergey Anishchenko