Neville’s new book, Stop Tanks with Books, is a critically urgent call to action to support Ukraine’s continued fight for independence. Printed just weeks before Russia’s invasion, 750 copies are being distributed, for free, to diplomats, politicians, international media and celebrities and others who have the power to influence this action.
In November 2021, satellite images showed tanks, heavy weaponry, missiles and some 100,000 Russian soldiers moving towards the country’s border with Ukraine. Back then, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky stated he believed an attack by Russia was unlikely, and a diplomatic solution could be reached. Three months later, on the morning of 24 February, the citizens of Ukraine awoke to the howl of air raid sirens, closely followed by explosions as Russia began shelling strategic military and civilian targets. It was a full-scale invasion. By the end of the day, 137 people were dead, hundreds more were injured and the site of the Chernobyl power plant taken.
It was 6am when photographer Mark Neville, who has lived in Kyiv since 2020, heard this chilling sound for the first time. He let his partner sleep, got up and made some coffee. Switching on the TV to check the news, he saw a map of Ukraine with images of falling bombs all over the country. He noticed the internet was intermittent, and some websites were disrupted. “We spent the rest of the day agonising over what to do,” he says, speaking on the phone. “But at around 5pm we got some intelligence from a reliable source that the Russians planned to launch a missile attack on the president’s house. We live around 50 feet away from it.” At that moment, his decision was made. He and his partner grabbed their already packed suitcases, and along with thousands of other fleeing Ukrainians began a long, arduous journey to Lviv, in western Ukraine.
“I’m torn, because I feel that if I leave Ukraine, I might never come back. I love this country, I consider it home. I’ve gone into warzones before, but I’ve always known that I have a safe place to go back to… It’s a very different experience when it’s happening to you in real time.”
“It’s very complex,” he says. “I want to return to Kyiv to carry on working, but it’s dangerous and difficult.” At the time of writing, fuel shortages, blocked and congested roads, and bomb threats make it difficult to travel. “Even when I’m in Kyiv, there will be hundreds of photographers, many of whom will be detained or arrested because now you need special accreditation to take pictures.” Neville says that despite being a working photographer and having a residence permit, there is still a risk. This is partly due to the paranoia of spies posing as Ukrainians and reporting intelligence back to Russia, and even attacking sheltering civilians, he explains. “But it’s more a question of if I should return,” Neville says. “I’m torn, because I feel that if I leave Ukraine, I might never come back. I love this country, I consider it home. I’ve gone into warzones before, but I’ve always known that I have a safe place to go back to… It’s a very different experience when it’s happening to you in real time.”
As we discuss the images and reporting of the war, Neville expresses his frustration at the swarms of camera crews flying into Ukraine from abroad. “I applaud their bravery, but what really needs to happen is for [international news agencies] to engage local photographers on the ground,” he says. “There are some amazing photographers here, very dedicated and hard working. They have an understanding of their country that someone from the West could never hope to have.”
“If I saw it coming, then someone else must have seen it coming too”
Neville’s relationship with Ukraine began in 2015, when the Ukrainian Military Hospital requested a translated version of his Battle Against Stigma (2015) to give to war veterans. Neville made the project following a trip – commissioned by the Imperial War Museum – to Helmand, Afghanistan, in 2011, to study the stigma of mental health in the British military.
Like many soldiers, Neville returned from the frontline a changed man, with depression and PTSD. He was also disillusioned with the media. “Throughout my time in Helmand I became increasingly aware of this chasm between what is presented in the media and the reality… devastating injuries were barely reported in the UK; it was only if a British soldier lost their life that it would make the TV news,” he writes. In the last decade, Neville recognised the same shortcomings and lack of information regarding the reporting of the political crisis in Ukraine, which was undoubtedly escalating, and felt the need to raise awareness of the responsibility to rectify this.
Stop Tanks with Books, published by Nazraeli Press, does just this. A collection of portraits of Ukrainian people taken between 2015 and 2021, it opens with a sobering quote by German politician Heiko Maas: “If Russia stops fighting there’ll be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting there’ll be no Ukraine.” It warns of the critical gravity of the situation, and is followed by an illustrated map of the Ukraine-Russia border.
Highlighted in red, the image of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk reminds us that this crisis is not an isolated incident, but a continuation of escalating tensions in the region, notably Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing war in Donbas led by the Russian-backed separatist movement. The UNHCR estimates that in 2017 there were already 1.8 million internally displaced refugees in Ukraine, and hundreds of thousands who fled to neighbouring Europe and Russia.
“In a way it’s too late, but in another way, it’s completely timely.”
The book is an example of Neville’s undertaking to make photography with a purpose. He brings together images, storytelling, research and information in an urgent, resounding call to action: “Allow Ukraine to join NATO. Allow Ukraine to join the EU. There need to be tough sanctions against Russia. Crimea needs to be returned to the Ukrainian government. Troops need to be withdrawn from Russian-occupied Donbas.”
We see portrayals of Ukrainian traditions and customs and holidaymakers in Odessa, but also how life has changed. Displaced families, a woman sewing camouflage clothing in a basement, crowds queuing at checkpoints to cross the borders between Russian-occupied and Ukrainian-occupied territories – all part of everyday life in eastern Ukraine for nearly a decade.
The tome, edited by David Campany and translated into three languages – English, Ukrainian and Russian – also includes five stories written by Ukrainian poet and writer Lyuba Yakimchuk of her encounters and experiences from the Russian-occupied Donbas in 2014. Though the book has been eight years in the making, Neville was already testifying that this battle began a long time ago. “What I don’t understand,” he says, “and I’m not a political strategist, is that if I saw it coming, then someone else must have seen it coming too.”
“The international community needs to ask itself a series of urgent questions,” Neville writes in the book’s introduction, with a sense of foreboding. “If Russia’s invasion escalates it will result in a massive exodus of refugees. Ukraine has a population of over 40 million, what will happen if only 10 per cent of these people suddenly flee the country? How will the international community cope with such numbers?… And if Ukraine falls to Russia, which country will be next?”
The importance of providing immediate mental health support for a nation of people who have lived in a state of deep uncertainty is also advocated. “Mental health issues among the population of the Donbas region have risen exponentially due to the incredible stress and pressure of living on the frontline of a war for nearly eight years. This will cause lasting damage,” Neville writes.
Four days before the invasion, some of the initial print-run’s 750 copies were distributed. “In a way it’s too late, but in another way, it’s completely timely,” says Neville. Just a few weeks before, the books were printed and bound at unprecedented speed in just two weeks in Istanbul by MAS Matbaa printers. They continue to be distributed all over Europe to a list of key policymakers, members of parliament, ambassadors and key media around the world.
The message, then, remains the same: “The aim is for recipients of this book to be prompted into real action, which will result in an end to the war, an end to the killing in eastern Ukraine, and the withdrawal of Russian forces from occupied territories in Donbas and Crimea,” and, indeed, the rest of Ukraine.
Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.