For the Record: Maxim Dondyuk on truth, history and time in Ukraine

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“Truth is the main enemy of a totalitarian regime and truth destroys such a regime”

Before the war began, Maxim Dondyuk was already on the frontline in eastern Ukraine, capturing a series of portraits of young soldiers preparing, in the bitter winter, for what might come next. The images depict soldiers in modern military gear. Several were taken using night-vision lenses, the subjects seen in a blurry green circle aiming practice rounds or setting up positions, capturing the zeitgeist of modern warfare inside a coloured dot. This mix of classic portraits and landscapes juxtaposed with night shots aided by modern technology inform the viewer that history repeats itself.

Fast forward a few weeks and, like many Ukrainian photographers, Dondyuk now finds himself with a new, live brief: documenting the Russian invasion from the streets of Kyiv. The photographer’s striking and harrowing images have made newsstands around the world, including the cover of TIME magazine on 18 March. 

Dondyuk captures bombed-out streets – shards of domestic life scattered, no sign of inhabitants to be seen. Ukrainian soldiers pick their way over rubble, while firemen fight to extinguish roaring fires. Dondyuk’s gaze is so intent that one can almost hear the crunch of the soldiers’ boots as they traverse the hissing and puffing of the blazing architecture. 

The column of the Russian military equipment on the Pobedy Avenue, near the Beresteyska metro station in Kyiv, which was destroyed by the Ukrainian army, while those tried to break to Kyiv at 3am. © Maxim Dondyuk.

“The last time bombs were thrown onto Kyiv was during WWII. When you see such scenes, you can barely breathe. Images of people with amputated legs in hospitals, dead bodies all over fields – all these seem unreal, your mind can’t believe this is happening now, in the 21st century”

The missile hit the logistics warehouses, which were located near the aerodrome ‘Chaika’ (Seagull), Kyiv region, 03.03.2022. © Maxim Dondyuk.
The missile hit the logistics warehouses, which were located near the aerodrome ‘Chaika’ (Seagull), Kyiv region, 03.03.2022. © Maxim Dondyuk.

The photographer has also recorded human suffering in hospitals, underground stations-turned-shelters, and on the streets of the city and its outskirts. His images show the extent of the violence inflicted on the Ukrainian population – from photographs of people lying weakly but defiantly in hospital beds, to those left dead on forest floors and pavements. 

Elsewhere, we see homes devastated by bombings. A statue of Taras Shevchenko – a symbol of Ukrainian independence – is bundled into sandbags. These scenes illustrate a stark reminder of then and now: “Each situation has or creates its own atmosphere, and I just try to feel it and convey it through my photography,” says Dondyuk.

“The last time bombs were thrown onto Kyiv was during World War Two,” says Dondyuk. “When you see such scenes, which previously you only saw in historical movies or paintings, you can barely breathe. Images of people with amputated legs in hospitals, dead bodies all over fields – all these seem unreal, your mind can’t believe this is happening now, in the 21st century.”

Dondyuk is currently splitting time between the eastern regions of Ukraine and his home in Kyiv. He posts images on social media, with the help of his wife Irina, several days or weeks after the event as a matter of safety. “As a documentary photographer, the entire situation is important to me. I documented the revolution in 2013–14, documented the war in 2014, and now we are witnessing the epic battle moment,” he reflects. “I hope that the Ukrainian people will stand. And even though there are big losses, blood and victims, the whole country will defend its independence and will not be absorbed by Russia.”

Destroyed city centre. Kharkiv, 17.03.2022. © Maxim Dondyuk.
Inside The Kharkiv Regional Council, which was damaged by the airstrike, view from the window. Kharkiv, 16.03.2022. © Maxim Dondyuk.
The first affected child in Kyiv from bomb attacks by Russia. He fell under the shelling, in the car there were his father, mother, sister and he, a child 6 years old. Parents and sister died, the boy is in resuscitation in serious condition. Doctors because of the absence of documents, at the very beginning called him "Unknown # 1". 28.02.2022, Kyiv, Ukraine. © Maxim Dondyuk.

All of Dondyuk’s projects possess a desire to tell a truth; to mark a moment in history. The artist’s work has taken the form of books, exhibitions and digital projects, and centres on documentary photography, often with a focus on issues relating to history, memory, conflict and their consequences. Past work includes series that chronicle secret military camps in the Crimean Mountains, to those where we see the bitter, unfiltered detritus left behind on the war-torn battlefields of Ukraine, scattered in the wake of the fiery battles and revolutions of 2013 and 2014. 

In his ongoing project, Untitled Project from Chernobyl, Dondyuk stitches together the past and present using found photographs from the Chernobyl site with his own quiet landscape imagery of the area. The project is on hold as the Russian invasion continues, but Dondyuk plans to return to it when the war is over. 

For now, Dondyuk is focused on sharing a view from within the conflict. “When war comes everyone should decide whether they are running from it as far as possible, or resisting the aggressor. Truth is the main enemy of a totalitarian regime and truth destroys such a regime.”

Nicola Jeffs

Nicola Jeffs is a writer based between the UK and Germany. She has written for the Guardian, BJP, Photomonitor and This is Tomorrow, as well as texts for artists and galleries. She has an MA in Photography: History, Theory and Practice from the University of Sussex and an MA in History from the University of Edinburgh.