Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Maxim Dondyuk is a Ukrainian freelance documentary photographer. The list of his grants and awards is long but among them are: Magnum Photos competition ‘30 under 30’ for emerging documentary photographers, Finalist of the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, Finalist for the FotoEvidence Book Award,Grand Prix of the “Best Photo of the Year” at the contest “Photographer of the Year”, Shortlist in the Portraiture category of Sony World Photography Awards.
His work is been published at TIME, PDN, Bloomberg Businessweek (USA), Der Spiegel, Rolling Stone, Message (Germany), Paris Match, Libération, Polka, 6Mois, L’insensé, VSD, Europa (France), Journalisten (Denmark), Russian Reporter, Artchronika, Ogonek, Foto&Video, Bolshoj Gorod, Vokrug Sveta (Russia), Zurnalas Foto (Lithuania), Liberali (Georgia), Reporter, Esquire, Forbes, Tyzhden, Focus, KyivWeekly, Korrespondent, VDOH (Ukraine) among others.
After FotoEvidence interviewed Maxim, he was detained by Russian paramilitary nationalists in eastern Ukraine with the “Vice” journalist Simon Ostrovsky. His account is included here as a lead in to our interview with him.
About my arrest in Slovyansk: One day we decided with Simon Ostrovsky, Freddy from Voice, Simon Shuster from Time magazine, and Misha from Itar-Tass to go to Kramatorsk to find so-called “green men,”who were believed to be GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) people or Russian forces. We found them, talked with them, made video and photos.
After that, we were on our way to the hotel, driving, as usual, through some roadblocks in the direction of Slavyansk. At the last roadblock a man came to us, looked into the car, flashed a torch to each face, and after he flashed a torch on Ostrovsky, the man became nervous, told to stay where we were, and went somewhere. He returned with a sheet of a paper with a portrait on it. I clearly saw that it was a portrait of Ostrovsky. The man shouted “It’s him.” Men with submachine guns surrounded us and put their guns to our faces. Panic began.
We couldn’t understood what was going on. We were taken somewhere, threatened, and someone joked that they would kill us right now. We were taken to a park, not far from checkpoint and they began to check our documents, asking who we were. They had a paper that directed them to arrest Ostrovsky on sight. So they took us to a regional office of internal affairs. There I met some people that I already knew and they talked with me normally. We began to believe that they would let us go, even if without our gear, and I tried to arrange with them to leave us. They had already taken Ostrosky somewhere else but they phoned for instructions about us. Then a group of aggressive people with guns arrived and began to shout at us. We were nailed to the wall, they pointed guns at our heads. Someone shouted not to turn our faces to them. They frisked us. Than we were taken to the Security Service of Ukraine.
During the car ride, one of the men aimed his gun at us, removed the safety and joked that if the car hits a bump the gun will go off. It was very funny for him and a driver. In the Security Service of Ukraine bags were place over our heads. Behind me, the whole time, someone joked that he could bury us. They made us say goodbye to our lives. I don’t know how long I stood against the wall with a bag on my head without understanding what would be next. After some time, one man began to confront us with harsh questions. Who are we? Where are we from? What were we doing there? What did we shoot? Answering his questions I lied, telling him that I’m a Russian citizen, that I’m from Moscow, that I was photographing for Russian Reporter. I really was photographing for them that time. The interrogator said that the four of us could go but warned us not to tell about where we were and what happened until Simon Ostrovsky was freed or he would be in big trouble.
They returned all our stuff, our cameras and equipment, and our bags and wallets, everything that they took at the checkpoint. We were warned that they would come back for us if we made a mistake. We really worried that they would come back, or Simon Ostrovsky would tell them something about Freddy or that they will understand that Freddy was his fixer. So we changed the room in a hotel, and stayed all together. And in the morning called a taxi, as soon as curfew ended and left the town (Slovyansk). They didn’t take our material and we didn’t understand why. I think it’s because they even didn’t see what was on our flash-cards because they didn’t know enough to view them.
They catch journalists because they have people who monitor all the social networks and web sites. They prepare a list of journalists that created images, videos and any other material that they don’t like. They believe that the journalists distort the whole situation. So they create a list of journalists or photographers with their portraits and their so-called “violations.” These are distributed to the checkpoints and the journalists are arrested.
I believe the so-called “green men” are usual protesters and militia. They are people with Russian passports but that doesn’t mean that they are from the Russian special forces or GRU. They are people, with guns, bandits, that occupied the city and established their own rules. The Ukrainian media labeled them “elusive avengers” or “green men” and depicted them as GRU or Russian special forces. The people who arrested me were too unprofessional to be trained special forces or intelligence operatives. For example, when they saw a sniper's weapon they looked at it as at a toy which they were seeing for the first time. They showed their faces and passports and talked about themselves. Things the security forces don’t do.
SB. What is photography for you?
MD. Through photography I discover not only the world around me, but also my own world. Due to photography I learned to notice what I didn’t notice before, to appreciate what I didn’t appreciate before and to remember what can be forgotten. I'm very grateful to photography for all the changes in my life and mind. Photography isn’t just my job for me. It’s a philosophy of life, which every day fills me with new energy.
SB. When and how you became a photographer?
MD. I got acquainted with photography three times. The first two were unsuccessful. My first meeting was when I was a child, when my mother and I were sitting in a red room. She was an amateur photographer and constantly took pictures of our whole family on a ZENIT camera. I remember I was given a camera SMENA, but my enthusiasm didn’t last long. I took up the camera again when I was 12 years old. I joined a photography club. I went there for a couple of months, shot several dozen rolls of film, developed them and than threw the whole thing away.
When I was 24, I worked in a totally unrelated field. I returned to photography as a hobby. I read a lot of material about visual arts and photography. I tried to read everything I could find in Russian. At that time, there were neither tablets nor the ability to buy books about photography, so I just printed texts from the Internet on A4 and read it on the subway and between work. On the weekends I would confirm in practice all I had read. At first, I worked at night in a secure job and as a photojournalist in the afternoon, for free, just for the experience. But after half a year I left my main job and became a photojournalist in a daily newspaper.
SB. Who is the photographer that influenced you most and why?
MD. Mostly I’m influenced not by photographers but by writers. In photography I prefer the classical school and such photographers as Eugene Smith and Sebastião Salgado. Of the photographers who shoot color photos, I’m interested in Alex Webb and Gueorgui Pinkhassov. At the beginning of my professional journey, I was a great ! fan of James Nachtwey. At some moment, I realized that I was interested in a social themes. Perhaps, it was due to my passion for James Nachtwey and Sebastião Salgado. At that period of my life, I read a lot of their interviews and saw their photographs, trying to understand what moves them.
I realized that I didn’t need to go anywhere out of my country, as there are so many social problems in Ukraine that I just needed to decide what topic I wanted to uncover. I chose the problem of tuberculosis, as at that time I also believed in all the stereotypes of the disease and didn’t suspect that the epidemic of tuberculosis has a status of a national problem here. The more I got into this topic, the more it drew me in. I devoted more and more of my free time to it and, four months after I started shooting the project, I lost my job and my girlfriend left me. I had nowhere to live and didn’t have money. But compared to all the problems that I documented, my problems seemed not so terrible. I left Kiev, because I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. I lived in regions where was shooting and sometimes lived in TB hospitals, visited TB prisons. This project became a part of me. I tried to plunge into the life of people suffering from tuberculosis as much as possible. At that time, I was interested in the novels of Hunter Thompson and they had a great influence on my approach to the project. After two years of such a life, I understood that I needed to stop, as the borders were lost and I was plunging too deeply into all this. I want to thank my friends who helped me during this difficult period.
My values in life have changed. Such close contact with death, especially the slow death of tuberculosis, taught me to appreciate every day of life and to get used to death.
SB. You were on the streets of Kiev during the revolution this year. What was important for you to capture?
MD. It was my first shooting in such extreme conditions. I was even wounded in the leg by a grenade, and couldn’t walk for some time. It was a really great and important experience for me, as I wanted to work in a conflict situation. We used to say, “be careful of your wishes”. Although I think that our revolution was the most beautiful revolution in the world. It was an unbelievable vision, like a Hollywood film.
I tried to show passion and power of the people in my photos. But first of all, it’s my country’s history and I couldn’t sit by without documenting it. I spent almost all my time on Maydan Square. I live within 20 minutes of it but the risk of missing something made me not go home. When nothing important happened on Maydan, I went home but as soon as activity began there, I returned. I lived on Maydan, ate revolutionary products, listened to the music there and took part in all critical moments that happened there. When Russians began to occupy the Crimea, I went there and spent some time. And I recently returned from the Eastern Ukraine, where I spent a couple of weeks. This story isn’t over for my country.
I am against the position when the photographer or journalist becomes an activist. Of course I had my position and point of view, but it was seen only in my photos. I saw when journalists smashed windows with protesters, occupied government buildings or crushed the monument of Lenin with a sledgehammer. I think this is unacceptable. If we talk about the photographer-activist who opposes something and his activity doesn’t go beyond journalism and photography, I’m for such activity.
SB. Is your photography a social statement?
MD. If to talk about photos from the TB project, they had a great resonance in the society, attracted the public’s attention and focused some charities on this problem. But if you talk about shooting during protests in Kiev, and now in other regions - I’m documenting the history of my country, I do not even realize what social value my photos will have. I don’t have time to think about this.
SB. Recently you were selected among the 30 under 30 photographers to watch. How do you see your future as a photojournalist?
MD. True to say, I don’t see much future in photojournalism. I want to believe that working as a photojournalist, you can subsist but I am not sure. Now I stay up due to two magazines, Der Spiegel and Russian Reporter. I am very grateful to Matthias Krug and Andrei Polikanov who are directors of the photo service. Of course I collaborate with others editions, but they are not systematic.
When I am interested, I choose a theme and work on it for a long time. After that I suggest it to magazines. Not news, where hundreds of reporters and photographers are. But the way I work you need alternative sources of funding. I have an idea to make every shoot into multimedia for the iPad, using photos, text and videos. In such way, I want to show the story in the form I see it, directly to viewers, bypassing the mass media. But you need to find a team, because it is impossible to realize oneself. Also, after my country passes through this difficult period, I plan to leave Ukraine and to expand my geography.
SB. I always ask devoted to social cause photographers the same question: do you believe your photography can change the injustice?
MD. I believe in the power of photography and the fact that it can change the world. Even if not as quickly as we would like, but a little goes a long way. Just as war destroys the world, social photo resists this destruction. It evokes compassion for people in a time when war is hatred.