Interview with Maxim Dondyuk
by Mick ter Reehorst
With its visceral and visual clashes of police and protesters, the images of the 2013 revolution in Ukraine are difficult to forget. Over the course of the next years, the civil war in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea left deep scars in the country. Maxim Dondyuk, from Ukraine himself, photographed the EuroMaidan revolution and documented child soldier camps and tuberculosis in Crimea. Are We Europe sat down with him and his wife, Irina, to discuss their work together as well as Maxim’s experience as a photographer on the front line.
“People didn’t live in Russia, but they lived in the Soviet Union, they remember how it was, it’s a dream about being young again, about going back to the way things were."
Maxim is 30 years old, has a long beard and tattoos. He’s restless, sympathetic and passionate. He and his wife Irina are staying at the artist-in-residence housing in central Paris for a few months. What is perhaps the most striking about his photos is the scale of the clashes he captures. Just as he says himself: they look like epic historical battles.
“After I was in Ukraine for 2 weeks, I opened my eyes. I forgot about the real situation and started to see it like another world." When I ask him how it felt to stand so close to the protesters and to actually be there, surrounded by flying Molotov cocktails, he quickly stands up, pretends to have a camera in front of his face and clicks away. “I tried before to take pictures this close. But in Maidan I started to take in the whole scene, with those hundreds of people. It was very hard not to create a picture or painting."
He is silent for a while, then says “I don’t believe, I don’t believe, I don’t believe, I don’t believe," while still holding the camera in front of his face.
He tells me there were in total about 200 photographers, with 20 photographers right next to him most of the time. All with big lenses, snapping away mostly at people’s faces.
“But I was just thinking about stories. I kind of lost my mind and only saw battles, legends and I tried to put what I saw in the camera, in the frame. I wanted to put my emotion in the frame. It didn’t matter what happened, it was not the Ukrainian revolution anymore. For me the legends just continued.”
Battles and Legends
The legend’s spell broke with a bang. A grenade exploded nearby and a shard shot into his left leg two days after he got there. He touches his leg and says, “at first, I didn’t even feel it. And then my leg really started to hurt and my friends took me to a hospital. It was a 40-minute operation - they took out the shard."
The next day, all bandaged up, he slumped his way between the protesters again. He reenacts this for me, limping his leg and pretending to climb barricades and dodge Molotovs. “I couldn’t, I could not not go. I needed to go, go, go.” His sentences are short and active, with his English sometimes failing him, yet it doesn’t take away from his powerful acting. Now Irina steps in, having mostly listened to him and occasionally helped him with translating. “It was good, because after he was wounded, it was more peaceful. He could rest for a few days."
We drink our coffee and look out over Paris for some time. We even talk about the weather, the beautiful buildings and the things they’ve done and seen here. But then Maxim takes us back to the battleground.
“It wasn’t all as dangerous as what people think about it. But sometimes protesters threw grenades next to me and in other situations, police officers helped me. It was a crazy situation. Some policemen were crazy though."
"In every life, every culture,
some people are bad and you can really see that in protests."
Suddenly we are back and right in between the protesters and the police, with Molotov cocktails flying over. He whistles a ”wooooo" sound, like a falling bomb. This is not a place where you can be without any risks. “You need to feel the situation," he says. "Sometimes young people just go and think ‘I’m young and a journalist’. You need to have experience; think about it. Can I run and snap, or not?”
He keeps on standing up from his seat, producing comical movie sounds while acting out the intensity of the protest, waving his arms, moving up and down in his char. But his photos tell the story even better. The violence, the clashes - they truly are spectacular images.
But amidst the waterfall of words, he says something I didn't expect.
“I was very happy. The revolution was so sad, but sometimes it was so beautiful. Sometimes, if you forget about what happened, it was better than a movie. It was such an unreal situation."
The Battle - Good vs. Evil
He continued talking about legendary battles, the good versus evil look-and-feel of it. Did he feel like it was Russia vs. Europe?
“With this project I didn’t really think about Russia being evil. EuroMaidan was not necessarily anti-Russian. But afterwards people started to understand that Russian media create another reality. There were more than half a million people at the Maidan square, but Russian television always talked about 200 radicals.”
He goes on to give some historical context, and comes back to the Crimean annexation. ”After Crimea, Russia was evil for me." So I asked him again, especially since his series is named Culture of Confrontation. “No, it’s not between Europe and Russia. It’s between two cultures. Two cultures that want a change in life. One doesn’t want to be like Europe, they just want to live without corruption. The other one is not about Russia, it’s about their dream about the Soviet Union."
East and West Ukraine are completely different countries, he says. Kiev is mixed, sure, but if you go to the East, it’s like a complete mirror of the West. And with a lot of excited hand gestures, Maxim talks about his own very early memories of the Soviet Union, and mirrors it with his travels through Europe. “People didn’t live in Russia, but they lived in the Soviet Union, they remember how it was, it’s a dream about being young again, about going back to the way things were."
Tuberculosis and child soldiers
Something else that you'd think was a thing from the past is tuberculosis. But Maxim shot a compelling photoseries about tuberculosis in Crimea. The government in Crimea was not very cooperative, but he kept pushing, until a director of a hospital gave him permission to take pictures. He tells me how he spent 3 months in Sebastopol and comes back to something he only briefly mentioned before: Crimea Sich - a military training camp for children between 7 and 16, situated in the Crimean Mountains. “I kept coming back to Crimea, spending one year taking pictures there. Then I started to think about a documentary movie, which is better for storytelling than pictures."
His brother, a young Ukrainian filmmaker, convinced him to go back again and shoot in the mountains. “I lost 7 kg per two weeks climbing mountains, with my gear. It was intense." He pants heavily, reenacting the scene. “We climbed mountains with the cameras. It was so good, so beautiful, but also pretty crazy." One of his filmmaker friends from Europe told him he is crazy. And as if he agrees, he repeats the word multiple times: "crazy, crazy ... crazy."
Maxim and his brother came back with over 40 hours of footage of child soldiers from Ukraine, from Russia and Moldova. He tried to kickstart the documentary, but couldn't get the money together. According to him, there are not enough rich people in Ukraine.
Finally, I ask him if he’s looking forward to going back to Ukraine in December. He is silent for ten seconds, coughs a few times and then says solemnly “It’s a very, very sensitive question. Unfortunately, in the Ukrainian situation, not a lot has changed. The old system is still in place. Old politics, old people who don’t want change. It might be better after 10 or 20 years”.
When I am almost ready to go, he suddenly asks me about what I thought about him, his photos, his English. I give him some compliments, and I mean them, but he doesn’t really seem to register it.
Then he says, “I don’t like a system or any structure. I’m just a person that lives on this planet. Why do people start a war? I have friends in Russia, and they are very good. I don’t have problems with Russians, with the government, with people who believe propaganda. In Europe it’s the same, people watch TV and just believe that. It’s about the Ukrainian revolution and you try to help people understand, but not everyone understands. It’s still a war that’s going on. A war between cultures.”