In the weeks following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, I travelled to the country with a 35mm camera to photograph everyday life in the context of the war. I wanted to show the beautiful human moments that surely still existed in Ukrainian public life. Rather than the destruction and tragedy of war, I wanted to celebrate the beauty, colour, and poetry of social life in wartime Ukraine, a life that remains under serious threat from Russian attacks.
Ever since I did a master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies, I have had a keen interest in the area, its politics, history, cultures, and languages. In the years before the war, I’d spent much time in the region, whether on university research trips, language study, photographic commissions, or simply just travelling. So, my decision to go to Ukraine, while being the work of a freelance photographer, was also an extension of my own history, and my own fascination in the region that started at university almost twenty years ago.
I flew to Rzeszów in Eastern Poland, travelled by train to the Ukrainian border, where I stayed for a few days in Przemyśl, photographing at the train station and around the border crossing at Medyka. After obtaining my press pass from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, without which it is almost impossible to photograph in the country, I took the first sleeper train across the border.
Over the course of the next month I photographed in Lviv, around its old town centre, at its markets, in its churches, in its parks, stations, and squares.
I photographed across the streets of Kyiv, criss-crossing the city over and over by foot, documenting daily life, religious events, and military funerals.
And I photographed in Buzova, one of many formerly occupied towns and villages around the capital, where I was led by Ukrainian forces across recent battle zones, deserted Russian encampments, and formerly occupied settlements.
But it was to the streets of Ukraine’s cities that I was drawn, and it was the life in, on, and around those streets and public spaces that I wanted to experience and represent through photography. The recent battle sites and formerly occupied settlements I had visited were, unsurprisingly, deathly quiet and still, devoid of life, and dull, whereas the streets of the cities, while not as busy as in peacetime, were dynamic, colourful, and in flux. To a street and documentary photographer like me, it was the flow and poetry of the urban public space that attracted me and pulled me in.
So, almost a year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this photo essay looks back not at the tragedy of the conflict, but celebrates instead the colour, beauty, and poetry of Ukrainian social life during the early stages of the war. The photographs show not fighting but love, not the front line, but civil society in cities under attack from rocket strikes, not death, but life, not loss, but relationships, not suffering, but joy, not dullness, but colour, and not destruction and things broken, but togetherness and the remaking of life.
The experience of doing street photography in Ukraine during the war was complex and certainly not easy. For a start, walking around in public with a camera aroused a lot of suspicion. Outside the context of war, street photography usually generates some suspicion from members of the public, and the behaviour of a street photographer – looking at things for long periods of time, stopping, running, loitering, kneeling, standing on things – does look odd and is certainly unusual. Now, add to this the fact that the Ukrainian government had launched a widespread public messaging campaign (think COVID and the visibility of the UK government’s public communications – signs, billboards, TV broadcasts, social media campaigns, etc.), encouraging social vigilance, alertness to suspicious behaviour, and (most importantly) being on the lookout for anyone taking pictures in public. So, in this context, with the fear of Russian ‘saboteurs’ very real and very high, the experience of doing street photography in Ukraine was, at that time, intense. So, each day, before I went out, I made sure my press pass was securely clipped to the breast pocket of my coat, clearly visible to anyone who wished to see who I was and what I was doing. And many people did exactly that, approaching me, looking closely at my press pass, and satisfied I was a British photographer and not a Russian spy, exchanged best wishes with me, and left me to get on with it.
The project illuminates and preserves in images the poetry of a way of life that is under threat. It celebrates the stoic continuation of Ukrainian people to keep on living with a sense of normality in circumstances that are far from normal.