Maxim Dondyuk's series "A Culture of Confrontation" has been named to the shortlist of the 2015 Prix Pictet. His emotionally searing and graphically stunning look at the ongoing unrest in Ukraine caught our eye, so we decided to reach out to Dondyuk to find out more.
Managing editor Alexander Strecker got in touch via email. Below is an edited Q&A along with a multimedia presentation of the work.
LC: What first drew you to photography? How has your relationship with it changed over time? I can't imagine you were making photos like we see in "The Culture of Confrontation" from the very first time you pressed a shutter...
MD: I have no artistic or photographic education. There were no artists or photographers in my family. All the knowledge I have comes from books, exhibitions, museums, master-classes.
From the moment I started photographing, I found myself changing along with it. Living in Kharkov, I was under the influence of the photography school there. After moving to Kyiv, the situation changed and I was introduced to the world of photojournalism. I quickly came under its sway. Every day I looked at the sites of news agencies, such as Reuters, AP. After that, I was plunged into the world of documentary photography. I looked over the archives of Magnum photographers, was inspired by James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado, Yurii Kozurev. It was then that I realized news photos were not so interesting. I realized I wanted to work on long-term documentary projects.
In mid-2013, I seriously thought about making documentary films—it seemed to me that they tell socially relevant stories much better than photography. That summer, I went to the Crimea, spending the last of my money for equipment. It was an attempt to find answers to the questions that gripped my mind.
It was during this period that Euromaidan began in Ukraine. I wasn't sure whether to keep working on film or to go to the Maidan with a camera. I also didn't know what I wanted to do at Maidan—video or still? So I stayed back. I watched, analyzed, tried to find answers. I knew it was important for me to tell this story—but I had to figure out how.
As I spent time at these dramatic scenes, I was given a second photographic breath. I understood that I could look at Maidan with the help of associative images rather than direct ones. I wasn't trying to show what was happening only as a photojournalist—I wanted to awaken people's strongest associations and emotions, wanted them to see how I saw.
I wasn't witnessing a revolution in Independence Square—what had opened in front of me were battle scenes from legends and fairy tales. During the clashes between police and protesters, I felt myself transported to a parallel, fictional world. It was a battle between good and evil, light and shade, fire and frost. On the revolutionary canvas, bloody scenes interwove with some incredibly beautiful visual tableaux. The line between reality and fiction had disappeared; as had the distinctions between time, place, and reason. I understood that photography isn't just a way to tell stories, but a means of conveying visual images that hold deep emotions. Photographs don't just show reality but allow the viewer to interpret reality and confront important life questions.
Now, some of the journalistic community are not ready to take my photographs as documentaries. For them, my work is more like paintings, that have no relation to the truth. At the same time, I have heard approval from artists, who say I'm "not only" a photojournalist any more. Regardless, I just try to photograph this world in the way I see it.
LC: You describe yourself as a "visual artist working in documentary photography." That seems to be treading the line you mentioned above. Can you explain more?
I am still fond of documentary photography, especially work in which the photographer doesn't intervene into reality. But personally, I find myself most inspired by the artists from the past century, those who worked in realism. I think of my work more as a sculptor than as a painter—in my possession there is a block of reality, from which I have to cut unnecessary parts to create my images.
This is certainly a very subjective point of view. It involves total immersion into the situation. I try to find a way to live with my subjects and plunge into their atmosphere. In the end, I believe that photography, just like any other art, is a container of emotions. Besides what we are able to see on the surface, we should also feel the emotion that the author was able to put in his or her photos.
—Maxim Dondyuk, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editor's Note: If you enjoy Dondyuk's multimedia presentation and are interested in his thoughts on photo-documentary, don't miss our earlier feature on his work, which includes 60 of these amazing photographs.