This compelling documentary series was selected as a finalist in theMagnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlight award winners.
Winter 2013 changed Ukraine.
Three months of bloody clashes, tears, fear, Molotov cocktails, burning car tires and deaths. It already wasn’t just a protest in the support of the European Union. The Ukrainian revolution brought new spirit, changed people and their minds. They became one organism that fought with a great passion and intensity for a happy future.
From the very beginning Euromaidan was a real performance, and a battle of opposites: Good and evil, light and shadow, thick black smoke and whiteness of the February snow, orange helmets against black. On the revolutionary canvas creepy bloody scenes interwove with incredibly striking views (from a photographic point of view). Euromaidan became one of the most visually beautiful revolutions, like scenes from a Hollywood film.
In my photos I tried to show the scale of all that happened in the centre of the country. Very often I lost the line between reality and fiction. I forgot the place, time and the cause of what was happening. In one moment the battle scenes reminded me of the terrible days of the previous wars. In another, the frosty, fiery battle turned Maidan Nezalezhnosty into a phantasmagoric place. Carefree, obstreperous Kiev completely lost its familiar features.
The title “Culture of the Confrontation” shouldn’t be taken too literally; it’s not art culture that confronts someone or something. Everything that happened in Ukraine, beginning with Euromaidan, is a confrontation of two different cultures.
One culture tries to save the previous old times; they are nostalgic about the former Soviet Union, and look into the past — they want to return to the life they lived before.
And we have another culture that thinks completely differently. They look into the future and believe in a happy future of their own country. Using the word “culture” I mean world view, style of life, people’s thoughts, religion. At Maidan it was not two different generations; it was two cultural layers which live in one territory.
This confrontation is eternal; it started ages ago and will continue again and again. It doesn’t depend on what country.
—Text by Maxim Dondyuk & Irina Kolomyets
Donyuk’s 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 of their exchange:
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
Editors’ Note: This powerful but unusual series of war documentary photographs were also given the 3rd place, Series award in the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2015. Read more about this series below and then go on to discover more inspiring work from all 31 of the winners and finalists.