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Banned and wounded Kherson region of photographer Ivan Antypenko

Pillars of smoke rise from the left bank of the Dnipro River after the Ukrainian Defense Forces practiced targeting enemy targets against the backdrop of poppies sprouting in a field of unharvested sunflowers. Kherson region. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Ivan Antypenko is a Ukrainian journalist, photographer and videographer who mainly covers the Russian-Ukrainian war in southern Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, Russians came to his home in his hometown of Kherson. On November 13, he returned home, but continues his work under fire and in water. We talk to Ivan Antypenko about his favorite destroyed places in Kherson, about the occupation and liberation, about flooding and shelling, about bans and permits to film.


Freelance journalist from Kherson


I take photos and videos, and I also write. However, lately, it is mostly photography that gives me the most pleasure, if I may say so, because the subject matter is really sad. I try to look for inspiration and at least some positive in photography. Speaking of photography, I work with Radio Liberty and Reuters. I prepare texts, photos, and videos for the media outlet Grunt, sometimes for hromadske or BBC Ukraine, and I cooperate with the regional publication MOST. Now I am a freelance journalist. I was born in Kherson, grew up in the Kherson region, not in the city itself. But after graduating from high school, I entered Kherson State University, and since then I have lived in Kherson. I started working in journalism around 2011. Since 2019, I have worked in a national media literacy project. However, during the Russian invasion, I returned to the media as a freelancer. I have never regretted choosing journalism and this path.


February 24, 2022 in Kherson


In the first few hours, everyone called me, and I called everyone too. We realized that everything had started and was developing very quickly. A large part of the region was occupied in the first hours. However, at that moment I did not believe that the war would be so large. I thought that there would most likely be some kind of escalation in Donbas and that maybe the Russians would want to come to the borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But I could never have imagined that almost the entire Kherson region would be occupied so quickly.


Residents of Kherson walk past the building of the Kherson Academy of Continuing Education, destroyed by Russian drone strikes. March 2024. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


On the first day, my colleagues and I saw how quickly the Russians were advancing towards Kakhovka. My friends from law enforcement agencies told me that the situation was very unfavorable and it was quite possible that Russian troops would be in Kherson by February 24. We were advised to leave the city. I thought until the last moment that I would stay in Kherson and work with my camera. To be honest, I was really blaming myself for the decision not to stay in the occupation. Because our people, as you remember, showed incredible heroism, fearlessness and resistance, going to rallies, to these large squares. Almost every day. I was very sorry that I was not there and was not with them, did not record it. Then my friend, journalist Oleh Baturin from Kakhovka, was held captive by the Russians and physically abused.


A portrait of a Kherson territorial defense soldier who died on March 1, 2022, in Buzkovyi Park during a battle with the Russian military. According to confirmed reports, at least 13 Ukrainian defenders were killed there that day. April 2024. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


All because he continued his journalistic work, he wrote about what was happening in the occupation. Later, we all learned that Russians had killed media workers in the Kyiv region. I realized that Russian troops do not look at any "PRESS" signs, they violate all the rules and customs of war. Then I did what I could do: I started to cooperate with various media and write about what was happening in Kherson, receiving information from people who remained under occupation. In May, I received accreditation and started working in Mykolaiv. I really wanted to cover the events in the south. I wanted to go home.


Residents of Muzykivka village gather hay in bales. Kherson region. August 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Liberation of Kherson


 In September-October 2022, we started traveling to the first liberated villages, while our counteroffensive was still underway. We were among the first to visit villages above the Dnipro River: Zolota Balka, Mykhailivka, Bilyayivka, Kreschenivka. Just before the liberation of Kherson, we handed over all the texts and materials. And then I realized that our Defense Forces were already pushing the Russians to the left bank of the Dnipro. And around November 9-10, I clearly realized that something like this would happen tomorrow or the day after. I clearly remember November 11 - the liberation of Muzykivka, Chornobaivka, Kherson. Those first images! I was smiling all day long. It was incredible happiness. Happiness and tears. But the greatest euphoria was when I arrived in Kherson.


The photo shows Ivan Antypenko on his return to Kherson. November 13, 2022. Photo by Serhiy Nikitenko


We didn't get any special permission, we came in as volunteers. By hook or by crook, through Chornobaivka, through the airport. But we were actually carrying humanitarian aid from the Serhiy Prytula Foundation. Thanks to this and thanks to our military acquaintances who were there, we were able to pass the checkpoints, see the legendary airport in Chornobaivka and the Russian equipment destroyed there. In the city, we saw an incredible picture: people with Ukrainian flags on the streets, guys tearing down Russian billboards, and a celebration on Freedom Square. I meet my friends and acquaintances, but there was no cell phone service or Internet at all. People are running around with starlinks and generators. There is no heating in the city either. It was very cold. That's how I spent the first night at my friend's place, and the second night at my home.


Kherson in the first days after liberation from Russian occupation. November 2022. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Return of the lost home


I met a friend who was under occupation all the time. We went to my house together, where there is no electricity, water or heating. I brought a Pepsi Cola and a bottle of Kakhovka cognac, as well as some snickers. This was our modest meal. And it was very painful because I was back home.


Antonivskyi Bridge, destroyed by the Russian military during the retreat in Kherson in early November 2022. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


My apartment. My bed, which I made on the morning of the 24th and left. And everything is still there. This is probably one of the most vivid experiences in my life - coming home. And from the very beginning, when I covered the topic of the full-scale invasion and talked about the South, it was always something very personal. No words can describe this feeling of returning such a great loss as home. And if you look at what I write and how I write, then perhaps the photographs themselves speak of how much I miss it, how much I am hurt by what is happening to Kherson and the region. The left bank, which is under occupation and where we cannot go. It hurts for the right bank, which is constantly under fire. It hurts for the people who live there.


A resident of the village of Muzykivka during the watermelon harvest. August 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Favorite ruined places


 There are many such places, mostly near the water. Now it's scary and dangerous to go there, but we still went and filmed. For example, the city embankment. There are several exits to the Dnipro. Near the Fregat hotel there is a shot bus that was attacked by Russians. And this is a very painful place to film. Various small festivals used to take place there. We always used to walk there. It's a memorable place. When things are bad and when they are good, you go to the Dnipro. Just to look at the water, to see what ships are coming into Kherson, what countries they are from, and what is going on there in general.


The Dnipro embankment in Kherson. A view of the Fregat Hotel and a shuttle bus that came under fire from Russian troops. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Another special place for me, which suffered from the Russians and I had to film it, is the Oles Honchar Kherson Regional Universal Scientific Library. It is located on the Dnipro River itself. Literally on the bank. It's a big building. It has large panoramic windows and an incredible view of the left bank. A wide, beautiful Dnipro and a view of Oleshky. The Dnipro flows right under you. And last August, I was filming there after the Russian attacks on the library. There were already a few holes in the walls and, accordingly, all these huge glass windows were shattered.


The Oles Honchar Kherson Regional Universal Scientific Library after being shelled by Russian troops from the occupied Left Bank of Kherson region. August 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


This shoot made me feel very nostalgic because I used to visit the library often during my student days for various events. The Olesia Honchar Library is a cult place, a landmark. And I am from the generation when the Internet was in the library. It was such a way out into the world. During the filming, we went with the director and looked at everything, and she showed me how the staff saved these books. This is such a touching story about the library. We were taking photos for a UNESCO and IMI project on cultural heritage, and this object was on the list, and I was shooting it. At the time of the shooting, there were also explosions, and then a thick column of smoke on the other side. A few months after the shooting, the Russians launched a missile strike there and the building burned down badly.


And recently I filmed my native Kherson State University after another Russian shelling. This time it hit the main building. Walls were destroyed, windows were smashed, classrooms and teaching materials were smashed. I studied here for five years. Seeing it all in ruins is very painful.


Volunteers clear the rubble after another shelling of Kherson State University. March 2024. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Big water June 6, 2023


Traditionally, it all started with calls. At 7 o'clock in the morning, I wake up in Odesa on the train and see that my phone is ringing off the hook. Everyone is asking me something. I read the news: "Russians blew up Kakhovka hydroelectric power station". At first I didn't realize how serious it was. We arrive and start working non-stop throughout June and until the beginning of July. At first, we documented the flooding, people on boats, evacuations, and animal rescue. And then we filmed the aftermath of the flooding.


Shumenskyi district of Kherson during the flooding caused by the explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


When everyone had already left, the water receded, and people were left alone with this disaster. We saw the real scale of the disaster. Thousands of families were left without homes. People told us: "The Russians did not kill us, they flooded us". But at such an important moment, they often told me: "We can handle it anyway, if only they didn't come back here. Because it was worse during the occupation." People wanted to live in Ukraine, to manage their land. The value of freedom is vital for these people, for all of us.


The village of Sadove during the flooding caused by the explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


The roof of a house floats along the Dnipro on the first day of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant explosion. View from the Kherson embankment. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Again, I experienced it all very personally. Also, when the water was gone everywhere, there was still water in the Kalynivka community in the north of the region. The Ingulets River burst its banks there, which was also a consequence of the hydroelectric power plant explosion. And almost no one wrote or filmed about it. People there created artificial large ponds in their gardens. We went there and filmed it. Because, after all, this is one of my tasks: to go and show places and people where nothing seems to be happening, although in fact there are strong stories and important events hidden there.


Rescuers and residents of Kherson help each other during the rapid flooding of the streets on the first day of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant explosion. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


The image cannot be deleted


Previously, Kherson and the region had no problems with civilian topics at all, no approvals were required. Then the so-called zoning was introduced. At that time, Natalia Humeniuk was the head of the press center at OK Pivden. The media began to have difficulties covering civilian and military topics. After the hydroelectric power plant was blown up, all these areas were flooded with water from the Dnipro. We had to show the scale of this disaster, and the press center was not really helping, but mostly hindering us. When we tried to make arrangements just to work in Kherson and were in constant contact with the press officers, the press center kept telling us about certain restrictions. "You can't go there, you can't go here. There's shelling there, and there's something else," they kept telling us. We understand this as journalists and professionals. We consciously take this risk. But I went to certain places anyway, just by making arrangements with the locals or with volunteers or anyone else.


Residents of the village of Bilozerka sit on the ruins of their house, destroyed after it was flooded by the explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Residents of Bilozerka and Fedorivka clear away debris and rescue personal belongings after the water level rose. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


We wanted to go and show what was happening there. In fact, this is the function of the media: to show reality, to show facts. So, perhaps, in spite of, not because of, the work of official structures, we managed to film and show something in pieces somewhere. People in charge of access must understand that journalists are not enemies. They need to communicate with us and help us in our work. Because we were recording the war crimes of the Russians, the scale of the huge tragedy in the center of Europe.


If the Associated Press journalists had not stayed in the besieged Mariupol in March 2022, risking their lives along with medics, the military, police, and other people, the world would not have received reliable facts about the atrocities of the Russian army in this city. Or these facts would have been much smaller and they would not have sounded so loud. Whether we like it or not, the people and states that support us trust not only official reports, but also live, real stories that reporters prepare in the fields. And they trust the latter more.


A multi-storey building in the Shumensky district of Kherson, partially flooded after the explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station. June 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


(In)famous Krynky


The military say that sometimes they think there is no war in the south. Everyone knows only about the fighting in the east. We see only shelled towns and villages. And no one knows who is defending us here, the faces of these people, these real heroes of our time, who are working in Krynky and in other difficult areas in the Kherson region.


Ivan, a serviceman of the 35th Separate Marine Brigade named after Rear Admiral Mykhailo Ostrohradskyi, during training for storming buildings in Kherson region. April 2024. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


My colleagues and I were shouting for permission to work adequately in the south. I think that every adequate journalist who has been working on military issues for many years has a sufficient level of self-awareness of the situation, and no one wants to do anyone any harm. In my opinion, it is wrong to completely close this area. For example, Ukrainians often heard about Krynky from Kremlin messages and propaganda channels, not from Ukrainian media. If there is no communication, if there is a vacuum, then it will be filled with fictions, hostile IPSO and messages taken out of context.


The 2C1 Gvozdika self-propelled artillery system of the 37th Separate Marine Brigade fires at the positions of Russian troops on the left bank of the Dnipro River. April 2024. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


On February 25 this year, after President Zelensky's press conference, I wrote a post that went viral online and was shared by colleagues from various publications: "Why do we learn about Krynky from tiktok and Shoigu's reports? How does this area differ from Avdiivka, Kupyansk, Robotyno in the sense that we are forbidden to even mention the left bank? How does the struggle of marines and the TRO in the Kherson region differ from the struggle of other brigades in other areas?" I was told that this message did reach the Ministry of Defense and that certain conversations were held with the responsible officials.


A serviceman of the 35th Separate Marine Brigade named after Rear Admiral Mykhailo Ostrohradskyi during a training session on defeating enemy UAVs. April 2024. Photo by Ivan Antypenko

 

Has the ice broken?


After the media called on the country's military leadership to replace the spokesperson for the JC "South" and Dmytro Pletenchuk was appointed in her place, the situation with access to the Kherson region improved somewhat, Ivan says. Requests to work with civilians will now be reviewed on a fast-track basis. 


"If there is a need to create material without the participation of the military, requests are processed according to a shortened scheme: only after agreeing on the route (and strict compliance with it on your part) with the relevant press officer in the area," said Dmytro Pletenchuk, head of the Strategic Communications Center of the Southern Defense Forces, Captain 3rd Rank.


A man sprinkles cereal for birds. Tavriyskyi district of Kherson. October 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


Kherson residents play dominoes in the yard of their house. October 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


A man looks at a rocket crater after Russian troops attacked a humanitarian center in the Shumensky district of Kherson. December 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


A dead resident of Kherson in a construction supermarket after a massive artillery attack by Russian troops on May 3, 2023. Photo by Ivan Antypenko


 

Ivan Antypenko is a Ukrainian journalist, photographer and videographer who covers the Russian-Ukrainian war in southern Ukraine. He works with Ukrainian and international media: "Radio Svoboda, Grunt, Reuters, Hromadske, MOST, BBC Ukraine and others.


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