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Camera as a weapon: stories of photographers who joined the army

What made photographers join the Ukrainian Armed Forces? How has photography and they changed since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine? What did they have to give up and what did they get used to? We talk to photographers Valentyn Kuzan, Oleh Palchyk and Serhiy Mykhalchuk.


«Choosing between anxiety and fear», — Valentin Kuzan


The photo shows Valentyn Kuzan, a soldier-photographer with the 72nd Separate Mechanised Brigade named after the Black Cossacks. Photo by Arseniy Prylipko


Valentyn Kuzan is a well-known portrait photographer in Ukraine, currently working as a photojournalist for the public relations service of the 72nd Separate Mechanised Brigade named after the Black Zaporizhzhia.


Valentyn developed a love for photography when he was a teenager. He begged his father for a camera to take pictures himself. His first baptism of fire, i.e. commercial photography, was a wedding that a 10th-grader with no experience had to shoot because his father mistakenly booked two events on the same date. "I was very nervous at the time. I thought to myself: "Oh my God, this is a once-in-a-lifetime wedding for people. What will happen if I do something wrong?" Valentyn's father explained to him what should be filmed and what was optional. "Those were the days when they took pictures as if the groom was holding the bride in his palm or they were looking through a tree. Mostly near a birch tree," Valentyn recalls with a smile.


He got acquainted with documentary photography in 2014. He was inspired by the works of the photographer Oleksandr Hlyadelov, who came to Uzhhorod with exhibitions. "It opened up an opportunity for me to fill the photo with a new meaning," says Valentyn, "and to consider documentary as a language that can be used to speak about important things.


At the time, Valentyn bombarded Oleksandr with questions about how to shoot war and how to get there, but the conversation did not go further than that: "As long as I remember as an adult, I have always had children. I have four children, and one of them is always a baby. So, to tell you the truth, the situation then was not favourable for long trips to dangerous places."


Photo by Valentin Kuzan


He returned to his desire in 2022, after he evacuated his family from Kyiv to the West and "the situation became more or less stable and clear." Together with the Ukraїner project, he filmed the military near the capital, and was involved in a series of works about intellectuals and artists who joined the army. After that, he was invited to spend a week documenting the work of the missile troops in Donetsk region. "One of the first aid packages had just arrived in Ukraine. It was a weapon similar to the Himars, just made in another country. That was my first shooting at the front. Later I found out that no one is allowed to take pictures of such things, and there is still a big problem with access to it. This is an attractive target for Russians," says Valentyn.


Photo by Valentin Kuzan


At that time, several photos, namely portraits, from this series were published on the page of the then Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. "It made me very happy. That's how cheerful my start in military photography was!" the photographer does not hide his joy.

After that, there were no more opportunities to shoot the war directly, but Valentyn took on everything that was somehow related to it. He started working with various media: The Ukrainians, Kunsht, and Local History.


"Together with The Ukrainians, we filmed two UPA veterans and political prisoners. One was 94 years old and the other was 99. However, four days after the filming, he was going to turn 100. It was in Kolomyia. This uncle commanded a UPA unit that became famous for killing about 400 NKVEDists in one battle. His name is Myroslav Symchych. His son is fighting now. It was a very interesting story. It's about the continuity of generations and an unchanging enemy."


Photo by Valentin Kuzan


Afterwards, he filmed the project "Victory Units" with Ukraїner about the soldiers of the 93rd Brigade "Kholodnyi Yar" and the 72nd Brigade named after the Black Cossacks, and it was in the latter brigade that he found new friends. "Although we were there for about a week, I realised how good I felt being there. This work is filled with maximum meaning for me." In the autumn of 2023, Valentyn mobilised to the same brigade as a photojournalist.


Photo by Valentin Kuzan


Since 2016, Valentyn has been focusing on portraits of Ukrainian artists for the Cultprocess project as an analogue to the portraits of the artist Anatol Petrytskyi's contemporaries, the Executed Renaissance generation. During this time, the photographer shot thousands of images of Ukrainian writers, musicians, artists, and other people who shaped our culture during the period of independence. However, now his lens is focused on the defenders.

"It is important for me now to highlight who is defending us and to work to ensure that the memory of these people is represented in the visual dimension as well as I can," explains Valentyn.


He had to give up taking his favourite photos - black and white portraits. After the invasion, such pictures are associated with the death of a person. "I don't want to scare anyone. So now I work only in colour. It is a huge challenge for me to work with colours in a portrait."


Before the mobilisation, Valentyn used to invite people to his studio for portrait shoots to meet with themselves. People came to see their photos and, at the same time, their changes. "During a year of full-scale war, you could see everything on their faces. These tonnes of stress in their eyes. But it was also noticeable how people still managed to cope. You could see this journey in people's eyes," explains Valentyn.


He notes that the military have a different outlook, and it was this contrast that made him decide to mobilise: "I was choosing between anxiety and fear. Because in civilian life, I had a lot of anxiety about not being in the army."


Photo by Valentin Kuzan


Despite the fear he felt, he sees calmness in the eyes of his colleagues. "Oddly enough, because people are calm about their choice, and that they may not be ashamed in front of their relatives, descendants or fellow citizens.

A very large percentage of the people I meet here are volunteers. They know why they are here. Their eyes are filled with meaning." Valentyn says that he also sees enthusiasm, courage, and a bit of humour in the eyes of his fellow soldiers, as well as heaviness and fatigue: "The looks speak volumes: "We've been here for two years, and maybe someone should replace us?" In fact, that's how I reacted when I decided to mobilise," the photographer admits.


When asked what kind of photo he would like to take, he replied: "I would like every soldier to have a high-quality photo portrait. Unfortunately, we now see alleys of fallen heroes in towns and villages, and not everyone has photos worthy of them and their deeds."

Valentyn added that he would like every soldier to have a good photo of himself in uniform after the war, so that in 50-60 years' time he could look at this photo and realise how important he was doing at the time.


Photo by Valentin Kuzan


«I dream of photographing the Ukrainian parade on Red Square in Moscow», — Oleg Palchik


The photo shows Oleh Palchyk, photographer, junior sergeant of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Photo by Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi


"It's hard to kill a Ukrainian in yourself," Oleh Palchyk, a photographer and junior sergeant in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, quotes one of the heroes of his many photo reports, a combat medic named Lata. Until 2022, he was a commercial photographer, taking object, portrait and reportage photos. Oleh lived in Kharkiv for many years and now lives in Kyiv. The war came to each of the cities he calls home. That is why, since 24 February 2022, his photographs have changed with him.


Photo by Oleh Palchyk


On 24 and 25 February 2022, he went to the CCC twice to enlist in the army, but they did not accept him without experience. So Oleh volunteered and continued to look for a way to be useful to the state. So he joined one of the special police units and started documenting the war in the Kyiv region. Eventually, in May, Oleh managed to officially become part of the Armed Forces. Since then, he has been documenting the war for TRO Media.


Photo by Oleh Palchyk


Oleg considers his public relations unit to be one of the best in the army. "We cover historical events, shoot documentaries about brigades and people. We shoot stories, record stories, make photo portraits. Anything that can be covered by the media, we do!" - says the soldier.


Photo by Oleh Palchyk


A photo book based on Oleg Palchyk's works is currently being prepared for publication. There are also photo exhibitions featuring his photographs in Ukraine and abroad. The photo exhibition "The length of a war" is a joint work of two authors: Oleh Palchyk and Colonel Oleksii Dmytrashkivskyi. These are two separate projects, Faces of War and The Other Side of Peace, which have been combined into one joint exhibition. Hundreds of photographs are constantly updated with new materials. "This is Kyiv region after de-occupation, Kharkiv region before a large-scale counter-offensive, and everyday Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. The exhibition features portraits of defenders in combat positions, photographs of civilians living in the de-occupied territories or near the frontline. There are also military exercises and combat work of artillery and other types of weapons. In general, the consequences of Russian aggression, etc.", says Oleg Palchyk.

Among the hundreds of his photos, it is difficult for Oleh to choose the ones that are dear to his heart or that are most memorable. However, the photos of the flames when Russia attacked the gas pipeline in Kherson are special to him. "It looked very surreal," the photographer recalls, "even though the explosion was far away and the flames were very bright. Already on the spot, we saw a fire the size of a 5-storey building. The whole city could see this radiance. It was both beautiful and scary at the same time."


Photo by Oleh Palchyk


Mostly, Oleh focuses on people and their stories. One of them is a photo of the platoon commander of the 68th Ranger Brigade, Valeriy "Roland" Dorokhov, who was killed along with his comrade-in-arms Oleh Barna during an assault on enemy positions in Donetsk Oblast. "This story, to put it mildly, knocked me out of my rut. I was filming Roland. A few hours before his death, we talked, he made changes to the material. I sent him photos, but he didn't have time to read my message," - says Oleg.


Photo by Oleh Palchyk


Oleh believes that Ukrainian documentary photographers demonstrated a very high level of excellence during the full-scale invasion: "It seems to me that they didn't even take a step forward, they jumped way over their heads. We have a lot of really professional photographers. I am sure that their documentary photos will become a model in the post-war period!"


Oleh says that since the beginning of the invasion, his photographs have gained more freedom, and his shots have become freer, as they demonstrate completely different values. "I feel like all the tinsel just fell off," says Oleh Palchyk.


Despite his extensive portfolio, he believes that he has not yet taken his best photograph. "But I was once asked in the comments to shoot a Ukrainian parade on Red Square in Moscow. That's the photo I would probably really like to take," he laughs. 


«Not so scary with a camera in hand», Sergey Mikhalchuk


Serhiy Mykhalchuk - voluntarily joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Photo by Anatolii Sobolevskyi. 8 km to the border with Russia, 9 June 2022


"When you are very scared, you pick up a camera, work and it becomes easier," says Sergiy Mikhalchuk. Although there are times when he needs to hold a machine gun until his fingers are blue in the face, otherwise there will be no tomorrow, his favourite weapon is still his camera. He has been inseparable from it since 1979.


"My journey with photography began a long time ago. Some say that creative people don't even live that long. However, photography has been a big part of my life, and it was the beginning of my profession as a cinematographer," - he says.


Serhii has always liked documentary photography because of the nature of the work, the transmission of emotions and the live state of things. He documented the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan, and then repeatedly filmed in Donetsk region, including the events in Sloviansk and Debaltseve. Therefore, he believes that it was only natural that he would continue this work during the full-scale invasion.


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk


Serhii has been a volunteer since March 2022. For the first 16 months, he documented the war in one of the special forces units. "These pictures will hardly ever be published. Even after the war is over, I will speak about these events with great caution, or not at all," - says Serhii. He now serves in another unit at the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk 


Serhiy explains his decision to mobilise by the fact that he no longer has any illusions about Russia, with which Ukraine has been forced to be friends for so long. "I realised that as long as we exist, they will try to destroy us. Perhaps I would have been more useful as a civilian photographer, but joining the army was the right moral choice," - says Serhii.


He admits that he found his true calling in his profession in Russia, where he worked on various projects for almost 15 years starting in 1996. Serhii has over 40 projects under his belt, one of which was a high-profile premiere in the summer of 2023 - the film Dovbush. He was the director of photography, which means he was fully responsible for the visual part of the film. "This film has become so relevant now because the war has escalated. Even though it has been going on for 10 years. The fact that we are in the midst of fighting has become a revelation for many people. Now the war has come to almost every home. It's so scary that no one knows whether this struggle will end with our generation," - says Serhiy.


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk


The film has many meanings and ideas. "I want Ukrainians to be proud of their country, proud of their mountains and appreciate the fact that they live on this land," concludes Serhiy Mykhalchuk, the director of photography of "Dovbush".


Despite the fact that the film was released a few months ago, Serhiy has already hidden this creative part of himself for a while: "I have already assimilated into the army so much over the past two years that even now I feel more like a soldier than a director of photography. Although I have worked as one for over 30 years and managed to shoot about 40 films."


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk


Serhii notes that war is always about extremely strong emotions that are deeply embedded in the memory: "Even if they are short-lived, they can become the most fundamental emotions of your life. You will always remember them."


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk 


Serhii finds it difficult to single out or choose the key photos from his collection. He says that he cannot detach himself from his emotions or the army because he is in the middle of the events, but he notes that perhaps in years to come he will have a different view of his documentary materials.


"War is becoming a part of my everyday life. The whole world is also getting used to it, and this is a very disturbing trend. You start to feel like a part of it. That is why we need to continue to cover everything. We need to remind people of the tragedy," - he says.


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk


Serhiy says that every photo he takes is important to him: the first photos from Irpin, the ones from Bakhmut or any other military operations. "A cameraman is taught to shoot as if it were the last shot of your life. Maybe I have the same attitude to all my images," - the soldier admits.


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk 


Currently, his task is to convey the state of affairs and the state of people at war. Serhiy believes that a person's eyes or movements can often be the most eloquent. That is why, coming from a background in feature films, he tries to speak the language of symbols and images. Sometimes photography helps him to remain himself even when it is very scary.


Photo by Serhiy Mykhalchuk 


"If there is shooting nearby, it's as if you find yourself in another reality. It works in your mind like a talisman. You just do your job. Like a real warrior, if it's your last moment and you're going to die with your weapon in your hands. That's what a camera is for me."






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