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Occupation, liberation, shelling, occupation. The tragic fate of Mariupol in the photos by Serhiy Vahanov and Mstyslav Chernov

A member of the Ukrainian Defense Forces during the defense of Mariupol in March 2022. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov


Over the 10 years of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Mariupol has experienced Russian occupation, liberation, shelling of a civilian area, and reoccupation. The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers publishes moments from the life of the city of Mariupol in the period of 2014-2022.


Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol in 2014. Photo by Serhiy Vahanov


The turbulent year of 2014


Russian hybrid forces first occupied Mariupol in the spring of 2014. On April 13, militants seized administrative buildings and blocked several streets in the center. During the assault on June 13, Ukrainian forces eliminated key enemy strongholds, managed to destroy enemy equipment, and regained control of all captured buildings, including the city council building. Thus, Ukrainian defense forces liberated Mariupol from the Russians for the first time.


Photo by Serhiy Vahanov


Mariupol is free again


With eight years left before the re-occupation of Mariupol by Russia in 2022, photographer Serhii Vahanov left the militant-held Donetsk, where he had lived for 15 years, and returned to his hometown.


"I was so confused when I returned to Mariupol almost 40 years after I left there as a teenager," Serhii Vahanov begins his story, "Almost a month after the liberation, there were few people in Mariupol, apparently, many people had simply left. Not all shops were open. The city looked half empty. There were still some militants' inscriptions on the walls, but they hadn't painted them over everywhere yet."


Photo by Serhiy Vahanov


In Mariupol, Serhiy began to meet local journalists, volunteers and activists. Mariupol residents began to actively attend pro-Ukrainian rallies. "Because the war was 20 kilometers away. That's why it was very disturbing in Mariupol," explains Serhii.


Photo by Serhiy Vahanov


Shelling of "Skhidniy" neighborhood

 

It was 7 years before the second arrival of Russians in Mariupol. On January 24, 2015, Mariupol residents woke up to loud explosions. Russians shelled their frontline city with heavy weapons. Then 29 residents of the Vostochny neighborhood of Mariupol were killed, and about a hundred more were injured. Until 2022, this tragedy was the largest for the city since the beginning of Russian aggression.


Photo by Serhiy Vahanov


Serhiy Vahanov remembers that day well. He learned about the shelling from the news. "The Vostochny district is the edge of the city that has always been looking at war," says the photographer. "When I got there, I saw the bodies of people on the street. I started to take pictures of it all: the dead, the fire, the destroyed houses, the military and the police who were there. All that horror and all that chaos."


Serhiy Vahanov felt that the city lived in constant anxiety. After the tragedy, Mariupol residents began to actively participate in pro-Ukrainian rallies again. "For Mariupol residents, it was a way to shout 'We are here,'" says Serhiy.


Siege


The invasion has begun. "Because we all got used to the sounds of war, it played a bad joke on us in 2022," Serhii says. "It used to be normal to relax on the beach or practice on the tennis court and hear explosions somewhere. You just think that someone is shooting somewhere in Vodyane or Shyrokyne. And when the full-scale invasion happened, I thought to myself, "We've heard this before!" I thought our defense forces would be able to hold the city. I had been in their positions for four years. But no one could have imagined that Mariupol would be under siege."


Photo by Mstislav Chernov


The photographer did not take a single photo while in Mariupol during the full-scale invasion. "It was dangerous to walk around with a camera then, you could see saboteurs and spies everywhere. And I was known there as a photographer. There was also intense shelling from Russian aircraft," says Serhiy.


Photo by Mstislav Chernov


He and his family managed to leave the besieged city on March 14. Serhiy risked his life to take out his archives: photos and videos from Donetsk region, all his journalistic work since 1999. The next day, on March 15, Mstyslav Chernov, a documentary filmmaker and founder of the UAPF, was traveling the same road toward a free Ukraine. He also took the same risks to carry his documentary materials from Mariupol, which testified to the war crimes of the Russians and later became the basis for the film 20 Days in Mariupol. It was the first time in history that Ukraine won an Academy Award for this film.


Photo by Mstislav Chernov


"Although I didn't take a single photo of the besieged city, I, like Mstyslav, survived those 20 days in Mariupol. I will probably never dare to watch this movie again," Serhiy admits.


Photo by Mstislav Chernov


Two years later, in March 2024, in Los Angeles, on the stage of the Oscars, Mstislav Chernov will say that he would have preferred to never have made this film and will remember Mariupol and its dead residents: "I would like to be able to exchange this for Russia never attacking Ukraine, never occupying our cities. I would give all this recognition for the Russians not to kill tens of thousands of my fellow Ukrainian citizens. And that the people of Mariupol who died and those who gave their lives would never be forgotten."


Photo by Mstislav Chernov


Mstislav Chernov believes that the desire to be heard and the knowledge that you are not ignored helps you survive. "I think our mission as journalists or documentary filmmakers is not only to tell the world about tragedies, but also to give people hope that they will be heard. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people believe in the power of journalism. But we cannot stop, and I hope that 20 Days in Mariupol will contribute to this hope," said Mstislav Chernov in an interview after receiving the Oscar.


Photo by Mstislav Chernov


 

Mstyslav Chernov is a Ukrainian photographer, Associated Press journalist, filmmaker, war correspondent, President of the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers, honorary member of PEN Ukraine and writer. He has covered the Revolution of Dignity, the war in eastern Ukraine, the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, the Syrian civil war, the battles of Mosul in Iraq, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, including the blockade of Mariupol. For this work, he received the Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech Award, the Giorgi Gongadze Prize, the Knight International Journalism Awards, the Biagio Agnes Award, the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award, the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award, and the Free Media Awards. In 2022, he was included in the ratings "People of NV 2022 in the Year of War" and "14 Songs, Photos and Art Objects that Became Symbols of Ukrainian Resistance" by Forbes Ukraine, and video footage from Mariupol became the basis for the film "20 Days in Mariupol," which in 2024 was awarded an Oscar for the first time in the history of Ukrainian cinema.


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Serhiy Vahanov is a Ukrainian reportage and documentary photographer. Born in 1958. He graduated from Donetsk Medical Institute, after which he worked as a traumatologist in Avdiivka for 15 years. Since 1999, he has worked as a photojournalist in Donetsk. After the de-occupation, he moved to Mariupol, where he survived the siege of the city in 2022.


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As a reminder, the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers has launched a series of materials dedicated to the key events of the Russian war against Ukraine, where it publishes memoirs and photographs of Ukrainian documentary photographers.


The material was created with the support of the international non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders.

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