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You are constantly, wherever you are, ambassadors of your country. A conversation with Ukrainian documentary filmmakers

We continue our series of interviews with professional Ukrainian documentary filmmakers. This time, we talked to Yulia Kochetova and Serhiy Polezhaka about advocating for the Ukrainian voice, aestheticization, and the focal topics of the war.

They also talked about how they manage to find a balance between objectivity and emotionality in their works, the topics they cover, and their own transformations over these 10 years of war.

About working as a photographer

Yulia Kochetova:

The work of a photographer has no gender. I have a lot of female colleagues behind me and next to me who have made it possible for me to face much less sexism now than I did in 2014. One of them is Lynsey Addario.

Yulia Kochetova:

As soon as I start feeling stupid hatred, I need to leave the profession.

Photo: Olya Kovaleva

Yulia Kochetova:

You are constantly, wherever you are, ambassadors of your country. You have to constantly advocate for the Ukrainian voice, for Ukrainian projects, Ukrainian photographers, and Ukrainian culture. Pushing Russians off all public panels, refusing to be on the same stage, doing it aggressively, doing it creatively, doing it in any way, but you have to carry it with you.

On the aestheticization of war

Photo: Olya Kovaleva

Serhiy Polezhaka:

The photographer has to make the cruel, unpleasant, difficult to perceive attractive. By framing a photo according to more or less accepted rules of composition, we make it attractive. And we inevitably interfere with the perception of the image as a whole. We have to do this, because if we show cruelty as it is in general, it will not be seen.

About the focus topics of the war

Yulia Kochetova:

I am annoyed by the approach that war is about men with guns. To show war through a man with a gun is a very formal approach. If we go deeper and not into a quick reflection, the topic of captivity is the one that hurts and interests me the most.

It is completely non-visual, but it is very important in the social context. This is a story about the sensory experience that people living in captivity go through, who are waiting to be released, who are in captivity, and it is very difficult to visualize, just like the occupation.

I would like it to be a therapeutic story, but I think it is a retraumatizing story. This is one of my biggest personal fears - to be captured.

Serhiy Polezhaka:

A garden is not only a place, but also a symbol that reflects our attitude to the world. From a kindergarten surrounded by a fence to growing plants in a garden, it becomes an important space between the personal and the public. How we arrange this space determines our relationship to ourselves, to others, and to nature. This story is about us, our gardens, and the responsibility we have to take care of this unique space between the "intimate mine" and the "public".

A grave in the garden, Dovhenke village, Kharkiv region, October 2023. A mother was able to bury her son, who was killed by a Russian airstrike, only in her garden, as the entire village, including the cemetery, was destroyed and unminefielded.

On the face of war

Yulia Kochetova:

The face of war in Ukraine is not personalized. At best, it is woven from thousands of faces that become a gray mass, and at worst, it is just maps that the New York Times pushes around, and you feel like you are inside a football match. That's all it is.

About memorable shots

Yulia Kochetova:

There are shots that will always be with me, even if I really want to forget them: On May 9, 2022, I filmed a mass grave of Russians, about 13 bodies in one pit. At that moment, there was an unusually beautiful sunset. And you feel so bad because of how beautifully the light falls on these bodies, because I'm looking at death itself.

Vilkhivka, UKRAINE, may 9, 2022 The bodies of 11 Russian soldiers in a recently retaken village near Kharkiv. Photo by Yulia Kochetova

About death

Yulia Kochetova:

The scariest, most terrifying aspect of death is that it is universal, equally terrifying for everyone. I would really like to think that the more I film death, the more I encounter it, the more I understand life, but so far I'm not able to do that."

I consider people who create visual content to be people with extremely high sensitivity. And the main thing is that our hearts end later than this war ends.

Yulia Kochetova

Serhiy Polezhaka:

I really like silence, and deserted, quiet places. There is an expression: break the silence only when your words are more beautiful than it.

Watch the full video on YouTube:



Yulia Kochetova is a Ukrainian photojournalist, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. She is a holder of the Order of Merit III class (2022).

Her photographs from Euromaidan and Crimea were published by The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post, The National Geographic, BBC News, Bild am Abend. She has participated in photo exhibitions in Ukraine, the USA, the UK and Serbia.

Since 2014, she has been a war photographer. Her journalistic publications were published in Time, Reuters and others. She is the author of the film See You Soon.

With the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, she returned to war photojournalism.

Serhiy Polezhaka is a producer and director, founder and CEO of New Cave Media, an immersive storytelling studio. Sergiy is also the director of the VR documentary Aftermath VR: Euromaidan".

Lina Zelenska is a journalist, TV presenter and moderator of the meeting.

We are grateful to for their support and help in amplifying Ukrainian voices.

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