Maxim Dondyuk (1983) is a Ukrainian visual artist and documentary photographer. His work blends photography, video, text, and archives to examine themes of history, memory, conflict, and it’s consequences.
How did you become interested in photography? How did you get started taking pictures?
I came to photography professionally on the third try. The first experience I had when I was 5, was with my mother, who was an enthusiast, I used to watch how she processed family photos in a darkroom. Later I was given my first soviet camera SMENA and started doing my own photos. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, buying and processing film became more difficult and expensive, so my mother stopped doing it, and me too. The second try was at the age of 12 when I joined the photo club and began shooting film and processing photos myself. But my enthusiasm didn’t last long. The third time I came back to photography was at the age of 24, when I worked in a completely different field, and photography became my hobby. All my free time I studied photography, read all kinds of literature, and practiced. One year later, I quit my job and became a photojournalist in Ukrainian mass media. By 2010 I understood that I need a lot more freedom, so I left the Ukrainian media and became a freelancer who creates and promotes personal long-term projects. Today, I work in the field of documentary photography using multiple mediums including photography, video, text, and archival material. I’m interested in issues relating to history, memory, conflict, and their consequences.
You’ve been working on “Untitled Project Chernobyl” since 2016, can you tell me about this project and how you came to undertake it?
This project isn’t like any other of my projects. Prior, I always took photos myself, I was the author of them. And here I work with the found photos. Everything started many years ago. The first time I visited Chernobyl zone in 2008, when was on assignment. And until the end of 2010, I continued coming back there from time to time. The place fascinated me when I saw the houses left in a hurry, and nature that gradually replaced the traces of humans.
When I came there again in 2015, it was already after I witnessed and photographed the revolution and war in Ukraine. I began to see and feel everything differently there. I was no longer looking for a reportage shooting, I was interested in contemplation and visual exploration of the area I photographed. I was interested in unique buildings, various rural houses with unique architecture, and traces of military installations in the Zone. I began to be fascinated more by landscapes, which I think can tell much more about what happened than the facts and events themselves.
In the Chernobyl zone, all nearly destroyed houses and monuments preserved in themselves the memory of the former era, which is already a historical past. This is what attracts me, it takes me back about 30 years. After all, the time stopped here in 1986, in the era of the Soviet Union. Letters, furniture, architecture, all this was frozen in time. And this is fascinating. I want to mention, that I am fiercely opposed to the Soviet Government and to what the Soviet Union did. But at the same time, as a man of art, visual, architectural, historical monuments, and objects are dear to me.
From time to time I found letters and photos of people who lived in these areas, and it prompted me to think that I want to learn as much as possible about what was in Chernobyl area before the explosion and to save these visual, historical objects, if in my country nobody bothered to do it for more than 30 years. But I have to say, I didn’t expect to find such a huge archive. In the beginning, I thought there would be several photos and maybe some postcards.
And soon, all my attention turned to an attempt to find and save these memories. I was amazed at how the Soviet government evacuated people, promising them they would return in a few days, and not allowing people to take such priceless things as letters, photos of relatives, and friends. Imagine that all photos of your family, and your grandparents disappeared forever, and you do not have these memories anymore. This is what happened to those people. They didn’t realize for the moment of evacuation that they would never be back to their homes where they were born, or where they lived their whole life.
The Chernobyl project is my journey, contemplation, and exploration of the territory. Only when I feel that I need to take photographs, I do them. This is more considered action than the documentation of the event. Probably every famous photographer shot Chernobyl at least once, and it was pretty hard not to repeat. So I tried to find something new. And the new found me itself. I perceive this project as an archaeological dig. Before I go into the house and start a search of peoples’ memories, among the garbage, sand and mud, I document this house or territory. My photos are just an addition to the main archive project. They show the territory in the state in which it is now. The main essence of the project is the search for the memories of people who lived on this territory before the tragedy, of memories that were destroyed by time and radiation and absorbed by nature.
What are you working on currently that you are excited about?
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to be excited about what I’m working on now. I’m not a war photographer, I never intended to be and never will be. And when the war in Ukraine is over, I will return to my artistic projects not related to war, but definitely won’t continue covering conflicts in other countries. But this is my country now and I feel that this is my duty as a documentary photographer and as a Ukrainian to capture this historical moment for the present and the future. Today we are witnessing the epic battle moment, a final fight for Ukraine’s independence, and for democracy, that started during the Maidan revolution of 2013-14. During wartime, everyone chooses his role. Some go to the army or territorial defense, some volunteer, help financially, some repair military equipment, etc. And I use my camera to make a chronicle of Ukraine in its period of self affirmation as an independent country.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you find to be the most challenging?
Documentary photography allows you to immerse yourself for long periods in different cultures, professions, social layers, different situations, to be there, to understand it. And as a result, it also affects your philosophy of life, it changes you. You can spend time with the military, with doctors, with firemen, with ordinary people in a bomb shelter, or you can spend several months in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, not as a tourist, you can go to another country – of course, such a long immersion will have an effect on your worldview. It’s a kind of life experience.
The most difficult thing about documentary photography, especially if you are not European or American, is of course finding funding. Because when you’re not doing journalism, but when you’re doing documentary research projects that take a lot of time and resources, sometimes you have to do for several years what with the funding you could do in a few months. And it’s even harder to show these projects later, to bring them to an audience. Because venues, museums, and galleries, very rarely open their doors to artists from post-communistic countries. And in fact, when you are German, American, French you do not even think about how difficult it is for a Ukrainian to get into the gallery spaces of other countries. And now the war, as we can see, has attracted some attention to Ukrainian photography, but still, the emphasis is more on the war. But before the war, you had to move mountains to be noticed. Sometimes you work on a serious long-term project for 6 years and it gets much less attention than two days of your work at the war.
Besides your camera, what do you always bring into the field with you? (for example, Esther Horvath has a special thermos she always brings with her in the field to keep her tea hot)
I’m a big admirer of Chinese tea, I drink it every day. And I keep this tradition even when traveling close to the frontline during the war. I always have with me a teapot, thermos, around 5 tiny tea cups (to share with others), and Chinese tea. I make tea in tranches, field hospitals, whatever. Soldiers usually are very excited and always join me. At some point, it helps to distract a little bit from the war.
Where do you look for inspiration? (for example other photographers, art museums, a hobby, ect.)
Mostly I’m influenced not by photographers but by writers and painters. My inspiration comes from books, music, paintings, and philosophy. Each time I come to a new country, I visit museums and galleries. I love paintings of artists who worked in realism. They painted such important battle scenes but never forgot about the aesthetic side. Their paintings are very beautiful.