We recently spent time with Allan Mestel, a seasoned documentary photographer, who traveled to Ukraine twice since Russia’s full-scale attack on February 24th. He first traveled to the Ukraine/Poland border where he documented the massive refugee crisis as thousands of Ukrainians fled to a safer place. He later returned to Ukraine to witness first hand the massive destruction and aftermath of Russia’s missile strikes and military attacks as he traveled from city to city to document the realities on the ground.

This first blog in our series shares Allan’s story about his journey to the Poland/Ukraine border. We’ll be following up with future blogs to share Allen’s first-hand accounts of the destruction that he witnessed and his reflections of the resilient Ukrainian people that he met. Here’s a preview of his incredible photography from these trips. We look forward to presenting more of Allan’s compelling photos in the future.

At the Borders of Humanity

Allan Mestel can’t remember a time when he wasn’t involved in visual arts. He set up his own dark room in his grandmother’s closet at the age of 11. His father was a cinematographer who often came home with short ends of film from TV commercials. Allan would load them into a cassette, take hundreds of photographs, and then develop them in his makeshift dark room.

Originally from Canada, Allan found his feet in film and TV production early in his career. He spent many years working in the advertising industry in Toronto where he directed national and international TV commercials for major worldwide advertising agencies. In 2014 Allan moved to Sarasota, Florida, where he currently has a commercial photography studio. Throughout his career, Allan has been the recipient of many awards for his TV commercials and film work, as well as his commercial photography. But it was in documentary photography and photojournalism that he has found his true calling.

Allan first became interested in street photography and documentary photography about 15 years ago when he produced a documentary film about “street people” for the United Way in Toronto. This very personal form of photojournalism became a sort of obsession for him – telling the stories of people in adverse circumstances, humanizing them and their diverse life journeys, and using the camera to peel back the superficial. Since then he has taken every opportunity to get behind the lens to document protests, progressive action and social justice causes across the United States and abroad. Most recently he has covered migration at the US/Mexico border, Black Lives Matter protests, and women’s rights marches. He was in Minnesota at the riots after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and in Uvalde, Texas, after the school shooting in May 2022.

“I really needed to be there.”

So, when Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and refugees started to flood across the borders, Allan didn’t think twice about going there: “When I saw the massive refugee exodus I felt absolutely compelled to document it because nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime.” He felt as if everything he had done so far had led him to this point.

Ukraine/Poland Border

Allan also has a deep-rooted personal connection to Ukraine. His Jewish grandfather was born in Lviv but moved to the UK when he saw what was happening in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s. After WWII, his grandfather searched for word of his family and discovered that there was nobody left. Allan first learned about this history from his father. He recalls his father telling him with tear-filled eyes that they “were all gone, killed during the war.” Allan later did some research into his family history. He remarked, “my grandfather was the only known family member who escaped. I know of 23 members of the Mestel family that died in the camps.” This family history made it all the more compelling for Allan to go to Ukraine. Allan says, “I feel connected to that area of Ukraine, but in some ways it’s a black hole to me because of the lack of any survivors…I really needed to be there.” He says, “It became clear to me very, very quickly – and I mean, within a few days – that really the only thing I could do was to pack a bag, grab my cameras and just head to the border.” 

“I basically picked up and went.”

To get some insight on the lay of the land and situation at the Poland/Ukraine border, Allan made connections with people on the ground. He said, “almost immediately after the invasion, a number of Facebook groups sprang up for people at the border: aid groups, individuals, small groups of people coordinating to get aid to the border.” Allan made his connections through these Facebook groups that provided some level of coordination between aid groups and volunteers, but there was very little formal organization.

Ukraine/Poland Border

The mass exodus of refugees happened very quickly with millions of people headed to the borders in Poland, Romania, Moldova, and other neighboring countries. The resources needed to look after millions of people were just not there. Allan was on his own to find his way, but his previous experiences enabled him to navigate the waters. He said, “I’ve done this before in other places where I basically just picked up and went and figured it out as I went along. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew within certain broad parameters how I was going to do it, and then I would figure it out as I went along.” So, within a couple of weeks of the Russian invasion, Allan was in Medyka – the largest border crossing between Ukraine and Poland – with his camera in hand. He managed to get accommodations fairly close to Medyka and for the next 10 days he witnessed and documented the worst European refugee crisis since World War II.

“Everything was getting done.”

On the one hand, it was chaotic and shocking, and unlike anything Allan had experienced before. A deluge of people was pouring across the border by train, by bus, by car and by foot – mostly women and children, and the elderly – “Everywhere I looked, there were enormous numbers of people in various states of shock and distress.”

Ukrainian Woman at the Border
Ukrainian Girl at the Border
Ukrainian Elderly Woman at the Border
Ukrainian Todler at the Border
Ukrainian Elderly Man at the Border
Ukrainian Woman at the Border
Ukrainian Elderly Woman at the Border
Ukrainian Girl at the Border
Ukrainian Woman at the Border

But he was equally stunned by the efficiency and the sheer scale of the spontaneous and decentralized aid response. As he explains, “There was no government authority, no official coordination, yet everything was getting done.”

Organizations such as World Central Kitchen had arrived to provide food for the refugees, as well as a French medical organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and doctors from the US, Israel, and other parts of the world. A medical tent was set up so that people could get checked as soon as they crossed the border, and Allan noticed a young German medic handing out stuffed toys to children as they passed by.

German Medic

The Polish army helped to organize people onto buses that would take them to some form of sheltered housing – with the buses running 24/7. And, everywhere he looked, there were people in volunteer vests trying to connect refugees with transport and shelter. Allan says, “I’d never seen anything quite like it before – the scale of people just getting into vans from all over Europe, packing them with whatever supplies they thought people would need, and heading to the border to help. There were people from all over the world looking to help.”

He particularly wants to commend the Polish people for their amazing response and show of support. He talks about how open and welcoming they were to these refugees from the moment they crossed the border, and describes how the Polish army even helped people to carry their bags, and even their babies, onto the buses in a show of humanity and compassion.

“I’ve never seen this before.”

Despite his many intense experiences in photojournalism, nothing could have prepared Allan for what he encountered at the Ukrainian border – for the level of desperation and despair, or for the scale of human compassion and selflessness. Volunteers, aid workers, and global citizens from around the world came to the border in droves, helping in whatever way they could, whether serving food, guiding refugees, or even providing comfort through music. Allan’s image below captures Davide Martello, a German pianist of Italian descent, who has traveled to numerous conflict zones during the last decade to bring calm to people through his music.

Davide Martello - ‘Klavierkunst’

Allan reflects on this: “I suppose that’s the one shining star with this thing, right? People from all over, coming together. I’ve never seen this level of cooperation before. When people are suffering it becomes an opportunity for people to really find their best selves. There is so much selflessness. War does polarize. It does tend to push people towards their highest selves or their worst selves. And that’s certainly what I saw there.”

“There needs to be visual proof.”

It is interesting to hear Allan talk about how he sees his own role in the midst of this organized chaos: “I keep in my mind the fact that the photographs I’m taking are ultimately going to be of service to those people…that there needs to be visual proof of what’s happening to share with the world so that people can see pictures that do speak a thousand words.”

But photographing people at these extremes of humanity is both a weighty responsibility and a delicate balance.  Allan explains that he more or less just gets on with it, while trying not to be intrusive or make anyone feel uncomfortable. He doesn’t pose anyone, but photographs people where they’re at. He is striving for an authentic documentation of real people, in real suffering.

Often, he and his camera go pretty much unnoticed, and then there are those times when he feels a connection with the person on the other side of the lens, and some understanding passes between them: “I don’t say anything. I don’t direct them. But it’s clear that there’s an understanding, that we’re having a moment.” Of course, the opposite is also true: there are those who feel uncomfortable about what he’s doing, and unhappy that he’s there. As Allan puts it, “There’s a spectrum of situational experiences that I have with people in this ebb and flow.”

The Human Face of War

Allan’s compelling photographs from Medyka vividly illustrate the reality of the crisis in the moment. Given that all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave the country, his photographs depict mostly woman and children, along with some elderly Ukrainians who made it to the border. The photographs tell a story about the impact of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war on the people – the human face of war: images of pain and heartache, despair, trauma, and hopelessness. But at the same time, there are still images of hope and even playfulness that reflect the incredible resilience of the Ukrainian people.

Ukrainian Child

The Stories Behind the Faces

In the moments that Allan wasn’t immersed in his photography, he talked with Ukrainian refugees and listened to their stories. Through his conversations, he got a real sense of what the people were feeling just weeks into Russia’s war. Allan remarked, “there was a sense of terror of not knowing what was going to happen. About the second day that I got to the border, Russians hit and destroyed a military base only 15 miles from away. That was the first time that the Russians hit anything in Western Ukraine. In fact, in Medyka the windows were rattled from that blast.”  This attack brought the war to the western side of the country and caused a huge surge in people leaving from places like Lviv, which up until that point had been considered to be relatively safe. Allan commented, “I think that caused a tremendous amount of fear. I remember speaking to one young woman that morning after that attack, and she had literally fled in the middle of the night from Lviv thinking that the Russians were now marching west. Most of the refugees up until then were coming from further east and people in the west didn’t feel the same urgency to flee. But they certainly did after that attack.”

For the most part, Allan has to put his emotions on hold while he immerses himself in his role and responsibility of documentary photographer, and just gets the job done. It’s only later that the emotions and exhaustion catch up with him. Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to stay detached – like the day that he met Renata.

Renata’s Story

He noticed her at the border, where the cars were queuing up to go through customs. She was going up to speak to each driver in turn. Allan approached her and she told him that she was from the Netherlands and that her son was somewhere in Ukraine. She didn’t know where he was and she couldn’t get hold of him. She explained that she had come to the border in the hope that he was on his way to cross over into Poland. Like Allan, she had chosen Medyka because it was the biggest border crossing. She was clinging on to the faint hope that that’s where he would be. And she was asking each of the drivers to look out for a small gray car with Dutch plates. She said, “If you see someone driving a car like that, just tell him his mother’s waiting for him.”

Renata

“It still gets me when I think about it,” Allan says. “I mean, a mother’s love, you know? Getting out there in the cold, just hoping that he would come, that somehow she might get a message to him. In such a huge country, not knowing where he was, but just asking people to watch out for a car with Dutch plates.”

Renata

Going Back

No amount of professional detachment could distance Allan from the gut punch of Renata’s story. For this reason, and for so many others, those 10 days in March that he spent at the border have left an imprint on him that is set apart from any of the other shocking, moving, threatening and momentous scenes that he has immersed himself in over the years.

But this was only the first trip for Allan. After a few months back in the US with his wife and children, he would return to Ukraine in July. By this point, the situation had evolved drastically and he was in for a somewhat different experience. Look out for the next blog to hear more about Allan’s journey back to Ukraine.

In the meantime, click here to view Allan’s complete online gallery of images from his journey to Medyka.

Photos provided courtesy of Allan Mestel. Use of these images without prior written consent from Allan Mestel is strictly prohibited.