Portrait Ukraine 2023

This is the latest blog from our Portrait Ukraine 2023 series, following the journey of photojournalists Allan Mestel and David Graham through Ukraine and providing a firsthand view of current events on the ground. Through the art of powerful portraiture and personal storytelling, they convey the profound impact of the war in Ukraine—revealing its devastating and harsh reality on individuals. Yet, amidst this, they also uncover inspirational stories of resilience, courage, hope, and the unwavering resolve and spirit of the Ukrainian people. Click here to get the backstory on the Portrait Ukraine 2023 project and to read more from this series.

Resilience and Hope Amidst Destruction: Journey to Izium, Ukraine

By David Graham
Day 4 Reporting from Izium, Ukraine

I woke up early on a sunny morning in Kharkiv, Ukraine, excited to start our journey to Izium. I was eager to see the town and meet the people who had endured so much during the war. This town had been devastated at the beginning of the war, and many people were stuck there as the territory was captured by the Russians in early 2022. It has been a year since Ukraine launched its first major counter-offensive and recaptured the north and northeast.

We drove for several hours, passing through many checkpoints along the way. The soldiers were always friendly and professional, making us feel safe. They were pleased to see our press passes and credentials displayed in our car windows. They warned us to watch out for mines, and there were signs along every road alerting us to their presence. It will take years to clear all the mines once the war finally ends.

The War of Rememberance
Signs along the way to Izyum warning of mines left behind by the Russians.

When we finally arrived in Izium, I was struck by the extent of destruction. Many buildings had been bombed, and there were still piles of rubble everywhere. But even amid all this devastation, signs of hope were visible. People were starting to rebuild their homes and businesses, and there was a sense of determination in the air.

Kharkiv
Kharkiv
Izyum
Kharkiv

We met with a fire/rescue team who had been working in Izium throughout the occupation. They told us stories of the death and destruction they had witnessed, but they also spoke of the resilience of the people of Izium. They said that the people were determined to rebuild their town and move forward with their lives.

Izyum firefighters

Photojournalist Allan Mestel, my partner for this journey, seized the opportunity to photograph the team and create portraits of its members, while I interviewed with one of the team members and their captain.

Kharkiv
Kharkiv
Izyum
Kharkiv

After we met with the fire/rescue team, we visited a building that had been bombed, and many people had been killed at the start of the war. It was a sobering experience, but it was also important to witness the reality of what had transpired in Izium.

Anna
Anna

Our final stop in Izium was a mass grave where 449 bodies had been buried. The Russians had simply numbered the bodies, and only half of them had been identified. It was one of the most harrowing sights I have ever witnessed, but it also served as a stark reminder of the importance of commemorating the victims of war and preventing such tragedies from occurring in the future.

Izyum
Kharkiv
Izyum
Kharkiv

I am grateful for the opportunity to have visited Izium and met the people who are rebuilding their lives in the midst of the ongoing war. The people were so happy to have an opportunity to share their stories and also expressed their gratefulness for all the help from both inside the country and the rest of the world. They are an inspiration to us all.

Here are a few facts about Izium:

Izium, Ukraine, is a city along the Donets River in Kharkiv Oblast, eastern Ukraine. It holds the vital role of being the administrative center of Izium Raion in the Kharkiv Oblast. In 2020, the city had a population of 46,653; there is evidence of people beginning to return to the city. Located approximately 120 kilometers southeast of Kharkiv, Izium serves as a pivotal transportation hub with both a railway station and an airport. Furthermore, it is a significant industrial center, with diverse industries such as railroad repair, brick manufacturing, brewing, and optical equipment production contributing to its economic activity. Izyum’s rich history dates back to its founding in the year 1639.

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