In the Shadow of the Full-scale Invasion: A Personal Reflection

By Allan Mestel

Like the rest of the civilized world, in early 2022, I lived in hope that Putin’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine was a power play, a bluff intended to wring concessions from a westward-looking government, to bully the former Soviet state back into the political orbit of Mother Russia. I remember the moment, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I read in the media that Russian military field hospitals were receiving stocks of whole blood and plasma. That could mean only one thing: casualties, and I realized that the unthinkable had become the inevitable. Sure enough, on February 24th, Russian troops and tanks poured across the border, and the largest land invasion since World War Two became a horrifying reality.

Echoes of Generations Past: Allan Mestel’s Personal Link to Ukraine’s Struggle

My grandfather was Ukrainian, born in Ternopil, outside Lviv. He had left in the early 1930s and made his way to the UK, leaving almost all his family behind. They all died in the camps. I have their names; they’re all listed in the Yad Vashem database, along with their personal information and anything known about their fate.

My grandfather was Ukrainian, born in Ternopil, outside Lviv. He had left in the early 1930s and made his way to the UK, leaving almost all his family behind. They all died in the camps. I have their names; they’re all listed in the Yad Vashem database, along with their personal information and anything known about their fate. The record of Sara Mestel was particularly affecting for me as she was just 17 when she died, a student. Her town of Tarnapol, Poland, is now Ternopil, Ukraine.

Sarah Mestel

For most of the 23 members of the Mestel family I could find documented, their listed date of death is a seemingly innocuous phrase that, in the context of the Holocaust, is replete with horror. “Date of death: unknown, taken on train.”

The empty hole that is my father’s side of the family is the legacy of a brutal invasion by a ruthless enemy. As a documentary photographer and photojournalist specializing in human rights issues, I have spent years photographing the lives of refugees and migrants, and I felt compelled to travel to the Polish border to witness and document the massive refugee exodus from Ukraine into Europe. What I experienced was fundamentally different than anything I had previously encountered in refugee populations. Almost always with migrants, despite the hardship and the sometimes brutally primitive conditions in which people are forced to exist, there is a sense of hope. Spirits are often high as people fleeing violence look ahead to the possibility of a better life. 

Portrait Ukraine 2022
At the Ukraine/Poland border in the early days of the full-scale invasion. Click here to read the full story, “Allan Mestel, Documentary Photographer – At the Borders of Humanity.”

This was completely absent in those fleeing the invasion. Almost exclusively women and children were fleeing with little more than a suitcase or two, leaving behind their homes, husbands, fathers, and brothers. Nothing was in their eyes but shock, bewilderment, fear, and suffering. It was only when I returned to Ukraine that following July, traveling the country and photographing the destruction that the Russians had left in their wake, that I fully understood the inhuman brutality they were fleeing from. I saw and documented the mass graves in Bucha photographed the evidence of the war crimes committed by the Russian army.

Allan Mestel in Ukraine

That summer, the entire country was on a war footing. Military checkpoints were set up every twenty kilometers or so on the highways. Tank traps lined the roads and streets, ready to be pulled into service to slow down a mechanized invasion. The Ukrainian people were prepared and willing to defend the country street by street, house by house if necessary.

I was in Odessa when the city was hit by rocket fire. The approaches from the sea were fortified with massive sandbag walls, and the beaches were mined and off-limits. At the time, there existed the very real possibility of a seaborne invasion. Just outside Odessa, I visited a small town, Serhiivka, that had been attacked a few days prior. Rockets had slammed into an apartment building and a hotel, leaving dozens dead and many more wounded. Some of the most heartbreaking images I captured were students in a local hospital being treated for disfiguring injuries. They had been celebrating a graduation in the hotel when it was hit.

Serhiivka

Heart’s Calling: Allan Mestel Returns to Ukraine

Back in the US, my heart was, and is, still in Ukraine. I returned in August of this year to continue the work, focusing on portraits of those impacted by the war in significant ways. I named the project ‘Portrait Ukraine 2023,’ and I traveled over 2000 miles capturing images of soldiers and civilians and documenting their stories. My travel partner, photographer and videographer David Graham, captured video interviews of my portrait subjects, giving necessary depth and context to the images. From mourners lining the streets of a small village outside Mikolayev to honor the funeral procession of a fallen soldier to the heartbreakingly young faces of soldiers training for deployment to the front, the images I captured provide a visual cross-section of a nation in which no one has been spared the grief of a personal loss.

Allan Mestel Photographing Drones
Funeral procession in Mikolayev to honor the fallen heroes. Click here to read the full story, “A Day Near The Frontlines in Bakhmut, Ukraine.”
We covered the country, from Lviv in the far west to the village of Chasiv Yar a few kilometers from some of the heaviest fighting. We documented the courage of civilian aid workers as they delivered vital supplies to shelters in the destroyed town under constant Russian artillery fire and photographed a mass grave in the town of Izium where 439 bodies were discovered, tortured, executed, and buried in unmarked graves in the forest.
Allan Mestel Photographing Drones
Allan Mestel Photography

Through the Viewfinder: Allan Mestel’s Protocol for Emotional Capture

 

My shooting protocols are designed to create what I call an ‘encounter experience’ with my subjects. The composition, lensing, exposure, depth of field, and proximity to the subject are all considered elements intended to create an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject. It is my hope that at least some of these images will be sufficiently impactful to give some sense of the resilience, grief, anger, and resolve that I saw in the eyes of those I photographed.

Allan Mestel Photography
Allan In The Trenches

The Unfinished Story: Plans for Returning to Ukraine

Allan Mestel

I’m currently making preparations for a return trip and plan to travel with those dedicated volunteer organizations working to bring vital aid and supplies to the civilians and military in the combat zones. Documenting their work is the least I can do to pay tribute to their courage. My goal remains the same as it was when I first set foot in Poland on my way to the border: to show the world that the Ukrainians are to 21st-century Europe what the Spartans were at Thermopylae. A small, outnumbered, supremely brave force standing at the Gates of Fire against a brutal invader. The Russians, like the Persians in Ancient Greece, have not yet passed, but without the continued support and critical aid from the West, the enemy will ultimately prevail, and a resurgent Russia will stand as the greatest threat to democracy and the post-war world order since Nazi Germany.

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