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.

Journey to the Donetsk Region

By David Graham
Day 7 Reporting from Ukraine

Allan Mestel and I arrived in the Donetsk region on Day 7 of our journey in Ukraine. The Donetsk region, located in the southeastern part of Ukraine, has borne the scars of war for the last 10 years. The region is home to two cities that saw heavy fighting since the 2022 full-scale invasion: Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. It’s a place where every road serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the ongoing war. It’s also a place where the people, against all odds, continue to hold out hope for the future and try to rebuild their shattered lives.

Our journey here was not without its challenges. We had to navigate through numerous checkpoints, each accompanied by increased security measures. Many of the bridges we crossed had been damaged or destroyed during the war, leading us to detours and temporary bridges that weren’t on our maps. We sometimes lost our way, but we could always pull over, ask a local for guidance, and get back on our way. We recognized that these moments of uncertainty were also part of the story we were here to tell.

The checkpoint soldiers always said, “Good luck,” and then smiled. It seemed they thought we were crazy for going into the red zones, but we felt it was essential to capture the stories of the people fighting and living through this war.

A sign in Kramatorsk warning of continued danger.

Life in the Red Zones

There were new and very strict rules for reporting in the Red Zones. We had to be careful about where we went and what we photographed. We also had to make sure that we didn’t put the people we met in danger.

Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are still recovering from the heavy fighting from 2014 and the last two years. There are still many destroyed buildings and homes. The people we met in these cities were very friendly and open to us. They told us about their war experiences, and how they are trying to rebuild their lives.

Last night, the city was rocketed, again. The Russians targeted another residential complex in Kramatorsk, and they managed to hit it in front and just behind it. It was Saturday night, and they would try anything to terrorize the citizens of these two cities. We were relieved to see that no one was killed in the attack, but it was a reminder of the ongoing danger that the people of this region face. I had a chance to report from one of the impact craters, 12 feet deep. If the rocket

The aftermath of the war in Kramatorsk

The Resilience of the People

The people in the Donetsk region have been through so much. They have seen their homes destroyed, their loved ones killed, and their lives turned upside down. But they are still resilient and hopeful. They are determined to rebuild their homes and lives, and they are grateful for the international community’s support.

Here are some facts about the Donetsk region and the cities of Clovyansk and Kramatorks

  • The Donetsk region is located in eastern Ukraine, and it was the most populous region in Ukraine, with over 4.1 million residents at one time.
  • The region is home to the Donbas, a major industrial region.
  • This region has been at war since 2014, when pro-Russian separatists took control of parts of the region.
  • Slovyansk has a population of approximately 100,000; the city was the site of heavy fighting in 2014.
  • Kramatorsk has an estimated population of just approximately 150,o00. The city is the administrative center of the Donetsk region and was also the site of heavy fighting in 2014. Kramatorsk continues to be under regular drone and rocket attacks.
  • The war has caused massive destruction and displacement in the region.
Photos courtesy of Allan Mestel. Use of these images without prior written consent from Allan Mestel s strictly prohibited.