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.

Bearing Witness in Mykolaiv

By David Graham
Day 9 Reporting from Ukraine

On Day 9 of our journey in Ukraine, Allan Mestel and I embarked on a somber journey to Mykolaiv in the south of Ukraine. The relentless wails of air-raid sirens greeted us, a sound so dishearteningly familiar that it almost faded into the backdrop until an earth-shattering explosion shook us to our core.

We met Igor, a man whose hotel had fallen victim to a colossal rocket’s wrath. The heart of the building had vanished, leaving every room on every floor in ruins. Igor guided us through the remnants, even leading us to the rooftop. The view from the roof was stunning, but it was difficult to focus on the beauty of the city that was now overshadowed by the massive destruction.

Witnessing Horror

Under the shroud of night, we ventured to an apartment building struck by yet another rocket. In this merciless assault, many families met their untimely end. It was profoundly saddening to fathom that these innocent lives, merely going about their daily routines and caring for their loved ones, had been so tragically ended.  

Speaking with a resident across the street from the stricken building, we heard a harrowing account. When the rocket struck, he had been flung backward into his home from his porch, an experience he described as the most dreadful of his life. He and many others tried to assist, but the scope of destruction was overwhelming.

Rebuilding Amidst Fear

Mykolaiv stood at the forefront of the war last year, and though signs of life returning to the city are visible, it remains under attack. Buildings and streets are gradually being repaired, and businesses are reopening, yet the pervasive undercurrent of stress lingers. Every day, residents grapple with the grim awareness that danger could strike at any moment.

The Deadly Arsenal Attacking Ukraine’s Cities and Civilian Targets

The Russian military is using a wide range of rockets to attack Ukrainian cities, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and cluster munitions.

  • Ballistic missiles are long-range missiles that travel in a high arc. They can be used to target strategic targets, such as military bases and airports.
  • Cruise missiles are smaller and faster than ballistic missiles. They can fly at low altitudes, making them difficult to detect and intercept. They can be used to target a variety of targets, including civilian infrastructure.
  • Cluster munitions are bombs that contain smaller submunitions. When the bomb explodes, the submunitions scatter over a wide area, causing widespread damage.

Insights into Mykolaiv

  • Mykolaiv is a city in southern Ukraine, located on the Black Sea, and it is the capital of Mykolaiv Oblast.
  • The city has a population of over 470,000 people.
  • Mykolaiv is an important industrial city, with industries including shipbuilding, machine building, and food processing.
  • Mykolaiv was on the front lines of the war in 2022. The city was heavily damaged by Russian shelling, but it has since been liberated.
Photos courtesy of Allan Mestel. Use of these images without prior written consent from Allan Mestel s strictly prohibited.