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.

Where Memory Builds the Future

By David Graham
Day 2 reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine

On the second morning in Kyiv, the atmosphere was thick with warmth, both physical and emotional, as if the city were in a tense embrace with its own duality. Allan and I met with a group of colleagues, and one of them will accompany us on the journey to the eastern conflict zones; the day unfolded with an intimate exploration of the city’s core.

The City Center: Where History Meets the Present

The epicenter of Kyiv serves as a powerful nexus between the city’s storied past and its conflicted present. Yet nothing conveys the human toll of the ongoing struggle quite like the Wall of Heroes. This solemn memorial displays photographs of soldiers—many heartbreakingly young—whose futures were abruptly halted by the invasion.

The War of Rememberance

The Wall of Remembrance of the Fallen for Ukraine: Frozen Timelines, Lost Futures

These images act as haunting reminders that the people depicted had dreams and ambitions that had nothing to do with the war that consumed them. These young faces signify halted timelines, aspirations that will remain forever unfulfilled due to the ongoing invasion by Russia.

A Solemn Gathering: Sunflowers and Silent Tributes

During the visit, a remembrance ceremony was underway near another war memorial. The burnt-out husks of Russian tanks and fighting vehicles lined the street adjacent to the Princess Olga Monument. A young woman (Anna shown below) who had lost her father to the war was among the attendees. She placed sunflowers at the memorial, their bright faces a poignant contrast to the grief evident in her own. Sunflowers, often seen as symbols of Ukraine, serve here as emblems of both life and loss.


A Living Memorial: Kyiv’s Quiet Transformation

Kyiv seems to function as a living memorial. The air was laden with an intricate blend of sorrow, defiance, and a hushed form of determination—a resilience that’s felt but difficult to put into words.

The Journey Ahead: Confronting the Uneasy Reality

As evening approached and the preparation for the journey east gained momentum I felt a heavy sense of responsibility . The stark contrast between Kyiv’s relative stability and the looming dangers of the conflict zones amplified the gravity of the assignment to come.

Kyiv’s Resolute Pulse: Life in the Shadow of War

In this city, resilience manifests as a heartbeat that refuses to be quieted. Amid loss and daily tension, Kyiv pulses with an enduring vitality. Here, people are not just enduring; they are demanding to live, to shape a future that respects those who are no longer present to see it.

As we prepare to embark on our eastern journey, my thoughts on my youngest son Patrick, his birthday is today, and how so many people his age will not have the opportunity to see another birthday or whose life will never be the same. I am very glad to have had a chance to stop in the city and see how things have changed since my last visit. I am thankful for the rest and the fantastic food the city offers, and I am now ready to start our real purpose of our trip.

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