Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka recount three weeks in the hell of Mariupol

Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka recount three weeks in the hell of Mariupol

Mstyslav Chernov, 37, born in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, and Evgeniy Maloletka, 35, born in Berdyansk, a Russian-occupied city in the southeast, are both photographers for Associated Press (AP ). On the occasion of the Visa pour l’Image festival, the two tall dark-haired men, with piercing eyes and drawn features, recount their living and working conditions, between February 23 and March 15 in Mariupol.

From our special correspondent in Perpignan,

RFI: How did you end up Mariupol when no one else was there?

Mstyslav Chernov: We have been working in Ukraine since 2014, since the beginning of the war. We know the dynamics of the front line pretty well. And this year, we had been working in Ukraine since January because we knew there was the possibility of an invasion. We arrived in Mariupol on the night of February 23-24, an hour before the start of the operation.

Evgeniy Maloletka: For several days, a lot of material had been passing, machines that were going towards the front line. We understood the situation. But that night [le 23 février], there was complete silence. Also on the Russian side. We understood that war was coming.

Were you aware that you were the only two in Mariupol?

Mstyslav Chernov: We weren’t sure we were the only ones because we were isolated from other media. We didn’t have time to think about any pressure or responsibility to be there. We were in survival mode. We did everything we could, whether there were other journalists there or not.

We didn’t have time to think about any pressure or responsibility to be there. We were in survival mode.

Evgeniy Maloletka: We were at the Spartak Hotel, which was the base for many journalists. There were other media like NBC, al-Jazeera, Italian newspapers, Indian television. But gradually they left. And around March 2 or 3, there were only the two of us.

But you stayed…

Mstyslav Chernov: We made this decision. It was our country and we believed it was an important story to tell. We stayed as long as possible. We worked until the last day, March 15, to the evacuation point at the hospital.

What were your working and living conditions like?

Mstyslav Chernov: Once the siege began, living conditions deteriorated very quickly. Lighting, water, gas, internet, electricity, all of this has been cut off. There was very intense shelling, so much so that to go to the toilet, for example, you had to crawl with a helmet and avoid at all costs being close to the windows. After a while we didn’t have enough food. We only ate one meal a day. But the worst was the lack of internet and electricity.

While we waited for the files to be sent, we hid in looted shops or under a staircase, in the middle of the night, with our arms raised, trying to pick up the network.

Charging our cameras, computers and cell phones was very difficult. You had to be very economical. While we waited for the files to send, we hid in looted shops or under stairs in the middle of the night, with our arms raised, trying to tap into the network. And all this while hearing the planes and the bombardments in the distance. All we could do was hope a bomb didn’t fall on our heads. It was a real challenge. And sometimes we had very important photos and videos that we couldn’t send. It was a source of frustration.

There is a real narrative in the way you work, like that moving moment in a hospital…

Evgeniy Maloletka: We remember arriving at the hospital after a bombardment took place in an inner courtyard, not far from there. We were really shocked. On the same road we had taken to come, we saw a vehicle arriving at high speed. A couple entered the hospital with a young child in their arms. We observed this scene from beginning to end: from their arrival, the emergency services trying to give cardiac massage, treating the child. Then we saw the child die. Kirill was 18 months old. It is a scene that remains etched in our memories.

Did you ask the parents for their permission to take these photos?

Mstyslav Chernov: Parents saw us coming. It is important to make our presence visible. If you get accepted in a theater like this, then you can stay and respect the people who are there. And if they tell us: You can’t be there and it’s happened several times, so we’re leaving. Often the doctors asked that we be present. They were on the front line and saw what was happening. The rest of the world was not.

Evgeniy Maloletka: Sometimes people begged us to take pictures of their faces so that their loved ones could find them. And on almost every photo, we received messages from relatives who said to us: “ Can you tell me where this person was taken? »

How did you get out of Mariupol? How do you know when to leave?

Evgeniy Maloletka: The last days before leaving, we operated on intuition. We couldn’t predict what was going to happen. When we lost our car, we had travel restrictions. On foot, it was impossible, because the city is too big. We waited for the right opportunity to leave. And it was on the 14th of March, when we heard that vehicles were leaving in the direction of Zaporijjia.

The last days before leaving, we operated on intuition.

Fortunately, a family agreed to take us with them in their car. This is how on March 15, we arrived at this Russian checkpoint to leave the city. This family decided to risk their lives to help us. Of course we had to hide all the equipment we had and we were worried because, beyond the fact that it was very important not to be arrested or captured, what was equally important was to extirpate the material, the video and photo media that we had since it was all the originals.

Read also : “The most important thing is to listen to yourself”: how young photojournalists deal with danger

Mstyslav Chernov: At the beginning of the invasion, it was very chaotic and very disorganized, so at each checkpoint, the checks and checks were less thorough. It helped us to leave Mariupol.

How many images did you bring back from those three weeks spent in Mariupol?

Mstyslav Chernov: What you really need to understand is that the photos and videos are tiny fractions of what is actually happening. It is also a source of frustration since we cannot show everything. As I am a director, I have a lot of hours of images that are not published, because I did not have the internet to do so. I am currently working on a documentary about the siege of Mariupol.

Evgeniy Maloletka: It’s hard to say how many pictures I took. Initially, I worked in RAW [fichier brut non compressé] but I very quickly switched to the JPEG format because we had to be very economical to process the images and save the batteries of our computers. Each time, I asked myself the question: Do I keep it, or not ? “. To me, the quality was less essential than having taken these photos. We can dwell on a scene, like the one in the maternity ward with the parents and their dying child. Or those of the mass graves. But what is important in the end is to have a story that emerges from these images.

• Exposure Mariupol, Ukraine of Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, at the convent of the Minimes in Perpignan, until September 11.


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