“Where the hell are the journalists?” These words erupted at dawn in the inferno of Mariupol, a Ukrainian martyr city on the Sea of Azov, which had been under constant Russian assault since the February 24 invasion. A dozen Ukrainian soldiers exfiltrated Evgeniy Maloletka and Mstyslav Chernov. For twenty days, the two Ukrainian photojournalists and videographers from the American news agency AP (Associated Press) agency had been the only ones reporting on the agony of civilians trapped in the besieged city. Their work is exhibited at Visa pour l’Image.
The international photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, is marked this year by the return of tragedy in Europe. The 34th festival evokes other dramas around the world that might by now seem remote: the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban (Andrew Quilty); the descent into hell in Lebanon (Tamara Saade); and the migration crisis (Sameer Al-Doumy)… Great figures in photography are celebrated and the world’s wonders offer moments of respite.
Eyes on the ground in Ukraine
“When I look at these photos again, it’s hard for me to believe I was really there. Mariupol was hell.” Evgeniy Maloletka came to Perpignan with his friend and fellow videographer Mstyslav Chernov. The two thirty-year-olds have continued to cover the conflict, but remain marked by what they experienced during those twenty days’ pandemonium.
Steeled by the war that had been eating away at their country for years, they began working together in 2014, in the Donbass. There was also Iraq, Afghanistan… “But here it is clearly different, it is our people.”
The images they were able to send to their agency from a city cut off from all communication have circled the world: a bloodied pregnant woman on a stretcher, rescued from the bombed maternity ward, who went on to lose her baby and succumb to her injuries; a lifeless eighteen-month-old cradled by his devastated parents; bodies hastily piled up into mass graves in a break between shellings. “The photos must be brutal for us to understand the reality of what happened,” insists Evgeniy Maloletka, who received the Visa d’Or News Award for this work. If they hadn’t been there, the Russians would have carried on with impunity. Moscow claimed their photos had been staged, and put a price on their heads.
Blacklisted, they had to leave, and having passed fifteen Russian checkpoints hidden in a humanitarian convoy car, they confessed to “feeling terrible for leaving [everyone] behind.” Several months later, they carried on reporting about the city where the Russian flag flies above the ruins.
Mstyslav Chernov wants to return to his native Kharkiv, in the East. But the images of these twenty days continue to haunt him. “My mind tries to forget, but my heart is filled with Mariupol.”
At the Visa pour l’Image festival every snapshot of the conflict is precious—such as the images of the Dane Mads Nissen, awarded the Visa d’Or Foreign International Press Award. Lucas Barioulet covered the daily life during the war for Le Monde. Daniel Berehulak, New York Times, bore witness to the terror in Bucha. Sergei Supinsky’s Ukrainian chronology in pictures is not to be missed: from the coverage of the country’s independence on August 24, 1991—he was 35 at the time—through the present, this AFP (Agence France Presse) photographer sheds light on the historical tensions between Kiev and Moscow.
The Russian photojournalist Elena Chernyshova is another rare and essential witness. Deserted Western brand stores, the militarization of Russian society, encouraged denunciation of unpatriotic acts: her photographic testimony offers a peek behind dark curtain that has veiled Russia for the past six months. There, one doesn’t talk of war, but of “special operations.”
Catching your breath
The festival also leaves room for wonder and escape, even as it keeps an eye on environmental issues: from the expanses of Antarctica and the mission of the scientific schooner TARA, which set out among giants of ice to meet the infinitesimal (Maéva Bardy); to Alaska surveyed by a community of aviators, including many women (Acacias Johnson); to the fascinating bestiary of the marine world, as seen by Alexis Rosenfeld, and unfortunately prey to human activity, such as overfishing (George Steinmetz).
Eugene Richards, Françoise Huguier, Alain Ernoult, and Goran Tomasevic are honored with splendid retrospectives. Political gags captured for Le Monde by Jean-Claude Coutausse’s mischievous lens bring some comic relief. And we are also surprised—pleasantly so—to see the classic layout of the festival adapted to Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert’s original installation of their mind-blowing investigation into drug use around the world: Happy Pills. A lighter touch in this dense, thought-provoking event.