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Yegan Mazandarani, The Pariahs of Donbass

Yegan Mazandarani, The Pariahs of Donbass

In September 2018, photographer Yegan Mazandarani traveled to the secessionist, self-proclaimed, unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic on the Russian-Ukrainian border to photograph its inhabitants. His images, taken with empathy, are now brought together in a book.
Today, someone gave me this quote from Hiram Johnson, a U.S. Senator from the early 20th century: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Savur-Mohyla, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

While his comrades disassemble an assault rifle, a boy from the Patriotic Military Club of Mospino crouches down in a corner of the room. The scene speaks to us. This is one of the many photographs of children raised in war that appear in Yegan Mazandarani’s book, Parias. We see them training for combat, familiarizing themselves with weapons, challenging one another, standing in tight formation. “I’m 12 years old, and I want to be stronger to protect my family,” said one of the boys. “I would like to become a soldier and be like my coach. The hardest thing here? Maybe it’s fighting with older boys.”

Patriotic Military Club of Mospino, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

The images are soft, and contrast with the photographer’s narrative. “The children’s demonstration escalates. I am stunned. I keep shooting. I watch them fight in the room with incredible ferocity. It is not normal. I am shocked because I think of my childhood. My games, the things I was being taught, the calm of the small sunny village of Marly-la-Ville (France).”

In the corner of the room, while the others are dismantling the assault rifle, a child is cowering. Patriotic Military Club of Mospino, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

The war in the Donbass between Ukraine and the Russian Federation erupted in the wake of the political crisis in Ukraine in late November 2013. No solution to put an end to the clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists has been found for over six years.

Iversky Monastery. Donetsk Oblast, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

So far, the war has resulted in over 13,000 dead and 30,000 injured; 1.4 million have been forced to leave their homes and flee to other parts of Ukraine, while about a million refugees crossed over to neighboring states. The Donbass has become one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world, next to Afghanistan and Iraq. Yegan Mazandarani photographed First World War-like trenches dug out by soldiers engaged in this long conflict.

Commemorative Ceremony of Savur-Mohyla, RPD © Yegan Mazandarani

“I wanted to see at least once with my own eyes what war was like,” said the photographer. “Maybe I wanted to put myself in danger, but also to find that calm moment in photography that I like so much. I set out to take pictures, with no specific project in mind, and when I first got back I wasn’t thinking of producing a book.”

The widows are gathered around the chapel at the bottom of the hill. Savur-Mohyla, RPD © Yegan Mazandarani

In his documentary project, Yegan Mazandarani has clearly taken the time to get to know these people, the men, women, children, and soldiers living in the shadow of war, surrounded by ruins. We discover their daily lives, their view of the situation, and their aspirations through images as well as personal narratives. “I was struck by a lot of things down there in the Donbass,” said Yegan. “The widespread feeling of sadness, the silence weighing over the city, the territory, and the faces marked by the war. And the way one could sometimes glimpse happiness and laughter amid all the chaos. The people, their stories, as well as the madness.”

A dummy intended to deceive Ukrainian snipers. On the war front, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

The photographs – well-crafted portraits, touching scenes, wounded landscapes – offer an intimate look at the hidden side of a war zone, unlike any news photography. Maps and contact sheets complete the page design which combines emotion and information. This is a good way of understanding the conflict and hearing the voices of those who are experiencing it.

Snack time for children: tea, milk, bread, strawberry jam. Gorlivka, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

The title of the book, Parias [Pariahs], alerts us to the situation of a population that has been isolated and ignored by the international community. It also refers to other “pariahs” Yegan Mazandarani has encountered: people from France, the Netherlands, or the United States, marginalized in their own countries, who have found something in the Donbass that they didn’t have at home. It is worth noting that the book is printed by Escourbiac using an environmentally friendly process, and that the format is reminiscent of the black Moleskine notebooks the photographer uses on a daily basis. 

The children are lined up in the sun with their heads down. Sergei blows his whistle and at once, they run inside: the demonstration begins. Patriotic Military Club of Mospino, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

“As a man, I have seen my share of prejudice, weaponized passions, and wartime insanity. And perhaps I have learned how to be humble in the face of choices or situations that I don’t understand. As a photographer, this project has taught me a great deal. First of all, this is the first time I dared to share what I write; this was a huge step, and it took time for me to overcome my fears and own my words. It is also the first project where I spent so much time perfecting the images, the selection, and the exhibition. I decided to do everything on my own, and to personally attend to every detail.”

The women from the bunker accompany us to the surface to say goodbye. Petrowski, DPR © Yegan Mazandarani

By Jonas Cuénin

Yegan Mazandarani, Parias
Self-published, €40
Shipping: €7 France / €15 rest of the world
To order, contact: [email protected]

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