Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka recount three weeks of hell in 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 Associated Press (AP) photographers. On the occasion of the Visa pour l’Image festival, the two tall black-haired men, with piercing eyes and features, recounted their living and working conditions, between February 23 and March 15 in Mariupol.

From our special correspondent in Perpignan,

RFI: How did you get to Mariupol like no other?

Mstyslav Chernov: We have been working in Ukraine since 2014, since the beginning of the war. We know the dynamics of the forward line are good. And this year, we have been working in Ukraine since January because we know there is a possibility of an invasion. We arrived in Mariupol on the evening of February 23-24, one hour before the start of the operation.

Evgeniy Maloletka: For days, a lot of material was thrown in, machines headed for the front line. We understand the situation. But that night [le 23 février], there was complete silence. Also on the part of Russia. We understand that war is coming.

Do you know that you two are the only ones in Mariupol?

Mstyslav Chernov: We are not sure that we are alone because we are isolated from other media. We don’t have time to think about any pressure or responsibility that is out there. We are in survival mode. We do everything we can, whether there are other journalists there or not.

We don’t have time to think about any pressure or responsibility that is out there. We are in survival mode.

Evgeniy Maloletka: We are at the Spartak Hotel, which is the base of many journalists. There are other media such as NBC, al-Jazeera, Italian newspapers, Indian television. But slowly they left. And around March 2 or 3, it was just the two of us.

But you stay…

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

What is your working and living situation?

Mstyslav Chernov: Once the siege began, living conditions quickly deteriorated. The lights, water, gas, internet, electricity, all these were cut off. there very severe shelling, so to go to the toilet, for example, you must crawl in a helmet and avoid at any cost close to the windows. After a while we didn’t have enough food. We only eat one meal a day. But the worst thing is the lack of internet and electricity.

While we were waiting for the files to be sent, we were hiding in looted shops or under the stairs, in the middle of the night, with our arms up, trying to get on the network.

It is very difficult to charge our cameras, computers and cell phones. You have to be very economical. While we waited for the files to be sent, we hid in looted stores or under the stairs in the middle of the night, with our arms up, trying to tap into the network. And all this while hearing the planes and the bombing in the distance. All we can do is hope that a bomb doesn’t fall on our heads. It was a real challenge. And sometimes we have very important photos and videos that we can’t send. This is a source of frustration.

There is a real account of the way you work, like the moving moment in a hospital…

Evgeniy Maloletka: We remember that we arrived at the hospital after the bombing happened in the courtyard, not far from there. We were really shocked. On the same road we were going, we saw a car coming very fast. A couple entered the hospital with a small child in their arms. We observed this scene from the beginning to the end: from their arrival, the emergency services trying to give heart massage, treatment of the child. Then we saw the child die. Kirill is 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: Our parents saw us. It is important to make our presence visible. If you are accepted in a theater like this, you can stay and respect the people who are there. And if they say to us: You are not there and it happened several times, so we left. Often doctors request that we be present. They were on the front line and saw what was happening. The rest of the world does not.

Evgeniy Maloletka: Sometimes people beg us to take pictures of their faces so that their loved ones can see them. And with almost every photo, we received messages from relatives telling 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 cannot predict what will happen. When we lost our car, we had travel restrictions. On foot, it’s impossible, because the city is so big. We are waiting for the right opportunity to leave. And it was on the 14th of March, when we heard that the vehicles left in the direction of Zaporijjia.

The last days before leaving, we operated on intuition.

Fortunately, a family agreed to accompany us 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 have to hide all the equipment we have and we are worried because, above the fact that it is very important not to be arrested or arrested, what is equally important is to eliminate the material, the video and photo media that we have. because it is all original.

Also read: “The most important thing is to listen to yourself”: how young photojournalists face the risk

Mstyslav Chernov: At the beginning of the invasion, it was very chaotic and chaotic, so at each checkpoint, the checks and checks were not very thorough. It helped us to leave Mariupol.

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

Mstyslav Chernov: What you really need to understand is that the photos and videos are only a small fraction of what is actually happening. It’s also a source of frustration because we can’t show everything. As I am a director, I have many hours of images that are not published, because I do not have the internet to do it. I am currently working on a documentary about the siege of Mariupol.

Evgeniy Maloletka: It’s hard to tell how many photos I took. Initially, I worked for RAW [fichier brut non compressé] but I quickly switched to JPEG format because we needed it very economically to process the images and save the batteries of our computers. Every time, I ask myself the question: Do I keep it, or not ? “. For me, the quality is less important than taking these photos. We can think of a scene, like the one in the maternity ward with the parents and their dying child. Or those of the mass graves .But what matters in the end is that there is a story that emerges from these images.

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

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