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Photographers Oksana Parafeniuk and Marta Iwanek on photographing Ukraine and seeing images of the war.

  • Feb 22 2024
  • Oksana Parafeniuk and Marta Iwanek
    Oksana Parafeniuk (she/her) is an independent photographer based in Kyiv, Ukraine.

    Marta Iwanek (she/her) is an independent photographer and filmmaker based in Toronto, Canada.

In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which marks its two-year anniversary,  AWC echoes a conversation between two Ukrainian photographers, Oksana Parafeniuk and Marta Iwanek, as they grapple with the impacts of conflict on both personal and professional fronts. Through their dialogue, they reflect upon the chaos of evacuation, the weight of mental health challenges, and the enduring quest for resilience amidst uncertainty, from the struggles of framing personal narratives to the enduring impact of visual storytelling in shaping collective memory. 

Marta: How has Russia's invasion changed the work you do? 

Oksana: It's not just work that changed since Russia invaded all of Ukraine. Everything changed. And even though I am  sitting in the same apartment where I was when the invasion happened, it’s not the same. My work has changed not only in regards to the full scale invasion, but also because of personal circumstances that  can't really be put separately. It all came together because when Russia invaded, I was six months pregnant with my son. 

In the months leading up to the invasion, there was lots of news and a lot of interest from foreign media, so I was working nonstop. Already pregnant, I even went to the frontline near Avdiivka once, since back then it was still more or less predictable to navigate, but then decided to stop doing that for safety reasons. Back the, I was mostly working on stories around Kyiv. When Russia invaded, I decided with my husband, who is also a photojournalist, to leave Kyiv because we were scared that it might get surrounded, or occupied. Nobody knew what's going to happen. There were explosions. While working in eastern Ukraine I could still feel enough distance even though it was still in my country, and somehow my life was not really in the middle of it. But when the full-scale invasion happened we were right in the core. We had to think about our future baby. We had to think about staying safe, about our parents, our other relatives, whether they were safe, if they should evacuate. So it suddenly became very, very difficult to actually work. To do so, you need to leave everything behind. 

So we left Kyiv the next day. I didn´t even took one photo on the very first day of the invasion. I was in such a state of shock and it's hard to explain, but I really wasn't thinking about photographing. We evacuated to a friend's house where there were like 15 of us sleeping on the floor because it was not possible to book any hotel or any apartment. Everything was fully booked. My husband was still on assignment, and I did a few too, but we had to navigate all of these logistics issues, safety, stress, etc. We couldn’t sleep or  eat during the first days. Eventually we decided to move farther west. I kept trying to do some work for a month in March. I got dozens and dozens of commissions, but I couldn't do any of them, because they were very high risk and involved traveling, carrying gear, and wearing body armor and being seven months (pregnant)  and I couldn’t do any of this. 

What would it have been if I wasn't pregnant? Maybe I would have been too scared to work anyway. I don't know, because it was so dangerous. But I did a few stories with photographs when we were temporarily in the village as when we left Kyiv. We also photographed how the local community in a village nearby gathered together and built checkpoints and organized themselves to protect their community in case something happenned. It was a small story, but it was very representative of what was happening all over Ukraine because when we were moving, there was a checkpoint in almost every village. It was extremely hard because it took so much time to drive through all of them, but you could see how all the people in Ukraine just immediately got organized. 

In Lviv, I photographed a funeral of Ukrainian soldiers, which, of course, since the invasion, started taking place everyday, everywhere. It was such an emotional moment for me, seeing mothers crying over their dead children, killed by Russia, being pregnant with my son. It was just heartbreaking and very hard to pick up a camera and take the photo because on one hand, it's was an important thing to photograph and on the other, this was their intimate moment and it must have been strange for them to have dozens of photojournalists and journalists present at the funeral of their children. 

Anyway, I went so far from the question, but what I was trying to say is that of course the Russian invasion changed everything. My husband and I decided to leave to Poland to give birth to our son in a safer place. So a few months into the invasion both of us stopped working and suddenly found ourselves on the other side of the lens. We ended up watching and reading news and looking at photographs that other colleagues were doing. And it was very hard because if you're doing something and you are active, you don't feel as desperate, but when you are not able to work and constantly look at the terrible photographs and read the news, it becomes overwhelming and unbearable. I was crying everyday. I would go from being depressed and crying because of what's happening in my country, worrying for my friends and relatives, and then move on to crying being worried if the stress would be harmful to my son. Then, I would switch to crying, because I should be photographing and doing my job when it’s important, but I couldn't…After our son turned one month old, we wanted to go back to Ukraine. At least my husband could start working again and photographing. But he didn't want to not see our son for very long periods of time. We really wanted to be home and I wanted to be close to my family, all of whom had stayed in Ukraine. So we decided to come back to Kyiv and try to do some assignments here. 

I was breastfeeding and I started pumping in order to freeze breast milk so I could be away and working. I did a few assignments when Luka was three months old. On October 10th, Russia sent a huge barrage of missiles on Kyiv and other places. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn´t able to go on, so I had to cancel my assignments. I couldn't imagine leaving my son even for five minutes in this situation. It was so stressful and scary. I left Kyiv for the countryside and stayed with him there for a month. Russia kept shelling Ukraine and there were massive electricity shortages and a potential danger that there would be no heating or water, so we decided that I would go abroad with our son in the winter. 

We came back in April of 2023. After a few months, I finally found enough strength and energy to start working again but I don't go away for long periods of time and I don't go to the very front line. I feel like I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if something happened and I wasn't close to him. I try to do a lot of work around Kyiv or go on short trips. I think what you were talking about, photographing daily life and photographing, you know, all of these other things…there are quite a lot of photographers who are covering big events, who are going to places where something happens, but maybe not enough work is done about quieter things and everyday life. 

This war affected literally every Ukrainian or every person that lives in Ukraine. And not only in Ukraine. Like you, you don't live in Ukraine, but it affects you too. So anyway, this is a very long answer. But in short, we still live here and sometimes there are still missile and drone attacks. We go to the subway, we don't really have a proper basement in our building, so we go to the subway for safety, even if the attack is in the middle of the night. Of course we don't sleep and then we are really tired. But we do what we can. I really feel like I want to at least be able to tell some stories. Also being Ukrainian and being a Ukrainian woman, I hope that I could bring in some kind of sensitivity and perspective that maybe someone else can't. 

Marta: I don't know if you remember, we were texting that night over the phone right before the bombs started flying, the full scale invasion. You don't remember that? 

Oksana: I don't remember what we were texting about. 

Marta: You weren't sleeping because…

Oksana: I remember that I didn't sleep all night. I was so incredibly tired. 

Marta: You weren't sleeping that night, and then you thought it was going to happen that night because the airspace was closed over the Belarus border. And I was up because everyone was on this...

Oksana: Yeah. In the evening the day before we heard from colleagues who heard from some intelligence people that the Russian invasion would start in the morning. We heard it at like 10 or 11 pm but what could we do? You just sit there and wait. And we still hoped that that was not true. But I went into the bedroom where my sister slept, and put some tape on the window to protect it from breaking into many small pieces in case of an explosion. I was crying while doing it. I couldn't believe I was doing it in my home in Kyiv. 

Marta: Yeah. And all of us here were staying up watching the UN Security Council emergency meeting live-streamed. And then, right after that, it was Putin's speech that morning and then seeing all the bombs dropped. 

I think that first week was a real blur. We were also not sleeping, not eating and trying to do what we could. I think, at that moment, a lot of friends here were trying to help people getting out and find spaces in Poland. You're doing whatever you can to help from afar and the whole country becomes your family. Even for people who didn't have family or friends in Ukraine, you still feel a connection to every single person. That first week or week and a half, I wanted to work on stories like the organizing process that was happening in the community here because we think the Ukrainian community is very good at organizing, mutual aid and support. That´s a big part of our culture. I pitched a story and then started looking for people whose whole living rooms were stocked with boxes or supplies and things to send.[...] 

I think when you talk about when you were on the outside and you weren't able to do anything, there's a really big feeling of hopelessness and at the same time, you feel guilty for feeling hopeless. And it's not your place to feel hopeless, because there are people that are actually experiencing air raids, sirens and bombs falling and evacuating. There's a big sense of survivor's guilt that you feel when you're here. And whatever you do doesn't feel like enough because the impact of Russia's full-scale invasion is so massive. I think maybe people don't really understand the genocidal intent with which Russia invaded Ukraine. It always feels like all these little hands working together, trying to fend that off. And every step is like a way to help, for Russia not to invade further because we've seen what happens when Russia occupied territory. 

Oksana: I feel like I actually didn´t do much work in the direction of helping. My strength was focused on survival and especially mental survival. It turned out that I was in a state of depression and anxiety for over a year until I decided to seek help from my psychiatrist. And now I realize that maybe I should have asked for help earlier. Maybe I would have managed to be more active and more productive and help others. I think everyone may feel like they did little, but at the very beginning, I remember how many friends and people that I know were texting and offering help, offering a place to stay or money. And a lot of countries and a lot of people abroad mobilized real fast. I think that was actually a big help. We are so thankful for it.

And you, Marta, did all those print sales and fundraised a lot. 


fig. 1


Marta: I think it's a common theme maybe because of the scale of the problem, you feel like nothing you do is enough. But then, at the same time, you have to start somewhere and every little thing counts too. 

You know, growing up, people were never able to place Ukraine on a map. Everyone that I met would call me Russian, growing up here. Even few months before the invasion, someone at work asked me what my background is and I would say Ukrainian, and they replied: “Oh, Russia”. I said: “No!” And then, just seeing this sort of support mobilized across the world was something so mind blowing and so touching, just to see how many people were able to support in any little way that they could. So,  anyone reading this: thank you. I think in those kinds of moments, in a way yes, there's such a depression that hits but, at the same time, your heart opens in a different way. You also become a lot more compassionate to other people who are experiencing pain and want to show up for them in the same ways. 

Even with the print sale, all these photographers donated prints and a majority didn't had any connection to Ukraine. But out of the kindness of their hearts they did it. The printing house Smokestack printed everything for free and Edward Burtynsky donated as well to help with our printing costs. So many people came together to help.  Our fundraising team, conformed by Ukrainian Canadian photographers and allies was able to raise $20,000 from people's donations for all these different charities, NGO´s and organizations that work in Ukraine. 

I'm grateful to have editors who have hired me for stories to work on, like stories about Ukrainian refugees. I worked on a story for The Globe and Mail about an eight grade class where half of the kids were from Ukraine and came, fleeing the war. It was about these kids graduating, and we were present on their graduation day. I really appreciate that I can contribute in telling and sharing those stories because the kids are amazing. 

Oksana: I constantly felt extremely guilty that I couldn’t do my job, and my American husband who has been living in Ukraine for almost ten years, offered a different perspective. In the beginning of the invasion there is an unlimited amount of things that had to be witnessed and told and there are a lot of journalists but, he said, after 2 or 3 years or more, inevitably there will be fewer. And maybe this is when what we do becomes more important. We're connected to Ukraine, and we will continue working here. 

The media interest will slow down. Inevitably, unfortunately, there will be less funding and less interest. It will be harder to cover stories or we'll need to find other ways to fund the work. I want to be optimistic and I don't want to believe that humanity will lose interest in continuing telling our stories, but of course, there are so many other places in the world that also need attention from the media like Israel and Gaza, as well as many other places that are often overlooked, but equally very important to be spoken about.

Oksana: As a photographer and filmmaker yourself and someone who has grown accustomed to watching images from the war, how does it affect you and what are your observations about the images coming from the frontline in Ukraine and just in general from Ukraine? 

Marta: I'm very grateful to all the colleagues that have been documenting and have been bearing witness, showing the world what's happening. I think I'm in awe of colleagues like you, having to evacuate, worried for your own safety all the time, but still, finding that energy to continue to photograph…

[Your photographs] bring this really tender, personal element, so you can really connect with them, quickly. They don't glaze the hard part, but they also don't sensationalize it either. I think your photographs are really honest and I think for a lot of people is possible to connect and see that part of Ukraine through your eyes. And you're saying you just watched the documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, and you think about Evgeniy, Mstyslav and Vasilisa and the work they did in Mariupol, as the journalists working for AP, the only international publication that was there, showing the effects of Russia's full siege on the city and bearing witness to what the residents there are going through. In those moments, you really see how incredibly important the work of journalists and photojournalists is and we are incredibly thankful to those colleagues for working in such conditions where they're putting their own lives at risk to bring those stories to the world. 

We also followed Russia’s full-scale invasion through social media. A lot of social media is just inundated with images and videos from the front line and obituaries of people losing loved ones and so that's what your social media feed becomes, this very immediate window into Ukraine. It almost collapses time and space. 

I remember the first weeks, I would be walking down my street and I would be thinking about if a missile was going to fly into this building in front of me. Because I would see images of places where I used to walk past in Kyiv, bombed, you know, having a missile go right into them. It's so visceral because my memories are attached to it. Being in a place that is safe, but then experiencing that through the images and videos you see. Even though that's not the reality, in your very sleep-deprived mind, you're not thinking that there is that separation of space. 

I struggle to talk about this because it hasn't been good for my mental health. I was constantly watching the news and reading the news. And that feels like such a privileged thing to say too, because I am safe right now, I am in a place of safety. 

I definitely think finding a way to take better care of our mental health when we're watching these images is incredibly important because you still want to do good work. And you can't really do that when you're suffering from secondary trauma. There's this sort of immediacy of social media and especially because all of my networks are like your networks, they're connected to people in Ukraine and Ukrainian media and Ukrainian journalists. I didn't even have to go to the news. So much of that information is immediate and through people you know, and through journalists you know, who were there. I also think it's hard to talk about mental health, especially in our culture, because it's something really stigmatized. 

The importance of taking care of yourself in these situations, finding community here and connecting with it is that you could be of use and you could help to  tell stories or to support a fundraiser or something like that. 

Oksana: I've tried to be pretty open about mental health. As I mentioned earlier, I seeked medical help to treat my anxiety and depression. And when people ask me how I cope with the war, I can actually say that seeking help made a difference. I hope that more and more people will be open about it, and more people will seek help. The number of people who started taking  antidepressants and/or doing therapy has increased a lot in Ukraine. 

Marta: I think with war and coverage about war or invasion, we talk a lot about death, but we don't talk a lot about the different ways that it's a mass disabling event too. I'm seeing a lot more stories about soldiers who have lost limbs or have medical issues now, and I'm glad that's getting more coverage. But I think there is a long way for Ukrainian society to go in terms of its understanding of disability. 

I think I saw the same statistics of how many Ukrainians are now on antidepressants, have depression or are goig through mental health struggles. That is another form of disablement, right? I think that's a really important part of coverage and understanding the ways that Russia's invasion [affects] us. With mental health comes chronic illness. There're all these intergenerational layers too. We're a society that already dealt with a genocide. So there's intergenerational trauma. We can also look at the health effects of Chernobyl during the Soviet Union…All of these things are tied to trauma, but also have health effects. Russian imperialism and colonialism has been disabling Ukrainians and neighboring countries for generations.

Oksana: If you have a hard time dealing with all of the stress, you become much less productive. You can't really be a supportive member of a family. You become the one that needs support. 

Someone told me about their relative in Kyiv and that she was walking on the street when a missile was shot down. It was one of those ballistic missiles that go very fast. So there wasn't time for an air raid alert. It was somewhere very close to her and very loud and while she wasn’t physically injured, it just really traumatized her. For two months she couldn't really function properly because of the stress. And I think many people actually have to cope with this right now. But, if we talk about photography…for stories like this, it's not very obvious how and what to photograph to actually communicate the problem in a way that will make people care and understand. So that's one of the stories I think that is harder to translate into visual language and we have to find ways to do it. 



This text constitutes an excerpt from the original conversation, co-published with The Journal Collective (Ed. Yen Duong, The Journal). 

The Journal Blog features conversations around photography and collaboration among The Journal members, highlights as well as reflection on our working process. 



    Cover: Oksana Parafeniuk. Participants of the civil-defense training, organized by a far-right political organization National Corps and held on the grounds of an abandoned heavy machinery factory on Kyiv’s western outskirts, train with wooden makeshift weapons in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 6, 2022. Courtesy of Oksana Parafeniuk, originally published via U.S. News & World Report. 

    fig. 1: Marta Iwanek in collaboration with Lemko Language School no. 10 in Legnica, Poland. “Where my house once stood”. Courtesy of Marta Iwanek. 



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