oDR: Feature

‘War changed the way I look at things’: a Mariupol photographer portrays Kyiv

Photographer and filmmaker Oleksandr Surovtsov moved to the Ukrainian capital after Russia destroyed his hometown

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
6 July 2022, 10.59am

Oleksandr Surovtsov, originally from Mariupol, moved to Kyiv after Russia's destruction of his hometown

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

Over recent months, Oleksandr Surovtsov has been taking photos of people going about their daily lives in the streets of Kyiv, portraying a city where life is returning to some kind of normality.

Surovtsov, who previously lived in Mariupol, where he liked taking photos of abandoned places, was forced to flee after the city came under siege in February, a few days after the invasion.

He managed to escape with his partner and son on 18 March, taking advantage of a fortuitous meeting with someone who wanted to flee but was too scared to do it on his own.

Together they reached Berdiansk, which was occupied by Russians before making it to Kyiv in May.

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It was then that Surovtsov, who is also a filmmaker, started photographing passers-by in the street and friends.

“I tell people: “Hi, can I take your picture on film? Some say ‘yes’, some say ‘why?’ and others say ‘no’”, he said.

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

So far Surovtsov has photographed more than 200 people, on film, in colour and in black and white. He publishes the photos on his Facebook page with the hashtag #Kyivites.

“For me it’s some sort of art therapy,” he said.

“People ask me where I’m from and sometimes we talk for half an hour. I tell them about Mariupol. And I sort of let go of this crap, in this way. You talk and it’s like therapy. I can’t disengage myself from the situation [in Mariupol] but this helps me to process it.”

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

Before Russia’s invasion in February this year, Surovtsov said he did not enjoy photographing people. But when he arrived in Kyiv, his “vision changed”, he says.

“I don’t focus on the things that I used to see before, buildings, graffiti, the sea... By photographing people I get rid of the shit that I have had in my head since the war, this sort of PTSD,” he said.

In March, Surovtsov’s father, an alcoholic, relapsed and drank himself to death, in Mariupol. “He said he didn’t want to live anymore. If these had been peaceful times, we could have called a doctor, hooked him up to an IV, but we couldn’t do that. They buried him near the house in the alley, then the Orcs [Russian soldiers] came, they dug the graves out and buried them all somewhere - we don’t know where his body is,” he said. His partner’s grandmother was killed by shelling. “There was nothing left of her but a piece of skull and knee cap,” he told me.

The situation in Mariupol, according to him, remains fairly unchanged. There is no water, no electricity, though is now able to get in touch with them via Phoenix, a mobile operator operating in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. His relatives have to cook on a bonfire. The food available is expensive and of poor quality. People have to rely on humanitarian help brought by the Russian army.

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

Sometimes, Surovtsov walks around Kyiv’s residential areas, but most of the time he visits the city’s more touristic parts, such as Khreshchatyk, the street that cuts through the centre of the city, the nearby Arch of Freedom or the banks of the Dnipro river. It’s here that he says people are much more likely to be open to being photographed. He snaps whoever consents to having their picture taken, including people experiencing homelessness.

He says film rolls are not cheap, costing 300 hryvnia (£8), but adds that it’s easy to get them developed in shops.

“People [in Kyiv] are fairly relaxed. They walk around. They’re not scared of what could happen. They live normal lives, have coffee. Everything’s working, the metro, the tram. Old ladies are back selling parsley, dill and fruit in the street. Kyiv is living a full life,” he said.

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

Surovtsov, who feels he has seen enough destruction, has been avoiding areas of Kyiv that have suffered the most from shelling.

“We miss Mariupol really badly. Kyiv is a really beautiful city, but we have to be here. It’s not like we’re on holiday. We really want to go back to Mariupol, but we won’t be able to as long as it’s occupied,” he said.

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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Image: Oleksandr Surovtsov. All rights reserved

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