Aleksandr Klimenko: “It Bothers Me That Everything is Not Captured in Our War”

Documentary photographer Alexander Klimenko has been taking pictures of war for more than 20 years all over the world. He told his colleague Dmitry Lipavskiy why pictures could stop bloodshed before, but not now.

(Cover picture: June 25, 2014. An artillery fight near Krivaya Luka close to Slavyansk. Here and further on: author’s signs. — Editor’s note)

Aleksandr Klimenko, who has been covering armed conflicts since 1992, saw how people fought each other in Transnistria, Sarajevo, Croatia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. He was always drawn to the front line, “Innocent civilians and the consequences of bombardment also interest me, but to a lesser degree.” Aleksandr spent the last year in the east of Ukraine, and he points out that he hasn’t seen such a scary war as in Donbass. In an interview with Bird In Flight Klimenko talked about dangerous situations which he faced, about what you should do to survive, who can shoot a war, and who should stay at home.

Aleksandr Klimenko 54 years old

A Ukrainian documentary photographer. He was born in Chernihiv oblast, lives in Kiev. He graduated from Taras Shevchenko KNU. He works for the parliamentary newspaper Holos Kraiini. Since 1992 he has visited more than 10 countries where military conflict took place: Transnistria, the countries of former Yugoslavia, in the Middle East and in Africa.

I started going to conflict regions just out of curiosity. Imagine, you are offered to shoot either the agricultural industry in Zhytomyr oblast, or peacekeepers in Sarajevo. Of course, I chose peacekeepers! Neither ambitions nor adrenaline attract me. I go to these places because I consider it my duty. I’ve been to many other wars, and when war is happening now in my own country I take everything personally and I can’t stay at home. I must show what is going on, from my point of view as I have more life experience than young photographers.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_02.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar, Tserkovnaya street. November 24, 1997. Croatian militiaman Zvonko is complaining about combatants not having enough attention from the government.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_03.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Bosnia and Herzegovina, beleaguered city of Sarajevo, February 9, 1994. People are running across the street in the place which is under bombardment by Serbian snipers from the mountains.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_04.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, February 9, 1994. A local boy is happy with bread given by Ukrainian soldiers.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_06.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, February 10, 994. A taxi in Sarajevo.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_05.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “February 1994. A plane from Sarajevo to Ukraine. Ukrainian peacekeepers during their return home from Sarajevo after half a year service in the UN army (UNPROFOR) are counting their salary.”}

The war started for me on May 2, 2014 when 5 helicopter pilots I knew and flew with in Africa were killed. You start evaluating a war and understand that it’s a war when your acquaintances and loved ones die.

I always try to reach the front line in order to shoot soldiers and and battles. A few days ago, I was preparing work for an exhibition, and the print operator looking at my pictures remembered a video about our colleague, photojournalist Sergey Nikolayev from the newspaper “Segodnya,” who was fatally wounded. He was indignant with journalists who were showing this rather than giving first aid and help, and couldn’t understand why they needed to shoot it. I, on the contrary, think that even things like that need to be documented. Doctors arrived quite quickly on the scene, they were busy doing their job, and journalists theirs.

I’ve been to many wars, but I haven’t seen such a horrible war as the one in Donbass. It’s more filled with armaments and events: grads, heavy artillery, attacks, retreats, pockets, etc. In Croatia, in the positions in Serbian territory I saw just some old cannons. I might not be aware enough, but I’ve never heard that grads were used in Bosnia.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_07.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Transnistria, next to the city of Dubassar, April 12, 1992. Positions of anti-government armies close to Dubassar hydropower station. Soldiers are ‘joking’ with an enemy sniper.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_08.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Transnistria, close to Dubassar, April 12, 1992. Positions of anti-government armies close to Dubassar hydropower station. A soldier is observing the other side of the Dnestr River, where government armies of Moldova are located.”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_09.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “April 2012. South Sudan. City of Malakal. Policemen are preparing weapons that they withdrew from militants to be annihilated.”}

I have a picture called “Soldier is Going to War” which I took at a Ukrainian checkpoint in Serbian territory. Its an old man with a Mauser carbine made in 1898, wearing a hat with Broz Tito star on it and a Yugoslavian tunic from World War II times. He looked like 45-55 years old man, but most likely he was younger than that age. A soldier was carrying boots and a bottle of brandy which he brought to change for bullets from our peacekeepers. And he would have gotten the bullets for brandy, if not for journalists and the commander of a battalion who saw everything, so the old man was sent back. I can’t imagine now a militiaman from DNR going to war in an old uniform. They have everything because Russia arms them. The main difference of this war, in comparison with the others I’ve been at, is the flowing of weapons through open borders. I know that both sides in the Yugoslavian conflict were sold weapons by different countries, including Russia and Ukraine, but it wasn’t done through open borders. It’s one more difference — the savagery. Who could say a year ago that Russia would fight against us? The answer is nobody. But in reality it appeared to be this way — you live with a person happily, but he stabs you in the back.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_01.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “Serbian territory, November 6, 1994. A Serbian militiaman, on the way to his position, stops by the UN checkpoint and attempts to trade a bottle of brandy for some cartridges.”}

This conflict will not end soon. Even if tomorrow the two sides come together and decide to bury the hatchet, there can be twenty idiots out of a thousand who decide to continue shooting, or perhaps one foolish commander.

A strong contrast appeared to me after my first visits to the ATO zone: in Donbass there is a war, and in Kiev, peace. Coming back from the east to Darnitskiy station, tired and in need of a shower, it’s common to see young, drunken bands of youth pass you by as they sing songs or see a guy calmly drinking a beer… Only six hours before that I had witnessed destroyed houses, people hiding in basements, fighters gathered around a fire and an old woman at a Ukrainian checkpoint asking the soldiers for food. It’s offensive when you know what’s going on there and the “idle onlookers” aren’t affected in the slightest. At first I had to stop and say to myself, “Stop, stop, dude, everything is normal. Here is here and there is different.” Now, I don’t even notice people who are so ambivalent.

Once, I had a conversation with one guy who looked like a real freight train. He asked, ‘Tell us something about the war.’ I started talking about the atrocities I saw just three days ago and he goes, ‘Oh stop, you’re lying.

Talking about the war is a thankless job. Only someone who has seen war can know and understand it, and I was convinced of that during a trip to the Carpathians. The contingent of people who were staying at the resort turned out to be a group of bourgeois families who came there in expensive cars. Once, I had a conversation with one guy who looked like a real freight train. He asked, “Tell us something about the war.” I started talking about the atrocities I saw just three days ago and he goes, “Oh stop, you’re lying.” I won’t say what happened next, but I left after a couple of days.

When you see a mountain of your enemies’ bodies on the internet you get a sense of excitement from the feeling of victory, but then you check yourself and think, “How can I be happy about such a thing?” And in this you also find the horrors of war, when you celebrate the death of your enemy.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_10.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “July 8, 2014. Fighters from the 2nd battalion of the 30th brigade prepare breakfast at positions near the village of Metallist on the outskirts of Lugansk.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_11.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “July 8, 2014. Positions of Ukrainian soldiers near the village of Metallist on the outskirts of Lugansk. A tank from the 1st tank brigade is ready for battle.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_13.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “September 25, 2014. Krasnogorovka, near Donetsk. A sergeant in the 20th territorial defense battalion meets his former platoon commander, who is currently serving in another division.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_14.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “June 25, 2014. The 95th brigade in an artillery battle near the village of Krivaya Luka not far from Slavyansk.”}

My daughter, my son, my wife and my mother-in-law all worry about my trips to the war zone. On January 19th, 2014, I was wounded by a grenade on Hrushevskoho street in Kiev. It was a perfectly dumb situation and I blame myself for it, which means that I wasn’t attentive enough. I never thought that there could be such a war in the capital. This wound was a tragedy for my family and to this day they are afraid. Before my trips, my wife looks at me, begging, and my son asks, “Dad, maybe you don’t need to go?” I always go, but now when I return, it’s a celebration. The best feeling during war is when you come back home, and what a feeling it is when it happens often.

It’s scary to face the possibility of becoming handicapped. Either you die immediately or stay intact, but being handicapped is tough. I know this from my experience on Maidan. This is a rush of bad emotions and thoughts and your family worries a lot…it’s still not clear who was worse off: me or my loved ones.

The dumbest and most unpleasant feeling during a war is when a mine or a grad explodes somewhere far off and you’re lying low and understand that you can’t do anything about it. Nothing depends on you, God, fate and circumstance decide everything. In these moments, it seems like it’s better and easier you to die heroically in an open battle rather than when you’re hiding.

If you’re scared, don’t go to the war. If you go, don’t be scared, leave your fears at home. You need to understand that you can be killed in Donbass and you need to come to terms with that. If you can’t, then stay in Kiev and shoot official gatherings, concerts and models. You shouldn’t be afraid of death, but you should be as careful as possible.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_15.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “January 2, 2015. Volunteers of the Ukrainian ‘Right Sector’ 5th Volunteer Corps Battalion in the village of Peski. The boat was used as a sled to transport goods. The driver of the vehicle, by the nickname ‘Tanchik,’ died a few days later during a mortar bombardment.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_16.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “June 25, 2014. Artillery men of the 95th brigade near the village of Krivaya Luka not far from Slavyansk. A soldier’s shower.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_17.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “January 16, 2015. The village of Krymskoe near Bakhmutskaya highway. Residents repairing a house in the morning after Grad missiles were fired from the terrorists’ side.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_18.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “July 8, 2014. Positions of the 30th brigade near the village of Metallist on the outskirts of Lugansk.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_19.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “July 8, 2014. Positions of the 30th brigade near the village of Metallist on the outskirts of Lugansk.”}

Dangerous situations can happen anywhere at anytime during a war. Once, we were traveling to the village of Peski and a 30mm tracer missile came flying towards the car. The driver turned sharply to the side and the tracer ricocheted off of the pavement and went up. We stood for a minute and then went on. Or, in Artyomovsk, during the Ukrainian soldiers’ retreat from Debaltsevo. I was at one of the battalions’ locations and was trying to connect to the internet to send some photos. Sasha Techinskiy calls me and he says that he and a German journalist want to get as close as possible to Debaltsevo and offers me to join them. Excellent! I left the location with my laptop visible, crossed the road and was waiting for my colleague while simultaneously sending photos. A fighter from that base, where I just was, came out and approached me with his machine gun pointed at me and yelled, “Hey, get the fuck out of there!” “What happened? You saw that I just left your base.” “You’re giving us away!” His eyes were glossed over and I knew that it would have been nothing to him to pull the trigger. Easy, easy, I said as I closed my notebook and left.

You can’t drink if you want to stay cool and calm. This is the worst thing that could happen there. It’s true that you can’t escape from it anywhere. What you see and feel during a war will be with you for life and will never leave you. Treating this with alcohol is a stupid and useless therapy session. I’m already too old to go over the edge.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_20.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “July 8, 2014. Positions of the 30th brigade near the village of Metallist on the outskirts of Lugansk.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_21.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “June 5, 2014. Fighter from the 51st brigade at a checkpoint near Krasnoarmeysk.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_22.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “June 20, 2014. Soldiers from the 95th brigade lead a convoy not far from Karachun mountain near Slavyansk.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_23.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “August 26, 2014. Ukrainian soldiers fire an artillery shell near Krasnogorovka.”}

I stood there and didn’t dare to raise my camera. Then the colonels there, one military and another from the police came and said, ‘Go ahead and shoot. Let everyone see this horror.’

Sometimes you don’t even think to take pictures and just watch the proceedings. That’s how it was when they brought in the dead bodies from the front line to the morgue in Artyomovsk. The exchange of bodies between sides took place on neutral territory and without any journalists present. The bodies were brought in an armored ambulance. It was an awful spectacle when they began to be removed from the vehicle — they were cold and reminded me of firewood. I stood there and didn’t dare to raise my camera. Then the colonels there, one military and another from the police came and said, “Go ahead and shoot. Let everyone see this horror.” I took a few shots and then the commander of the Pirogov National Guard medical brigade, Igor Ilkiv, arrived. When he saw me, he issued an ultimatum, “Don’t take pictures, these are my men.” There were three medics among the bodies, one of whom I was acquainted with. A soldier came up behind me and said, “No, let him shoot,” but the chief medical officer insisted. A police colonel came up to the car, saw the body of his friend there and began to cry. Igor Ilkiv also was also crying. It was the kind of situation where you didn’t need to shoot the bodies, but rather the surrounding people’s reactions to the proceedings. I was only able to print several shots of bodies in the vehicle, and it worries me that, in our war, a lot hasn’t been captured on film.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/warning-eng.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “”},
{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_12.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “February 21, 2015. Bodies of the dead being transported during the Ukrainian soldiers’ retreat from Debaltsevo, after a special exchange operation in the city of Artyomovsk.”}

What upsets me is the unclear position that the Ministry of Defense takes in the field of information politics. If there are photographers who want to go to the war zone, why don’t they help them agree to something with a commander of one of the military units in order to let them shoot there? I don’t have a problem with censorship, let them look through the photos and say whether it’s ok to print something now or over the course of time. I think that because of the roundabout approach our security forces have towards the media important moments in history have been lost because there isn’t any photographic evidence of them. In DNR, judging by Maksim Avdeyev’s photos, it’s just the opposite: better and more professional relations with journalists are the norm.

Photos of the Vietnam War in some way contributed to its conclusion. Nowadays, these pictures have become commonplace and people are desensitized to these images. In that war, there was no internet and television was not on the same level as it is now where satellites send live footage within seconds. The photograph was one of the main mediums of communication, a visual witness to the proceeding events. I don’t think that there were a lot of photographers during the Vietnam War and the photograph was valuable because of this very reason. These days we have at our disposal on the internet all of the images taken each day, video and photo from different sides of the conflict, taken by professional photographers and participants in the event. The value of the picture has declined and that’s why photography doesn’t have the same influence as it did before. Sometimes it seems like photography is a closed field and that the connoisseurs are the real photographers. However, of course, that doesn’t change its role as evidence.

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_24.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “October 23, 2014. Danilo, a local boy, chats with Officer Askold of the 95th brigade in the village of Peski.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_25.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “June 25, 2014. The 95th brigade in an artillery battle near the village of Krivaya Luka, close to Slavyansk.”}

{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Klimenko_26.jpg”, “alt”: “”, “text”: “July 24, 2014. During the taking of Peski village. A wounded volunteer.”}

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