Experience

Maksim Dondyuk: “Photography To Me Is Like a Diary: Snap It and Move On”

Ukrainian photographer Maksim Dondyuk talks about why he doesn't shoot in black & white, doesn't work with film and can't stand criticism.

This year, Maksim Dondyuk’s photo series about the Maidan events received the prestigious Rémi Ochlik Award and is now on display at the largest photojournalism festival, Visa pour l’Image, which takes place in Perpignan. In the past, Dondyuk rose to fame because of his other project dedicated to the tuberculosis pandemic that he worked on for two years. Bird In Flight spoke to Maksim about why budding photographers shouldn’t strive for quick recognition, why professional fanaticism is detrimental, and who would be better off staying away from documentary journalism.

Maksim Dondyuk, age 31

Born in Polyan’, Khmelnitsky region, raised in New Kahovka. After serving in the military he graduated the State University of Trade and Nutrition in Kharkov. During his gig as a chef, he started taking interest in photography and soon became professionally involved in it. Partnered with photo agencies PHL (Ukraine), European Pressphoto Agency (Germany), Focus Picture (Russia), Metaphor Images (Australia), Ask Images (France). As of 2010 he works independently.

Unlike those competitions where you submit your works and pay entry fees, the Rémi Ochlik Prize is an award that other photographers and photo editors nominate you for. You might not even be aware of the fact. During closed voting the jurors decide who out of the suggested candidates in their opinion have accomplished something extraordinary in the field of documentary photojournalism. My Maidan project was nominated by photo editor Paris Match. My win in this competition was totally unexpected.

At this point of my life the Rémi Ochlik Prize is highly important to me. All previous triumphs served as gradual building blocks, and without them this last one would hardly be possible. Regardless of how good my photographs might be, I wouldn’t be nominated if people didn’t know about me. What often happens to creative individuals is that they wait for someone to show up and announce: “Aren’t you a genius!”. In actuality you need to learn the skill of self-presentation.

About getting into photography

I started doing photography after my third try. When I was a boy I’d been given a “Smena”. My Mom was an avid photographer who taught me film developing. It didn’t go any further than that as we had a shortage of film at the time and it just didn’t stick with me. When I turned twelve my friend’s Dad started teaching an after-school photography class. We began shooting, processing. Everything was on the technical level, no artistry involved. Then cheap single-use cameras came out, printing services became popular, and the class got cancelled. I went on to serve in the navy. Later I moved to Kharkov and got a job as a chef. A week at the kitchen, a week at home. Decided that I needed a hobby and Photoshop stirred my curiosity. Bought a thick manual, started doing retouching of the old damaged photographs from my Mom’s collection. Eventually I came to realize that I need to be editing my own pictures so I purchased a camera.

In 2006 I began shooting spheric panoramas. At the time there were only three or four of us doing this in Ukraine. I got a camera, Nikon D70, and earned my first few bucks photographing. Some time later I was introduced to photographer Sergey Kozlov who took me on a reporting mission. I liked it. Afterwards I began working pro bono for an agency. I kept my night job as a chef while during the day I would always be heading out to see some house fires etc.


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About your calling

Do not take photographs too seriously. Do not get upset when something isn’t working out. Do not crawl out of your skin to have your photos published. Take on projects after you advance to a serious level. Only now did I reach the point of opening an exhibition, producing a book, however quite often that’s what many photographers start out with.

Those who want to do photography for living need to choose a commercial direction: advertisements, weddings, something else. If one wants to enter the field of documentary photography they need to make it their drug. They shouldn’t wait for someone to pay them to go to a danger zone, they should finance it on their own. They need to understand that expositions are not a self-goal but the side effect of success.

When photography becomes integral part of your life, when you get fanatical about it then you stop treating it as a job. During Lumex-fest I was checking out portfolios of young photographers. One guy used to shoot incredibly well before college, yet five years into the study he was shooting ten times worse – too much thinking about composition, about what format was needed for a magazine…but in the past he used to take some impressive, mind-blowing shots. He and I spoke about it and he agreed.

About personal goals and motivations

I believe in no God, or anything else for that matter. Photography is my philosophy. It’s my tool of universal discovery that I use to understand what’s important and what’s not, what’s good and what’s bad. Through my own experience and through my interaction with others. My occupation allows me to take on roles of a surgeon, a soldier, a pilot, of anyone really. I can turn into a TB patient for a year, live his life and go back to my own with his experience. Such experience is highly meaningful.

I try to invest my emotions into photographs. I firmly believe that a photo is not just a technical image but a capsule which contains my own sentiments.

Frequently a photographer attempts to contemplate, constructing a frame, a composition – and lets the emotions slip by! As a result he ends up with a beautiful, balanced, and completely dead picture.

My photograph is purposely void of the authorial intent. Its perception level is what’s truly important. We all can see the image where riot police “Berkut” fights the protesters. That’s the initial stage. The next stage is the subconscious one which is connected to your own experience, to your inner world, – that’s when you can either perceive the image as a drawing or some iconic representation, or as a dream of yours. Then it affects you in a different, much deeper way.

At some point I decided I didn’t like photography at all. Out of boredom I went to Crimea and started shooting a movie there. It made me realize that film can tell a better story. Then I went back to photography and during Maidan I already had the complete understanding of the difference between a story, a journalistic tale, and the static images. Those are emotional. I encountered some insane scenes while at Maidan. And I tried to capture them in such a way so that they would be impacting others not just today but in 50 years too.

About visual language and awareness

Many young authors have a concept, an idea, a text, and the characters. They have everything but the visual language. Because they are utterly lacking understanding of what visual communication with a viewer actually means. I have a theory that photography is a container where you store your emotions. When you feel, agonize, and come into close contact with what’s happening – you simply can not produce unemotional photography. On the other hand, if you are standing around thinking that your deadline is coming up in 20 minutes and that you need to take a photograph which would make it into an Associated Press report, then you will never capture feelings.

Visual awareness is when you take photos of some expert, let’s say, James Nachtwey, or endlessly browse through thousands of images in the Magnum Agency archive, and then for a month try to replicate them in each reportage, like a monkey. When you end up copying a hundred authors you’ll have bits and pieces of each in your photographs – and that’ll be your style. This insight is vital for visual composition, and the next level will be incorporation of the emotional element, when you are implementing a Hemingway story, poems, music into your photography. This will be your art composed out of particles of everything. When you reach this level you’ll start practicing creative thinking instead of copying others.

It’s essential to learn the way to correctly convey what you see and what touches you. A photographer often attempts to contemplate, constructing a frame, a composition – all while missing the emotions! As a result he ends up with a beautiful, balanced, and completely dead picture.

When I see what I want to shoot I pick up my camera right away and start shooting. Since I only have one set of lens I know the frame’s limits and don’t aim. When you begin measuring how to shoot, whether to stand or to kneel, or to lie down, messing with focus and mode… you loose track of what it is that you’ve been photographing. I do it differently: snap and move on. Photography is like Twitter to me.

About idols and sources of inspiration

Many photographers pick two or three role models and start replicating them. Why not expand the circle of idols to at least a dozen? If I like a certain author I’ll try to analyze his thought process, why he was thinking this way and not the other. I’ll read all his interviews, watch every movie, go through each and every photo, find out where he lived and whether he had a mistress – I’d be interested in every detail about him.

While shooting the tuberculosis asylum project, I became very inspired by Hunter Thompson. I got fully immersed into the history and started thinking of myself as “Gonzo”. I even tried taking photos with me in the stills – drinking vodka or playing card games with the patients.

James Nachtwey influenced me greatly as well, I worship him. His shoots are inhumanely demanding. I only shot the TB ward – and he’s made many of similar series. I understand how psychologically difficult it can get to unconditionally submerge yourself into each project.

I like Hemingway. His books generate more ideas for photographs than works of any famous photographer. I have a dream to shoot a story about fishermen only because I read his book “The Old Man and the Sea”.

While shooting the tuberculosis asylum project, I became very inspired by Hunter Thompson. I got fully immersed into the history and started thinking of myself as “Gonzo”. I even tried taking photos with me in the stills – drinking vodka or playing card games with the patients.


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In the field of black & white photography my role model is Sebastiao Salgado. When it comes to color, I like Georgiy Pinkhasov. But only the way he works with color. There is plenty of imagery in his photography, yet it seems too drug-induced and overly visually aesthetical. It’s cool but what truly matters to me is factuality. Horst worked correctly with color.

When I started working with colors I was advised as a novice not to use more than three at a time in order to avoid mush. With a photo editing software you need to wash out a photograph down to the color spots. If you like the result then the color composition is correct. If the colors are not working well together you need to make corrections. In time you train yourself to increase the number of colors on a photograph up to ten and make each work well with others.

On equipment and choosing between film and digital

I shoot everything with one lens – 35 mm. I also have a “fifty”, but only use it in two instances: when I need to shoot a portrait for “Spiegel” or when my 33 mm isn’t in working condition. I’m tired of fixing it and finally taped it together with some Scotch.

Digital is still young and gets frequently misinterpreted. What’s important is not what you shoot with but the end result. I like film, yet it’s pricy and unpractical. I can make a RAW file look like a film still. Therefore I do not see advantages in film, it’s pure aestheticism.

I couldn’t care less what to shoot with. Pretty soon everybody will be shooting with iPhones. Older photographers don’t like digital because equipment is now affordable and there are crowds of people who fancy themselves photographers, and because of the visual noise that they create it’s allegedly harder to channel attention to good pictures. And many of them dislike digit because they don’t know how to edit a digital file so it could look like film photography.

I didn’t have photo editing lessons. I learned through visual cognizance: by looking at numerous color prints in order to understand which ones showed the sky coloring better. Take any film photography, put it in front of your face and keep editing the blue on the digital shot until it turns the shade off the print. At some point you’ll begin sensing color.


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About mentors, a personal journey and recognition

I would advise budding photographers to self-evaluate and not listen to their colleagues. Because all photographers are competitors. Only a virtuoso, a highly accomplished individual can give you a truly valuable advice. With that said, some mentors try molding you into something that they couldn’t become. And when you choose another, unfamiliar to them path they stop understanding you.

Photographer Platon who took the infamous portrait of Vladimir Putin with his wide-angle lens for Time Magazine recalls in his interviews: for twenty years he’d been told that it was the wrong way to shoot, that a wide-angled image shot from below is defective. He didn’t deviate and kept on shooting the same way, he was fired. And now it became classical. If you’re the only person who thinks it’s the correct way while everyone else disagrees with you, then perhaps you are a genius.

When you strive to achieve something for a while, you’ll inevitably encounter the moment of despair when you start thinking that your goal is unattainable and all the rest were correct trying to talk you out of it.

The project about life of the tuberculosis victims was integral part of my life. I couldn’t go out to have a beer with friends in the evening because all my friends, all people within my social circle
were the hospice patients. I’d gone into debt, lost my family, many of my loved ones didn’t want to keep in touch. They didn’t understand why it was so important to me. I lived with the ill folks, kept a blog where I posted my pictures, but over the course of the year no publishers took interest in those, even though I was offering it free of charge. When I talk about it at my lectures in Europe, students get puzzled. Because they wouldn’t start doing anything without a payment. They are taught this in college: first you receive a grant, then an order, and only then you begin shooting. And it certainly makes sense. You need to have a clear understanding of what to expect. I, on the other hand, have been swimming upstream.

Nothing is worse than all-surrounding praise. I don’t want to be liked by every person. When it comes to creating it’s crucial not to get reduced to kitsch. It’s okay to be told: “Your shooting sucks”. I heard it many a time while photographing the TB patients! At first no one even thought that anything would come out of it.

Persistence is vital. When you strive to achieve something for a while, you’ll inevitably encounter a moment of despair when you start thinking that your goal is unattainable, and all the rest were correct trying to talk you out of it. But the truth is, it’s just life throwing you a curveball. If you stay the course and don’t get sidetracked – a new door will open for you soon. Patience is a great virtue.

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