Ukraine 2023

A Sarasota Photojournalist's Latest Images From Ukraine Depict Both Devastation and Resilience

Allan Mestel has traveled to Ukraine repeatedly since last year's Russian invasion. In a new interview, he discusses his most recent photographs.

By Kim Doleatto September 29, 2023

Igor stands in front of his hotel in central Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Guests still stay in the rooms that weren't demolished.

Image: Allan Mestel

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine has been at the center of a geopolitical struggle, and its people are caught in the crossfire. The conflict has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, the displacement of millions of families and the destruction of homes and infrastructure. But, according to Sarasota photojournalist Allan Mestel, even in the face of devastation, the people of Ukraine refuse to despair.

A woman holds the Ukrainian flag in a small town outside Mykolaiv, where mourners lined the street for a funeral procession for a local Ukrainian soldier killed in action.

Image: Allan Mestel

Mestel visited the border of Poland and Ukraine in early March of last year to photograph the region's mass displacement and refugee crisis, then journeyed to southern Ukraine in July 2022 to document the ongoing Russian attacks. During his most recent trip to the warzone, earlier this month, he donned a helmet and a ballistic vest marked “Press” with a tourniquet stuffed inside one of its pockets, and traveled through Ukraine’s “Red Zone,” close to the Russian border and frontlines. He says the sound of artillery was constant, and that what differnetiated this year's trip from others was the pervasive sense of loss he encountered.

“At this point, nobody is unaffected,” Mestel says. “Everybody I talked to has had someone killed. Everyone is mourning someone and collectively mourning the country."

A young boy is among the visitors of the Wall of Heroes, where fallen Ukrainian soldiers are honored in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Image: Allan Mestel

"In Chasiv Yar [in eastern Ukraine], there's not a single building that hasn't been hit," he says. "The population has an elderly group refusing to leave and they’re living in shelters supplied by army and civilian aid groups."

In Kramatorsk, Ukraine, the building this woman lived in was targeted by rocket fire.

Image: Allan Mestel

But Mestel says what remains the same is the Ukrainian people's resilience. "The three predominant emotions I encountered were grief, anger and resolve," he says. "When you ask how this will end, they say, 'We’ll push them out and Ukraine will continue free from Russian rule.'”

Slava at his former high school in Kharkiv.

Image: Allan Mestel

“Their resilience is superhuman,” Mestel says. "They’re very creative and rely on non-traditional strategies with small tactical groups.” 

A Ukrainian drone soldier.

Image: Allan Mestel

Many in the country have banded together to form organizations to help other Ukrainians, like Lana Liland (pictured below). She originally moved to the country from Canada to pursue a career in dance, but after the war started, she founded Ukranian Patriot, an organization that delivers supplies to shelters. 

Lana Niland in Chasiv Yar, near the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. 

Image: Allan Mestel

Some (like the woman below) are rescuing abandoned pets, including cats, dogs and fish.

Animal Rescue Kharkiv has rescued more than 11,000 abandoned pets from the combat zone.

Image: Allan Mestel

"The residents who can't or won't leave are living in the few shelters reliant on the military and private aid organizations for the means to survive," Mestel says. 

Outside a shelter in Chasiv Yar, a few kilometers from Bakhmut, Ukraine. 

Image: Allan Mestel

A horse farm outside Kramatorsk introduces horses to soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

Image: Allan Mestel

In late February of 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the regions in east Ukraine—the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic—as independent states, telling the world they were no longer part of Ukraine. Days later, he ordered troops into the two regions in what he said was an attempt to maintain peace. (For more background on the war and the two countries' histories, click here.)

A rescue fireman in Izium, Ukraine.

Image: Allan Mestel

“The sense of betrayal toward Russians is palpable," Mestel says. "Any public monument that references Russia as an ally is being destroyed or renamed.” 

The Friendship Arch in Kyiv (pictured below) was built in 1982 to symbolize the friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. In 2019, an activist painted a crack in the span. On May 14, 2022, it was renamed the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People and will eventually be painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

The Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People.

Image: Allan Mestel

Amid the destruction and loss, Mestel says many people spontaneously expressed appreciation for American support. “It would be beyond shameful to turn our back on this young country that was relatively unknown, yet was thriving before the attacks,” he says.

To hear from local Ukrainians about the war, click here and here. To donate to Ukrainians in Ukraine, click here.

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