Maxim Dondyuk is a Ukrainian freelance documentary photographer. The list of his grants and awards is long but among them are: Magnum Photos competition ‘30 under 30’ for emerging documentary photographers, Finalist of the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, Finalist for the FotoEvidence Book Award,Grand Prix of the “Best Photo of the Year” at the contest “Photographer of the Year”, Shortlist in the Portraiture category of Sony World Photography Awards.
His work is been published at TIME, PDN, Bloomberg Businessweek (USA), Der Spiegel, Rolling Stone, Message (Germany), Paris Match, Libération, Polka, 6Mois, L’insensé, VSD, Europa (France), Journalisten (Denmark), Russian Reporter, Artchronika, Ogonek, Foto&Video, Bolshoj Gorod, Vokrug Sveta (Russia), Zurnalas Foto (Lithuania), Liberali (Georgia), Reporter, Esquire, Forbes, Tyzhden, Focus, KyivWeekly, Korrespondent, VDOH (Ukraine) among others.
After FotoEvidence interviewed Maxim, he was detained by Russian paramilitary nationalists in eastern Ukraine with the “Vice” journalist Simon Ostrovsky. His account is included here as a lead in to our interview with him.
About my arrest in Slovyansk: One day we decided with Simon Ostrovsky, Freddy from Voice, Simon Shuster from Time magazine, and Misha from Itar-Tass to go to Kramatorsk to find so-called “green men,”who were believed to be GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) people or Russian forces. We found them, talked with them, made video and photos.
After that, we were on our way to the hotel, driving, as usual, through some roadblocks in the direction of Slavyansk. At the last roadblock a man came to us, looked into the car, flashed a torch to each face, and after he flashed a torch on Ostrovsky, the man became nervous, told to stay where we were, and went somewhere. He returned with a sheet of a paper with a portrait on it. I clearly saw that it was a portrait of Ostrovsky. The man shouted “It’s him.” Men with submachine guns surrounded us and put their guns to our faces. Panic began.
We couldn’t understood what was going on. We were taken somewhere, threatened, and someone joked that they would kill us right now. We were taken to a park, not far from checkpoint and they began to check our documents, asking who we were. They had a paper that directed them to arrest Ostrovsky on sight. So they took us to a regional office of internal affairs. There I met some people that I already knew and they talked with me normally. We began to believe that they would let us go, even if without our gear, and I tried to arrange with them to leave us. They had already taken Ostrosky somewhere else but they phoned for instructions about us. Then a group of aggressive people with guns arrived and began to shout at us. We were nailed to the wall, they pointed guns at our heads. Someone shouted not to turn our faces to them. They frisked us. Than we were taken to the Security Service of Ukraine.
During the car ride, one of the men aimed his gun at us, removed the safety and joked that if the car hits a bump the gun will go off. It was very funny for him and a driver. In the Security Service of Ukraine bags were place over our heads. Behind me, the whole time, someone joked that he could bury us. They made us say goodbye to our lives. I don’t know how long I stood against the wall with a bag on my head without understanding what would be next. After some time, one man began to confront us with harsh questions. Who are we? Where are we from? What were we doing there? What did we shoot? Answering his questions I lied, telling him that I’m a Russian citizen, that I’m from Moscow, that I was photographing for Russian Reporter. I really was photographing for them that time. The interrogator said that the four of us could go but warned us not to tell about where we were and what happened until Simon Ostrovsky was freed or he would be in big trouble.
They returned all our stuff, our cameras and equipment, and our bags and wallets, everything that they took at the checkpoint. We were warned that they would come back for us if we made a mistake. We really worried that they would come back, or Simon Ostrovsky would tell them something about Freddy or that they will understand that Freddy was his fixer. So we changed the room in a hotel, and stayed all together. And in the morning called a taxi, as soon as curfew ended and left the town (Slovyansk). They didn’t take our material and we didn’t understand why. I think it’s because they even didn’t see what was on our flash-cards because they didn’t know enough to view them.
They catch journalists because they have people who monitor all the social networks and web sites. They prepare a list of journalists that created images, videos and any other material that they don’t like. They believe that the journalists distort the whole situation. So they create a list of journalists or photographers with their portraits and their so-called “violations.” These are distributed to the checkpoints and the journalists are arrested.
I believe the so-called “green men” are usual protesters and militia. They are people with Russian passports but that doesn’t mean that they are from the Russian special forces or GRU. They are people, with guns, bandits, that occupied the city and established their own rules. The Ukrainian media labeled them “elusive avengers” or “green men” and depicted them as GRU or Russian special forces. The people who arrested me were too unprofessional to be trained special forces or intelligence operatives. For example, when they saw a sniper's weapon they looked at it as at a toy which they were seeing for the first time. They showed their faces and passports and talked about themselves. Things the security forces don’t do.