Despite the Minsk II Peace Accord, the residential areas along the front lines in the Donetsk region are still subject to regular bombardments. Here, the civilian population, with families that are often divided, continues to resist and refuse to leave, in the hope that a solution will be found and finally end the conflict.
Mr. Pion, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a French photographer with more than twenty years of experience around the world. I use light to try and describe moments in the life of humanity.
When did you start taking photographs?
I began taking pictures when I was 15, borrowing my father’s camera to produce my first clichés in black and white. Very soon, I installed a dark room in a cellar of the family home, driven by the desire to see the results of my work as quickly as possible; and fascinated – quite literally – by the “magical” process that is picture development. This passion finally took me, in 1981, to the classrooms of the École Nationale Louis-Lumière in Paris.
Which photographers inspire you?
Rather than quote well-known names, I’d particularly like to underline the exceptional talent of the pioneers of photography, working with technical means that seem obsolete today, but which have, undoubtedly, shaped my way of conceiving an image. I have the feeling that, in the space of 40 years, they already explored virtually everything that the “photographic machine” is able to convey.
The Donbass conflict is a highly complex topic. What gave you the initial idea of portraying the city of Donetsk?
It’s a personal project, without the constraints of editorial control, dealing with a conflict zone, post “great battles”. Virtually no one is interested in it any longer, and yet it’s located at the gateway to Europe. The choice of joining the separatist side in Donetsk is linked to a desire to understand how civilians experience this latent conflict today, in a city that gets very little coverage by Western photographers. The front line on the Ukrainian side gets a lot more attention.
How would you describe the situation in the city?
In February 2015, after long hours of negotiations, the Minsk II Agreement managed to extract a cease fire, to be applied on the 15th of the same month; this agreement specifically included the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line between Ukraine and the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Unfortunately, the reality is very different. In Donetsk, complete neighbourhoods and villages close to the front line (some of them cut in two) are progressively emptying out; producing an exodus towards more “calm” areas, or even abroad. Houses burn, walls crumble, and windows shatter; the last babushkas, and families who refuse to leave their homes, are left alone in the middle of deserted neighbourhoods. Every week brings its toll in burials of innocent civilians; also fighters, who are often very young, having joined the defence forces at an early age. Most of the children who live or have lived close to the front line are traumatised. The disappearance, too soon, of a father; the bombings that still resound in their heads and reawaken their anxieties with each muffled bang. It’s a whole generation who have never known anything but war, and who will need to be dealt with, one day.
The faces I encountered had nothing to do with being “terrorists” – despite the definition still applied by the government in Kiev. Rather, they reflected only dismay, weariness, sadness, fatigue and suffering.
You took lots of intense portraits. How did you establish a connection to your subjects?
During the three weeks I spent on location, I was able to establish quite privileged connections, which allowed me to take part in the daily lives of the local population. The act of taking a photograph lasts a very brief instant, when I try to record what I see. Yet, the most important thing is the time spent getting close to people; the human aspect of the relationship you have to patiently build, which allows you to then work with mutual confidence.
What impression did you get from the people?
The extreme desire to live on their lands in peace…
You covered eleven different places. What criteria did you use to select the locations?
First of all, I wanted to produce a complete theoretical coverage of life there, to then be able to tell a story in an efficient manner. In fact, with hindsight, I realise today that my work is still incomplete, and that I will undoubtedly need to go back. For example, because of time and authorisation issues, I was unable to deal with the life of the miners, who day after day still go down into mines that are located a few hundred metres from the front line.
What do you want to evoke in the viewer?
I want to show that all the people living there, so close to us, are really on the road to oblivion.
Which cameras did you use, and why?
A Leica Q. It’s efficient and discreet, and doesn’t make people afraid when you work up close; and, above all, its ergonomics allow me to act very quickly. All the settings are easy to use. When dealing with this kind of subject, it’s an additional asset that is quite considerable.
What have you learned on this journey? What will definitely remain in your mind?
As with all reportages, you come back a little bit different, imbued with the situation you have lived through. The mind is full of powerful moments that sometimes haunt your nights. I am fully aware of the fact that the work of being a witness is probably a very small thing, when you consider the scope of a difficult humanitarian situation, and the solutions that need to be found to resolve the conflict. Yet, all those who granted me a moment of their lives did so with humility and a shared candour; undoubtedly also, with the hope that this may help them… I hope so!
What was the most challenging, from a photographic point of view?
To not get overwhelmed by events that are at times intense; to remain relatively lucid, so as to be able to realise your photography. Relentlessly responding to the question, “Okay… but what do I want to talk about and how do I want to convey it?” I hope that I have achieved that.
Jacques Pion has frequently been honoured for his work: in 2018 he won the Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia prize, and in 2016 the Prize for Best Photographic Report of the Year at Les Photographies de l’Année France for his fieldwork in Idomeni (Greece). His expressive research extends to metropolitan landscapes, sculpting light and shadow with wisdom and poetry. Pion lives in Milan and is now represented by the Hans Lucas Agency in Paris.