Allan Mestel Captures the Cost of War in Ukraine

Arts & Culture

Photo by Allan Mestel.

On February 24, 2022, the Russian army invaded the country of Ukraine. Less than a week later, Sarasota-based photojournalist Allan Mestel was in Medyka, at the largest border crossing between Ukraine and Poland, witnessing the sudden and massive influx of refugees fleeing the invasion, arriving by car, truck, train and by foot. Mestel would travel to Ukraine twice more in the coming years, crisscrossing the wartorn country and photographing bombed-out cities and their remaining defenders, documenting atrocities and even embedding with Ukrainian soldiers as they approached the front line. “I had no idea what to expect,” he says today. “I just felt compelled to see it for myself.” And with his latest exhibition, Portrait Ukraine, Mestel highlights the harrowing reality and the human cost of the war in Ukraine.

Currently on display in the Lexow Gallery of the Unitarian Universalist Church off Fruitville Road, Portrait Ukraine fills the walls with 46 photographs selected from Mestel’s three trips to Ukraine. And in those 46 photographs, Mestel takes viewers from funeral processions in Mykolaiv to shelled houses and cars flattened by tanks in Bucha; from the Battle of Kharkiv, where defiant residents live without power or running water yet refuse to leave their homes, to a sanatorium in Serhiivka, suddenly full of students disfigured in a missile attack while celebrating graduation. On one wall, a three-man team of Ukrainian soldiers launches armed drones against the enemy, while still others pose with fearsome machine guns. On another, refugees sleep on the ground and a Ukrainian cemetery overflows with fresh flowers.

As a photojournalist focusing on human rights issues, Mestel is no stranger to witnessing such scenes of conflict or hardship. He’s seen migrant shelters in Mexico and razor wire strung across riverbeds at the Rio Grande. He’s documented civil rights protests and counterprotests throughout the US. He was in Uvalde, TX, the day after the massacre. And through it all, he has maintained a certain professional detachment that allows him to function. “I have the capacity to put my own emotions on hold while I’m working,” he says. “I don’t process it emotionally until I get back.” But in the Ukrainian city of Izium, this emotional detachment would ultimately fail.

Mestel met the firefighter at a roadside coffee stand and arranged to photograph the firehouse. Only after, did the man say he had something else to show him. Mestel agreed to follow in his car. They drove to a dirt road off the main highway, down into the forest with nothing around. “And all of a sudden,” Mestel says, “this clearing opened up and there were hundreds of open graves.” In the early hours of the war, they would tell him, 439 Ukrainians had been marched into the forest and executed by Russian soldiers before being dumped in mass and unmarked graves. “You don’t have a wide enough lens to capture being amidst that many open graves,” Mestel says. “I still have trouble articulating what I felt. I can’t understand it.” Half were still unidentified, marked only by a small wooden cross. And a number.

Undeterred, Mestel is today prepping his fourth trip to Ukraine, scheduled for early May, where he’ll be partnering with a pair of aid organizations who hope to use his photographs as part of a larger effort. “My hope is to stir people into action,” he says. “That’s all I can hope for.”

Currently on display in the Lexow Gallery of the Unitarian Universalist Church, Portrait Ukraine runs through April 18.

Photo by Allan Mestel.

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