Editor’s note: This story includes descriptions of rape and sexual assault.
You might remember Mark Neville — the British ex-pat who moved to Ukraine shortly after the 2014 war in Crimea. He says he fell in love with the country, as well as the Ukrainian woman he would soon marry. Since then, he’s used his camera lens to document the lives of Ukrainians, including some of the 2.5 million people displaced by the earlier war.
It was his fear of new war that inspired his first book, “Stop Tanks with Books,” a stunning collection of photographs of Ukrainians. He sent the volume to 750 world leaders, hoping to bring attention to the region and just maybe prevent a new war.
Ironically, the book was released just as the new Russian incursion into Ukraine began. A week later, Neville and his wife Lukeriia were forced to flee their home in Kyiv, joining a million others as refugees first in Poland and then in western Europe. But the pull of Ukraine, his adopted home, was too strong and Neville returned to Kyiv, eventually convincing his wife to join him.
It was during his early days back — when the city was still surrounded by Russian troops on three sides — that Neville was contacted by an art collector who’d received a copy of his book.
“He reached out and said, ‘What can I do to help?’” Neville says.
Neville replied that people were in “desperate need” of humanitarian aid and that he wanted to help, he says.
“I don’t feel it’s enough to take photographs,” Neville told the art collector. “I have to say that up until that moment, I believed that art could change the world, that what I was doing had real social function and real purpose.”
“And I think it does,” he continued. “But in the face of people being bombed and killed and shelled, I need to do more.”
That’s when Neville says he proposed a charity that would be “a kind of fusion” between humanitarian aid and documentary. The result is Postcode Ukraine, which Neville co-founded with Ukrainian writer Tanya Logacheva.
Funded primarily by the donor who approached Neville, Postcode Ukraine visits the hardest-hit areas of the country, providing funding to grassroots charities doing the best work in each region. Through Postcode, he says he’s already distributed about $100,000 dollars in aid.
Among the groups he’s most recently funded are charities helping evacuate areas with active bombing, providing heaters for people who are homeless — he adds that he fears escalating numbers of people will freeze to death in coming months — and providing iPads for children whose schools have been decimated.
In each of these areas, Neville documents what he’s seen.
“It’s absolutely shocking as we travel around Ukraine. We see that schools have been deliberately targeted: Schools, museums and kindergartens,” he says. “It really hits you that this is a genocide. The aim of the Kremlin is to wipe out the Ukrainian nation.”
Neville says that he’ll often go to a small village and find young people sitting outside in a field at a time when they should be in school. “But there’s no school left,” he says.
The enormity of the war hits him too as he discusses his book “Stop Tanks with Books” and recognizes that, in some ways, it has become a memorial: Many of the subjects he featured and befriended have been killed in the war.
“The sad thing about photography is that it captures things that are changing,” he says. “Buildings get torn down and people get killed in wars.”
He describes one man he “became very fond of” — a goat farmer name Alexander. Neville describes the man as remarkable and strong, able to operate his goat farm despite having only one leg.
Alexander was shot by Russian soldiers recently as he sat in his wheelchair, Neville says.
“I can’t understand it. I can’t understand why he needed to die,” Neville says. “I have no words for it, really.”
That sense of surrealness, he says, inspires his most recent photos. These include a defiant-looking boy in a school uniform standing in the rubble of his school and a young woman — her blond hair cropped short — dressed in white, standing in front of a burnt-out tank on a Kyiv boulevard. Both photos, shot in black and white, are infused with light.
“What I try to do with the light, particularly with the new images — most of which are shot in black and white — is really focus on the surreal, and that’s my feeling of the war,” he says. “It’s so surreal.”
Neville hopes that people who engage with his photos and see the humanity in them will be inspired not only to donate to his charity, but also to find other ways of opposing the war.
As his country struggles with the trauma of war, Neville admits there are images and people, who will stay with him as well. Among them are children who posed for him in a bombed bus in Bohdanivka.
Neville says he asked the kids what they’d like him to photograph next and they answered that they’d like him to come back when their school has been rebuilt and “photograph that, please.”
“That completely reduced me to tears,” he says.
Neville also describes a mother and daughter — Nina and Masha — who run a farm outside Kyiv. Masha, Neville says, cut all her hair off in the first days of the war after her mother told her that she might be raped by Russian soldiers.
“She did everything to diminish that possibility,” he says, adding that he’s moved by people’s incredible strength and “refusal to give in.”
To donate to Postcode Ukraine or for more information, email [email protected]
Karyn Miller Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Miller Medzon also adapted it for the web.