Guillaume Chauvin takes an unexpected approach to wartime photography in Ukraine

In signature documentary style, the French photographer has been capturing the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region.

30 March 2020


Since March 2014, there’s been an ongoing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine. As demonstrations by pro-Russian and anti-government groups commenced in Donetsk and Luhansk – termed Donbass for where the river Donets flows through both divisions – open warfare soon commenced.

After learning about the revolution in Ukraine and the violent aftermath in Donbass, 2014 was also the year that French photographer Guillaume Chauvin set out on a mission: to create an “immersive book about war”, filled with text, colours, “strangeness” and all the obscurities that it brings.

As a result, Guillaume takes observations from his own experiences of living in Russia and comprises them into a collection of impactful photographs. “I wanted to go there and produce something that wouldn't be as partial and caricatural as those that the French media present, reducing to both sides of propaganda,” he tells It’s Nice That.

Driven by the desire to create something that you wouldn't usually find in a photobook, the photographer put himself on the “frontline” in order to envision the reality, which was, of course, much more complex than first anticipated. As a consequence, since 2015 he's been documenting, regularly visiting the region to harness its point of view, like “Jean Vigo, Chris Marker or Werner Herzog,” he says. He also cites writers such as Tim O'Brien, Kent Anderson, Svetlana Aleksievitch or Blaise Cendrars, plus photographers like Viviane Sassen, Pavel Chekmenev, Rob Hornstra or Boris Mikhailov as influences, due to the fact that they “assume their intervention and presence” in photography.

GalleryGuillaume Chauvin: Ukraine

Thus, this series is a blend of “reportage, bizarre, fashion and historic testimony”. Guillaume aims to show the side of war that no one tends to visit or lay witness to in the media – in other words, the hyperbolic or stereotypical representation of warfare – and instead presents “contemporary European war where nobody can have such access, and that no media really talks about because it’s complex, like the Yugoslavian war was, for example.”

A mammoth task, Guillaume needed time to compile his findings. With Spassky Fischer designing the publication, the book and series is still ongoing – “The process is longer than I expected,” says Guillaume, due to the technical and publishing costs. “You need time, personal interest, patience and facilities.”

Personal interest is certainly a quality that Guillaume possesses. Born in 1987, he pursued his studies and graduated as a graphic designer – soon realising that his life was about to equate to an eight-hour stint sat in front of a screen. So, he tried photography – “in order to discover and meet all of the activities that a human being can do across the planet.” Instantly drawn into the process, he began work on personal photography projects and began to collaborate with clients such as the likes of Le Monde, Nike i-D, RSF and L’Obs. As well as institutions for longer pieces as seen in his previous work with Institute Français titled Chauvin in Colombia – a two-month documentation of Colombia.

Although documentary in style, Guillaume describes his work as “ambiguous”. Rather than landing on a particular aesthetic, he tends to adapt to each and every story that he takes on. As for the Donbass project, he explains that despite having thousands of pictures on hard drives, films, in boxes and notebooks, “which are very different between 2015 and 2020”, you can still find the mise en scene in the images. “People are holding my lights, helping me to organise the pictures, and they often look straight into the lens – you will see arranged still lifes.” This falls down to the fact that he likes pictures that make you question whether you can “cry or laugh,” he adds, “if it’s boring or fascinating, beautiful or disgusting.”

An alternative take to your typical war photography, Guillaume’s latest body of work is knowingly observant. “Realism is much more fascinating than fiction,” he says, explaining how he would often make himself known and ask for permission while photographing his subjects – yet other times he will inconspicuously take a shot without lights or a flash. Finally, he concludes with some wise words of Oscar Wilde which is also his creative mantra: “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

GalleryGuillaume Chauvin: Ukraine

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Guillaume Chauvin: Ukraine

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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