Ukraine snaps up old portraits of soldiers on the front line

Although the Graflex is still more suitable for portraits, Gerasymenko managed to capture some war images

Near the battle front in southern Ukraine, photographer Arseniy Gerasymenko pulled a dark cloth over his head and looked into the lens of a vintage camera on a tripod to take a portrait of the standing troops.

Two Ukrainian soldiers waited patiently in front of a Soviet tank as the 35-year-old slipped a book-sized film holder into the back of the device.

He worked the buttons of his Korean War-era Graflex camera to get the right exposure and speed, then went back under the cloth to fire the shutter.

Gerasymenko never thought he would become a war photographer.

But after Russia invaded his country in February of last year, he felt the need to step up the war effort.

“I just had to do something. I can’t shoot with a rifle, but I can take pictures,” said the professional photographer.

Capturing portraits of soldiers can be a bit challenging, but it’s worth it, he said.

“The most interesting part begins when you ask the subject to freeze, because many of the fighters are very restless” and struggle to stay still for a few seconds, he said.

It is crucial “because a millimeter forward or backward and the photograph is lost.”

But most soldiers soon embrace the experience.

“For them it’s a distraction. They get a little break from the stress and everything they have to deal with every day,” he said.

– The second conflict –

AFP first met the photographer near the front line in the southern Kherson region in October, then again last month as he developed some of his images in his darkroom in the capital Kyiv.

His camera, a Graflex Speed ​​​​​​Graphic bought from an American on the internet auction giant eBay, probably already had a conflict covered, he said.

“It was bought by an American journalist in the early 1950s to capture the Korean War,” the seller added.

“After that, it was kept in a basement for about 60 years, so it looks like new.”

US-made Graflex cameras were the cameras of choice for photojournalists and war correspondents for much of the early to mid-twentieth century, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

The US defense ministry even commissioned combat-green versions of the brand for military photographers to use during World War II and the Korean War, when the United States supported South Korea against its northern neighbor, he says.

During the war in Ukraine, Gerasymenko has carried his camera and film holders — about 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of equipment in a backpack — to the battlefield half a dozen times.

He is traveling to Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that has been at the heart of the fighting since last summer.

On its edge, “we were facing quite heavy chips at times. That was the scariest place I’ve ever been,” he said.

– ‘You have one frame’ –

With its slow shutter speed and single-frame slides, Gerasymenko’s camera is better suited for still life portraits than action shots.

“Unfortunately, this old camera can’t shoot 10 or 30 frames per second. You have one click, you have one frame. You can only take one picture in a few minutes,” he said.

But he still managed to capture some images of war.

One he is very proud of shows a soldier standing next to a cannon shooting a large orange fireball away from the camera.

The picture is now hanging on the wall of his house.

“It took me about 15 shots to catch that,” he said.

“It was very difficult, because you have about three hundred seconds to react, to press the button in time.”

Misha, the soldier pictured, was killed in action in March.

“In some way war photographs are a tribute to the bravery of soldiers and volunteers,” he said.

“But for me a photograph is (also) a memory.”

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