Thomas GirondelBorn in Le Havre, France, 37 years ago, Thomas Girondel is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. His work is distributed by the INSTITUTE agency. Thomas has been traveling since his teens. He studied geography in England, and later worked toward his master’s degree in coastal development and natural risks, first in Nantes, then in Australia.
Born in Le Havre, France, 37 years ago, Thomas Girondel is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. His work is distributed by the INSTITUTE agency. Thomas has been traveling since his teens. He studied geography in England, and later worked toward his master’s degree in coastal development and natural risks, first in Nantes, then in Australia.
At the same time, Thomas discovered photography. He bought his first film camera in 2008 and learned the fundamentals of black and white photography, drawing inspiration from photographers like Anders Petersen, Daidō Moriyama, and Jane Evelyn Atwood. He tried his hand at erotic photography, as well as travel photography during his wanderings. He later discovered the photojournalism of Paolo Pellegrin, James Nachtwey, Ron Haviv, Éric Bouvet, Gilles Caron, and Antoine d’Agata, who have all left their mark on him.
In 2013, while on a temporary assignment with the Ministry of Ecology, Thomas closely observed the incidents that were taking place on the Maidan in Ukraine. He then decided not to renew his contract in 2014 and embark on a trip through Eastern Europe with Kyiv as his final stop. He spent several weeks in Kyiv with his film camera documenting the ordinary lives of Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian young people after the Maidan incidents.
He then decided to go to the separatist stronghold of Donesk to interrogate pro-Russians. There he met European photojournalists and discovered the world of news reporting. On May 25, 2014, after the Ukrainian elections, government forces launched an anti-terrorist operation in Donetsk. Even though he was now in a conflict zone, Thomas pursued his personal project despite the risks involved. Upon his return to France, he became a freelance photojournalist. In 2015, his work on the Ukraine, “Reaching Donetsk”, was exhibited at the international gallery Espace Cosmopolis in Nantes.
Thomas then explored colour digital photography. Over a three-year period, he covered various protest movements in France and Germany. He also produced his first stories dealing with social issues in Kosovo, Poland, Latvia, and the Ukraine. These were to be the subjects of his initial publications.
In 2016, he returned to his roots as a geographer and produced a story for the city of Nantes documenting Seattle’s efforts to combat climate change. His work was exhibited the same year at Climate Chance, the world summit of the non-state climate community.
After completing an internship at the photo desk of the daily Le Monde, he steered away from current affairs to focus on developing his own personal documentaries. In 2018, he began a long-term project dealing with the French island of Yeu. Over a three-year period, he documented the lives of young people and their perception of freedom in a constrained environment. Since then, Thomas has had a particular attraction for island life.
Since 2014, he has returned many times to the Ukraine where he has a strong attachment. He is pursuing his long-term project in which he uses diptychs to show the extent to which Kyiv has evolved since the Maidan incidents.
Thomas has been published in France and internationally, notably by Stern Magazin, The Telegraph Magazine, The Financial Times, the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, the international editions of GEO, GoodWeekend magazine (Australia), DOMUS, De Standaard Magazine, Zeit Leo, Fluter, Woxx, Focus, VICE Media, Rhythms Monthly, the publisher Actes Sud, L’Obs, La Vie, and NEON.
Walking through Maidan Square in 2014, I was at once seized by the atmosphere. The faces of the determined Ukrainian demonstrators bore a mix of pride and sadness. Because the price of their victory against the Yanukovych’s pro-Russian government had been the lives of those who had been shot by the Berkut riot militias and the snipers ambushed in the Ukrayina Hotel.
My first vision of the Maidan was one of a square decked out with European and Ukrainian flags, a site recovering from the riots that was crowded with activists, blocked by countless barricades, marred by anti-Putin graffiti, and strewn with photos of the victims whose blood had spilled on the pavement. Passers-by walking amid the tents set up by the revolutionaries mingled with journalists who had come from all over the world to cover the uprising.
I wanted to immortalize this atmosphere with old-fashioned film photography. I was still only an amateur photographer, but I already knew that I wanted to do my first story in Kyiv and interview the pro-Ukrainian young people I had met near the Maidan. Surprised to be approached by a Frenchman, these young people agreed to speak to me about their daily lives. Alina, Anna, Constantine, Dmytro, Ira, Lisa, Oksana, Olga, Roma, Viktor, and the others were between 20 and 25 years old, distraught by the repression, but proud of having been able to change the course of events and optimistic about a rapprochement with the European Union.
Their hopes would soon be dashed. In the aftermath of what appeared to be a Ukrainian victory, tensions rose, and the incidents in Kyiv finally triggered Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as the conflict in the Donbass that pitted separatists supported by Moscow against the new Kyiv government. A few weeks after documenting these events, I interviewed the pro-Russians in Donetsk where I saw the initial bomb attacks of the war that would lead up to the 2022 invasion.
The years passed, bringing us closer to that outcome, but I had kept in touch with these young people. We had become friends. The Ukraine, from Kyiv to Donetsk, had traumatized me and left me with a deep scar. My friends and I shared this feeling. I was now using a digital camera instead of analog film. I had turned my back on my career in administration to become a photojournalist. On social networks, we shared with each other our daily lives. Roma had left school and had enlisted in the army to avenge those who had killed his father on the Donbass front. His sister Oksana was thinking of fleeing the country. Traumatized by the Maidan uprising, Anna was studying in Dresden, Germany. Dmytro was concentrating on his medical studies in Kyiv, and Lisa was in Canada taking a breath of air.
Independence Square was once again a gathering place when I returned in 2017, but it also served as a base for nationalists who were assembling and raising their troops to taunt Russia. Flowers were always left to honour the dead. In a street that had been renamed, “Lane of the One Hundred Celestial Heroes”, grave markers were now built of marble rather than bricks.
I had the good fortune to see my friends again. After completing his military duty, Roma was working in marketing. Lisa was a graphic designer in Kyiv. My encounter with Ira impressed me the most. In 2014, she had been a student in organic agriculture who would wear a crown of flowers and dress like a young woman of her age. In 2017, returning from Donbass, she wore a military outfit. Obliged to go on a leave of absence to rest, she had one obsession: to return to combat. In the meantime, she was pleading with the Ukrainians to come to their senses and fight the pro-Russians.
In 2018, I returned to the Ukraine. My friends wanted to actively contribute to Ukraine’s future. Constantine ran a successful ecolodge, Olga worked for the United Nations, and Dmytro was now a cardiologist. Ira had returned to Donbass, while Roma, who had enlisted in the army, was headed there. They had all observed the changes the Ukraine had gone through since the Maidan uprising, despite the corruption. The country had acquired a sense of unity and solidarity combined with strong patriotism and cultural pride. The entire nation was ready to fight if Russia ever declared war.
I planned to pursue my project when Olga, then Anna, Oksana and Dmytro called me on 24 February 2022. We were all disturbed by the Russian invasion, but it had not come as a surprise. The shock was even more severe for Anna and Oksana because they now lived in Leipzig, Germany and La Coruña, Spain. Olga, Lisa, and Alina had fled the nation’s capital to settle in the western part of the country. Dmytro decided not to remain at the hospital in Kyiv. Roma and Ira were headed for the front. I have not received any news since we last spoke in March.
I hope to return to Kyiv and other cities in a few months and continue the project that I started in 2014. I had no idea of which direction it would go, or the turn of events. After Maidan, my friends in Kyiv had taken to dreaming. They, like the entire nation, believed that Europe and the world would open up to them and that they would discover new cultures. But since 24 February 2022, they have only dreamed of victory and freedom.
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