Yulia Kochetova is a documentarian and photographer. She speaks about the relevance of premonition, the impact of war on people’s capacity to sense emotions, and her own attitude towards death.
First days of the war - thoughts, experiences, actions
On February 24, Yulia woke up in the Donetsk region, although it was her phone that first came out of sleep mode. At 6:30 am Yulia heard a whole avalanche of messages and missed calls. She’d never heard any of the explosions, because this was not her first journey to the frontline, and she has already got used to sleeping there. She took the camera that was lying at her bedside.
Her colleague and friend Dmytro rushed into the room. They hugged and decided that life needed to go on, even under those circumstances.
“We’re living in a moment of history, you know,” said Yulia as they both got into the car.
On the road, she took a selfie and posted it on her Instagram page with the hashtag #Ukraine and captioned it, “Look, world. For eight years, you have been ignoring the war in the Donbas. You’ve called it a crisis or a conflict, you were all deeply concerned while feeding the monster. Russia has dared to launch a second, big and violent offensive upon Ukraine because the outside world remained indulgent – yet monsters do not forgive indulgence. Silence always kills.”
Very quickly, her post got 30,000 likes and reached about four million people. Thousands began to subscribe to Yulia. She switched her phone off and started to film – first in Kramatorsk, where Yulia had stopped to tell Der Spiegel about the evacuation trains. Her decision to keep working was well-balanced, and thought out in advance.
“My work is an integral part of my life,” Yulia explains. “I just do what I have to do.”
Yet a few days before, she had been drinking coffee with her friend and crying. She was preparing to go to the frontline and had a premonition that something awful was going to happen. Such a feeling had never portended anything good, since war, like the mountains, does not forgive uncertainty, audacity, or bad equipment.
Yulia has long learnt to trust her premonitions. At the age of seventeen, she participated in a photo club. Even then, Yulia knew that one day she would have to document war, although she had never had the intention of becoming a war photojournalist. Still, it was then, in 2014, when she began to shoot because that was something she could do with great effectiveness. During the Revolution of Dignity, Yulia admitted with all honesty that she didn’t have the necessary skills to provide medical aid. The same happened at the beginning of the full-scale invasion: despite knowing how to shoot, Yulia had to acknowledge that she would not have been useful in the military.
“Documentary cinema is my bid for eternity,” she says. “We are all just passing strangers here, so if you want to become a part of history, you must be efficient. It’s not so necessary to fight on the battlefield to help history unfold in our favor.”
She points out that injuries or death of the people closest to her would be the only factor which could make her change her decision.
Yulia’s ex-partner taught her how to calculate the worst scenarios, so that she could accept any other course of events with relief.
“I keep thinking of what might happen if we were all wiped out physically,” Yulia shares. “It’s a cool meditative practice. Acceptance contributes to being calm about the fact that we are living in a time of war, and there’s no telling when it is going to end, or whether we will be able to survive it.”
Public reflection on death, as for Yulia, is an important and healthy issue, because suppressing it may lead to mental disorders and suicide. The present-day level of violence must be talked out. The war has simplified Yulia’s perception of death, as this is a circumstance which no-one can ever alter.
The period of the Revolution of Dignity was when Yulia saw violent death for the very first time. Gradually, the level of violence increased. Yulia was there, hiding behind her camera, on the night when the students on the Maidan were beaten up. She filmed the death of Serhii Nigoyan and then went to take her exams at the Institute of Journalism. She was there on Instytutska street during the massacre, when dozens of dead bodies were lying all around. And then came the war, and that wasn’t very romantic either.
Today, Yulia sees many people who come to Ukraine to document violence for the first time in their lives – and they often romanticize their profession. Others count this war as the tenth (or even more) they have already seen. The war in Ukraine is easily accessible: to get there, you just have to fly to Warsaw and take a train to Lviv or Kyiv. Thus, Yulia has been encountering freelancers with cheap equipment, who come to capitalize on people’s suffering, or professionals who’ve seen already so many wars that their empathy has become tragically numbed. In the end, they all go on the press tours of Bucha and film the same dead body.
“I wish that they were more empathetic,” says Yulia. “It’s frustrating to see that your country, its blood and history, might be just a way to earn money for somebody. Filming the war in your country, writing and speaking about the war in your country, is a very personal issue. And I keep asking myself whether it makes me stronger or weaker in my profession. As soon as you know the language and the local context, it pains you more than any outsiders. I would love to feel tired and take a break now, but we in Ukraine cannot afford such a luxury. It’s our war, and we must do our job.”
Since February 24, Yulia has been working in the Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions. Once, as her crew came under shelling, and they were hiding in a basement, a piece of the ceiling hit Yulia on the face. At that moment she could only think how cool the life she was going to leave behind had been, with nothing to regret, with all its precious people, worthwhile parties and romances. It was then when she calmed down.
Julia doesn’t just care about the appearance of Ukrainian cities: it’s the look of the locals and her own look that’s the most important for her. Every Ukrainian has something in their vision that will never change. It’s like the ‘fade’ function in photo processing, when you pull the knob and the picture loses its brightness. Everyone in Ukraine has faded now. There’s no cosmetic remedy for that.
“We’ve crossed the point of no return,” says Yulia. “I observe the change when I see myself in the mirror each morning. I’m not that nice and pretty woman anymore. We are becoming calmer, more even-tempered and severe, but alongside this, we are fading out. I am afraid of fading out to the point that I won’t be able to create anything from then on. I am afraid of becoming so traumatized by all these stories that I will lose my talent of making light and intimate portraits. As a highly sensitive person, I find salvation in the flexibility of my psyche, but this also means that I go dim way too fast. But still, I deliberately tell myself every morning, ‘Hello, Yulia. Come on, let’s go.’”
Whenever Yulia needs a break, the people closest to her will tell her so. She is convinced that everyone must enjoy some respite occasionally. Even servicemen have rotations during wartime. No one should work permanently in conditions of high risk and danger.
Despite that risk and danger, Yulia is only afraid of not knowing what’s next. This feeling has been familiar to her since the times of the Revolution of Dignity. One day, as the Trade Unions Building was on fire, she got to its seventh floor with her colleague and saw that the city center had become a battlefield. It was then when she realized that tomorrow may not come. This sense of uncertainty has been persecuting her ever since. Yulia is still afraid now, not of what’s going on, but of what’s going to happen next.
Nevertheless, the warm and powerful feeling of overall unity is very inspiring.
“We do not romanticize war, which is always about violence and destruction,” says Yulia. “Yet it has its own nuances. Apart from refugees, bombardments, the shelled cities, the wounded and the deed, we are contemplating the most powerful and beautiful story of the people’s unity.
You’re just standing for good with others in limbo. We Ukrainians are the real warriors of light. This is our firmware. We could hardly explain it to strangers, or those who have not experienced that themselves. We are paying an enormously big price for it – not in figures, but in the names of our beloved people who keep dying in the war for our unity . And I hope it will not be wasted in the future, when we have to build a new country and a new civilization.”
Meanwhile, Yulia is now able to read, for the first time in the months of the full-scale war. She is reading a book about evil in art and literature, which a friend gave her as a present. It’s important for her to reflect upon what’s happening to herself and her country. As a film director, Yulia must think globally and explore evil. She believes that good will surely prevail, and she keeps working on it.