“War shatters everything. Every aspect of life.” A poignant reflection on hope and beauty found – and lost – in Ukraine

British photographer Marc Wilson's personal links to Ukraine are threaded deep with ancestry, marriage and family. His images reveal the fragile beauty of a proud country now being destroyed at shocking speed.

By Marc Wilson
Published 12 Apr 2022, 14:22 BST
Remains of a wedding, Kyiv Oblast, September 2020.

Remains of a wedding, Kyiv Oblast, September 2020.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

OUR DAY STARTS AT 6AM. Our baby's early morning feed, and my wife checks her phone for a reply from her father. Each evening she sends him a message with photos of our day. Each morning he tries to charge his phone from his car.

His village has been without electricity now for 28 days. The food shops are destroyed. They have shared provisions between friends. Medicine for his 95 year old mother is running out. The area is held by the invading Russians. Shells are falling on the village. Shrapnel lies on the garden next door.

Some mornings, a reply. Others we just know he has read the message. Other mornings, nothing – and all that brings. (Related: the end of the Afghanistan I knew.)

Poltava Oblast, August 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Icehole fishing, Ukrainka, Kyiv Oblast. February 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Train cabin, Berehove to Kyiv, April 2020.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Kyiv, January 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

In December 2018, I arrived in Ukraine for the first time. Without knowing it, I was returning to the land of my great grandparents. 5 days later, I was in love.

I made trips to the cities, Karkhiv in the East, Kyiv and Odesa in the south and Lviv in the West. Each city is a place of beauty to rival any of the capitals of Europe: Paris, Prague, Berlin. Travelling across the country in our old Renault Twingo and by train, it was a life of family and friends. Coffee in Kyiv, swimming in the river in the village of grandparents, growing and picking vegetables from the gardens, making photographs. Every trip I made, I felt the people of this country seeping into me. 

Kyiv Oblast, July 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Lviv, December 2018.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Lviv, December 2018.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Poltava Oblast, August 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

We'd share pancakes, shuba salad, cinnamon buns, roasted duck and vodka with my wife’s childhood friends in the village. A life both simple and everyday, just like mine and yours, but hugely complicated by history also.

Ukraine was a country which I sensed, from an outsiders perspective, was coming to terms with itself. Forging its own, new future based on 30 years of independence. This was felt even more in the 8 years since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, where my new-found friends demonstrated, fought and died for their freedoms. But here also was a country not ignoring its past. Not trying to hide or cover up events of the last 100 years. 

Poltava Oblast, August 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Kyiv, January 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Poltava Oblast, August 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Nearly 3 years after my first trip on that cold snowy December, we celebrated our wedding in our garden in Kyiv. Surrounded by friends and family, I broke bread and drank wine from a shoe, danced with my wife and our nieces. We sat in the warm evening, our garden like a fairytale created by our set designer friend. We discussed life, music, photography, family, culture. We spoke of our hopes and dreams. 

“Every trip I made, I felt the people of this country seeping into me. ”

Poltava Oblast, August 2020.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Poltava Oblast, August 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

Kyiv Oblast, February 2021.

Photograph by Marc Wilson

WAR. It shatters everything. Every aspect of life. The suburb of Kyiv where we married, bombed. The village we lived in and celebrated in our garden, bombed. Cities and villages throughout the country, shattered. Family cut off. Houses gone. Friends we swam with in lakes and rivers, now being armed to defend their land. 

(Related: Spain to Ukraine, a caravan of solidarity crosses Europe.)

(Read: ‘Half my heart I left behind.’ Ukraine's refugees share their stories.)

Families torn apart. Some are now safe, but no longer in the county where their lives are.
Businesses stopped. Income gone. Friends forced to separate at the border – husbands staying as they must, wives, children, fleeing through Europe, searching for a place to call home, to sleep, to eat, to go to school until they can return. 

Our family is split. Each day brings small moments of calm for some. And anguish for others. 

Marc Wilson is a British photographer. His books The Last Stand and A Wounded Landscape consider the legacy of war amongst the people and across the landscapes of Europe. Visit his website, or read more of his work featured by National Geographic (UK) here

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