Despite the country receiving 77 million USD from the World Bank, treatment facilities are in dreadfully poor condition and effective medication is still too expensive for many TB sufferers. This often leads to inconsistent treatment, which in turn leads to many patients developing drug-resistant TB that is even harder to cure.
Dondyuk adds, “Hospitals are in a terrible state and they keep on doctors who are long overdue to retire. Patients with drug-resistant TB have to use public transport to receive medical supplies and food, and those without money just die in their beds. In the midst of current political wars in Ukraine, everybody is indifferent to the problem of tuberculosis.”
Generating awareness plays a key role both in preventing the spread of the disease and in the fund raising needed for treatment. Dondyuk is dedicated to doing exactly this. He explains, “Society nowadays is very hard-hearted and I am forced to show tough images to make people really aware of this problem. My intention is to highlight this issue outside of Ukraine. I became the eyes of several charitable organisations, who use my photos and multimedia to raise funds to help hospitals and patients.”
He adds, “I’ve also organised photo-exhibitions in Ukraine, Russia and other countries. I managed to collect a certain sum for treatment per patient with the help of donations from people who saw my pictures.
My desire is that, after seeing my images, people are unable to think about anything else, that they can’t even sleep at night and, even to make them weep. If they don't think about it afterwards, my work is in vain.”
Having witnessed death, disease, grief and poverty first hand, Dondyuk’s experiences have changed his life irreparably...
“I quit my job, my girlfriend left me. I had to choose whether I should rebuild my personal life or continue working on the project. I chose the latter. It engulfed me and became part of my life.”
He goes on to tell of his first encounter with a subject of his photography.
“In December 2010, I went to the Donbass region in Ukraine. I was greatly influenced by what I saw on the first day. One of the first patients I photographed was suffering from gastrointestinal tuberculosis. He was lying naked on a hospital bed and staring at the ceiling.
A week later I was with him in the last hours of his life. He couldn’t move or talk, his body was like a skeleton covered with skin. He clutched a cross to his chest and prayed. His wife told me how he had walked around the house with a torn stomach and intestines dragging across the floor. The ambulance had refused to transfer him to the hospital, [so] they had to call for a taxi. After a while I realised that this happens all over the country.”
Yet Dondyuk’s role often goes far beyond that of ’observer.’ In the time he has spent on this project, he has formed numerous personal relationships with the subjects of his work, including a man named Gena. When Gena sadly died, Dondyuk’s involvement was more that of a close family friend than photographer...
“I had to accompany Gena’s mother to the funeral parlour to choose a coffin. I went with her everywhere and did most of the talking. Probably everybody thought me to be her grandson. [On the day of the funeral] I, together with our driver, had to place the body in the coffin. Four men, to carry the coffin, couldn’t be found so I also had to carry it. The border between me - the photographer and me - the man helping a mother to bury her only son was long gone.”
He adds, “I do not photograph other people`s lives, I immerse myself in their lives and capture the atmosphere that surrounds me. I keep in contact with many people that I’ve photographed, but most have already died.”
Despite the traumatic nature of his work, Dondyuk remains determined and devoted to the cause. In his eyes, his project is far from over and he plans to continue raising awareness for sufferers of tuberculosis in Ukraine.
“I am a documentary photographer and I must photograph everything I encounter. If I am the only photographer around, then my pictures are the only proof of what’s happening. I live in a hospital, go to the same canteen, visit clinical procedures, the only difference is that I take pictures.”
To see more of Maxim Dondyuk’s work, visit www.maximdondyuk.com
Written by Francesca Bassenger, photography © Maxim Dondyuk