One of the greatest Russian photojournalists moved to Israel: ‘I’ll never photograph wars again’

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“When a good photographer dies, he goes to Afghanistan. When a bad photographer dies, he goes to Poland,” jokes Sergey Maximishin, 57, one of the best photojournalists in Russia, who has won the World Press Photo Contest twice and immigrated to Israel a month and a half ago. He speaks before a small audience of Russian speakers who assembled in Babel, a bookshop on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, which a few years ago became a spot connecting members of “the Putin aliyah” and previous waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union with intellectuals from Russia.

Recently, the establishment has hosted mainly people who fled from the country since its invasion of Ukraine. Maximishin is one of them.
He shows us a selection of photos he captured throughout his career – beginning in the Afghanistan of the early 2000s (the reason for his unique love for this country great quantity of dust that floats there, he says: “Dust is the photographer’s friend”) up to the day in the life of a ballet student in Mongolia at the end of the last decade.

He refrains from showing the pictures he took in the Second Chechen War. After the fact, he says, he realized that they weren’t good enough. “I should have photographed the moment before or the following moment,” he says.

Maximishin happily shares close calls in Afghanistan (for example, the time he and his guide were stopped in the middle of the road by a gang of armed men, and both breathed a sigh of relief when they discovered they were only robbers and not the Taliban), and anecdotes from Iraq, where he was sent by Newsweek before the Iraq War. (“When my driver discovered that I’m from Russia, he immediately asked me whether I’m familiar with the city of Ivanovo, where cranes are manufactured. I asked: ‘Why, are these good cranes?’ He said: ‘I don’t know. We hang people on them.'”)

A hot spring in Kamchatka, Russia, 2006.
Sergey Maximishin

When we meet in an apartment in Jerusalem, which he recently rented together with his wife, my first question is whether he has no urge to travel now to document the war in Ukraine. His reply is immediately unequivocal: “No. I swore at the time that I’ll never travel again to a war. That happened in Beslan.” Beslan is familiar to every Russian speaker as the site of one of the worst attacks in post-Soviet history.

On September 1, 2004, Chechen terrorists broke into the city’s School No. 1 in and took over 1,000 people hostage – students, parents and teachers. The crisis ended two days later with the Russian security forces storming the building and a terrible exchange of fire. A total of 333 people were killed, over half of them children. “I will never travel again to a war and there are many moral reasons for that,” says Maximishin.

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At the same time, he emphasizes that the ethical considerations he is talking about don’t necessarily apply to the war in Ukraine, where he says there is clearly an assailant (Russia) and a defender (Ukraine). “This war is entirely different,” he says. “Until it began, I said that just wars had disappeared from the world. I said that when CNN arrives, the war has begun, and when CNN leaves, the war is over. But this war is the last colonialist war. It’s a just war. I understand the propaganda works from both sides, but we always have to remember who attacked whom.

“In Beslan, I felt that all that was done in order for us to come and take pictures; the mass terror originated with the mass media,” Maximishin continues. “Before that, there was individual terror. When terrorists come, they immediately demand weapons, drugs and journalists. If there are no journalists, it’s pointless.

A wedding in the village of Verkhovazhye, Vologda region, 2006.
Sergey Maximishin

I realized that I didn’t want to be part of this unacceptable package. There are enough issues that are unrelated to war. That’s why I organized a niche for myself that’s on the seam between ethnography and social issues, and that’s what I focus on. There are people who photograph war better than I. It’s not my kind of journalism. I was there, I proved everything to myself. I realized that it can be scary.”

I ask him if there were other places, not only in Beslan, where felt his very presence was influencing the situation.

“No,” he says. “But I felt clearly that there was no truth there. It makes no difference which side I’m on, I’ll always be on some side. That situation, in Chechnya, wasn’t worth the risk. At some point, I felt that I didn’t understand on whose side the truth was, and that was not a good feeling.”

The war in Ukraine, which is taking place in an era of comprehensive documentation, is forcing those keeping track of it to deal with a flood of testimony and filmed evidence, each disseminated to strengthen the narrative of one of the sides. The assertion that “in a state of war, it’s impossible to verify information in real time” has become a mainstay in all the media outlets, and is designed to cover up the helplessness of journalists who are trying, usually in vain, to balance between the desire to bring the images to readers or viewers and the need for cross-referencing and in-depth investigation. Maximishin’s message raises a discouraging doubt: Even on the ground, in the middle of the battle, you won’t know the whole truth.

When I share with him the emotions I felt when I recently visited Ukraine and can’t find the word, he helps me: “The feeling is that they’re sort of trying to manipulate you.” He says this is evident on social media, as well. “My Facebook page is quite popular, and I see how people are starting to exploit me. I won’t accept that. Both the Ukrainian side and the opposite side. Every day, there are several attempts to sneak in some video or something like that. In my private messages in general, there’s an endless stream. They’re trying to use me as a tool in this struggle.”

Sergey Maximishin in Israel. ‘I said that when CNN arrives, the war has begun, and when CNN leaves, the war is over.’
Emil Salman

Taking pictures in Jerusalem

Maximishin was born in the Odesa region to a Ukrainian mother and a Jewish father, and grew up in the city of Kerch in the Crimean Peninsula. As a child, he spoke Ukrainian witj his mother and Russian with his father. As a young man, he went to study and live in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), lived in Russia until this year. “When all this began,” he says about the war, “it was terrifying. It was immediately clear that we had to leave and that we weren’t willing to pay for all this with our taxes, and with our presence in Russia. Besides, I wrote all kinds of things on Facebook and started to receive threats.” The route was clear: to Israel.

Like most of the recent immigrants from Russia, Maximishin and his wife arrived without baggage, a working credit card, a plan for making a living or a reserve of cash. “We found someone who agreed to convert rubles into 850 euros, and that was all our money.” They didn’t rent an apartment in advance, and didn’t know where they would live.

At the airport, they were sent to a hotel in Jerusalem (since then, the Immigration Ministry has canceled this benefit for immigrants arriving from Russia), and in our discussion, gratefulness to Israel for the reception and the generosity was repeated several times. “They found good people who contacted all the rental adds, they went with us to sign a contract, they brought all the furniture. There’s so much warmth and assistance,” he says.

In recent weeks, a lively discussion has developed in the Russian-speaking community in Israel, about recent Russian immigrants who are allegedly returning immediately after arriving. Maximishin does not deny that many of these immigrants will in fact leave Israel when they receive their passport, but he is here to stay – at least if he and his partner find a way to earn a living.

Amateur troupe of the Na?ve Theatre drinking tea. Psycho-neurological boarding school No7, St. Petersburg, 2003.
Sergey Maximishin

His plan is to open a photography school, thus continuing with the work he has been doing in Russia in recent years. Some of his students moved to Israel with him. Meanwhile, he hopes that the people with whom he speaks Russian will become familiar with his work, and is hoping for an exhibition.

In addition, he plans to photograph Jerusalem, and a lot. When I ask how he will deal with the fact that Jerusalem is a city that has already been shot from every angle, and whose exotic nature has already become clich?d, he replies: “First of all, I won’t take photographs for Israelis. When I once did a big project for the German magazine GEO, the editor told me: ‘When a water park collapsed [in Russia], what surprised us in Germany wasn’t the collapse, but the fact that you had a water park. What you always have to take into account is that you aren’t taking pictures for Russians. What seems clich?d to you won’t look clich?d to us, the Germans.’ Often, the thing of greatest value in photography is the fresh look at clich?s. And besides, my name is Maximishin, after all.”

His rule of thumb is that the best photos emerge the second time one visits a certain place, when you stop filming the “fluff,” as he describes it ( for example, the Afghan donkeys) but when one’s eye hasn’t tired and one hasn’t become too accustomed to the sights.

Kidnapping in Chechnya

Photography has been present in Maximishin’s life since a relatively early age. “My mother bought me a camera for my 14th birthday, and I started to film the girls in my class,” he recalls. “That was perfect harmony. The girls liked the photos, I liked the girls.”

When he served in the Soviet military, he was sent to Cuba for a year and a half, where he was appointed the base photographer. “There was an urgent need for a photographer because Fidel Castro was supposed to come to the base. He was my first customer,” says Maximishin. But that experience ended in failure.

Fish loading at a fish farm in Kamchatka, Russia, 2006.
Sergey Maximishin

“For the first time, I received a reflex camera. I shot three rolls, but then I developed them poorly and when the base commander arrived, he said: ‘You photographed very badly, I only recognized myself by the shoes.'” Maximishin was fired from the job, but he continued to experiment in his free time and when a quality photograph of a toad reached his commanders’ hands (“an angel was sent to me from heaven”), he got the job back.

After the army, Maximishin abandoned photography almost entirely and started his professional photography career relatively late, at the age of 34. During the years in between, he managed a real estate company and says he was a “petit bourgeois” – married with two kids, with quite a good standard of living. But then he took a photojournalism course and lost his head. What helped him abandon a safe livelihood for the sake of a nomadic life with a tiny salary was the dramatic devaluation of the ruble in 1998. The business he managed collapsed and he was hired as a photographer for the newspaper Izvestia. “I grew wings,” he recalls. “It was ‘mine.’ I became a happy man.”

He decided to switch photojournalism to magazine photography relatively quickly, when he was in Chechnya. “One day Yuri Kozyrev, a great photographer and my teacher, and I were kidnapped. We left there with frayed nerves, went to drink vodka and he asked me what the last thing I had photographed before Chechnya was. I told him I had shot a cool story – women’s mud-fighting. ‘And what did you photograph there?’ he asked.

“I said, “What do you mean? Two women wrestling in the mud and fat guys standing around them watching.’ He asked me: ‘And what else did you photograph?’

Eid al-Adha, or the ‘Feast of Sacrifice,’ in Saint Petersburg.
Sergey Maximishin

“I replied: ‘What more do you need?’ and then he asked: ‘Why didn’t you take a picture of how that woman goes in the morning to bring milk inside with a black eye? Or how she falls asleep during a lecture afterwards?’

“For me, it was a revelation. I realized that what was interesting was not the photo of the fight itself, but what leads these women to such a kind of prostitution. When I came back to St. Petersburg, I told my friends that I didn’t want to stand on the line and take pictures of Putin with 50 other photographers anymore; when he moves his hand and everyone fires off a round of photos. Everybody laughed at me. They said that there are no magazines in Russia. But I was stubborn. I started to take pictures of stories and the magazine appeared.”

Maximishin started to take pictures for the Russian illustrated weekly Ogonek, and then for international magazines, including Time, Newsweek and Stern. Among his photos is the famous picture of Putin accompanying an article that came out in Newsweek in 2002, entitled “The Dark Side of Russia,” in which readers were told about Putin’s “new authoritarianism,” as well as many other photos that have become iconic of modern Russia.

Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg, 2001.
Sergey Maximishin

He says that when he took the photos for Time Magazine’s 2004 article “From Russia with Hate” for Time Magazine, about neo-Nazis in Russia, he found it appropriate to mention to his subjects before he photographed them: “By the way, I’m Jewish.” The answer, he said, surprised him: “Who among us isn’t Jewish?” he was told in a conciliatory manner.

His photo taken on the border between North and South Korea that first prize in the daily life category of the World Press Photo Contest in 2006. He took that photo for the Russian edition of Newsweek, which funded his trip to the most secretive place on Earth as part of a delegation of the National Bolshevists, a movement founded in the 1990s and led by the author and politician Eduard Limonov, which integrated ideas of the left and the extreme right. Joining this delegation was the only way he could get to North Korea.

But once there, he says, he felt like a hungry man forbidden to eat the delicacies passed before him one after the other. Three local agents were attached to him and the minute he lifted his camera, one of them would put a hand on his shoulder and ask him to stop. On the border between the hostile neighbors, he did manage to take a photo of the North Korean guards in a lookout tower. “It came out very geometrical and the soldiers look like cardboard figures,” he says with satisfaction.

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