From Kharkiv to Cologne – an interview with Ukrainian sports photographer Vitalii Kliuiev.

From Kharkiv to Cologne – an interview with Ukrainian sports photographer Vitalii Kliuiev.

“We were going to the bomb shelter, but by chance a cab driver came and took us to the railway station. We had six minutes to gather our things.”

A bit of luck, a lot of hustle and a kind taxi driver helped IMAGO photographer Vitalii Kliuiev and his family, including the cat, reach safety as their home was under fire from Russia’s military invasion into Kharkiv. Closely following Ukrainian sports leagues with his camera, he has also been face-to-face with some of football’s biggest names in the Champions League and now the German Bundesliga. His photos from just days before fleeing the invasion offer a surreal glimpse into what it means to continue one’s craft under the threat of war. 

A sports photographer but also a husband and a father, Kliuiev shares his and his family’s difficult journey to Cologne where he has picked up where he left off, and has begun photographing major sporting events in Germany. With the heartache of his country under attack, Kliuiev has had to quickly adjust and push forward in this new reality. IMAGO spoke to him about his perspective and his work.

IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Open training of Ukrainian women football team Krivbas in Cologne, Germany amidst Russia’s attack on Ukraine. 23 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Open training of Ukrainian women football team Krivbas in Cologne, Germany amidst Russia’s attack on Ukraine. 23 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Marcelo of Real Madrid during The UEFA Champions League match against FC Shakhtar Donetsk in Kyiv, Ukraine. 19 October, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Marcelo of Real Madrid during The UEFA Champions League match against FC Shakhtar Donetsk in Kyiv, Ukraine. 19 October, 2021.

Where exactly are you from, and can you tell us a bit about you and your family’s journey to Germany from the Ukraine as the situation worsened? Where are you now? 

I was born in the village of Sutogan. It is located near Lugansk. After graduating from university, I lived in Lugansk and was forced to move to Kharkiv with my pregnant wife because of the war. In Kharkiv we had our beautiful daughter Betty. 

The bombing on February 24th found us at home. They bombed near the tram depot, which was located near our house. We were going to the bomb shelter, but by chance a cab driver came and took us to the railway station. We had six minutes to gather our things. We managed to take the documents and the cat. Part of the equipment stayed in Kharkov, because there was no time to pack. I only took what we had after the hockey game, which I photographed 5 hours before the war. Next was the road to Uzhgorod. We rode in the overcrowded trains, in the vestibule, in one place, the three people with a cat. After 14 hours of walking across the border to Slovakia, we got to Prague and then through Dresden to Cologne.

IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Ukrainian migrants and refugees at a checkpoint leave Ukraine in wartime in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. 26 February, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Ukrainian migrants and refugees at a checkpoint leave Ukraine in wartime in Uzhgorod, Ukraine. 26 February, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Protestors hold the Ukrainian flag during the ‘No to War with Russia’ march for Ukraine in Kharkiv. 5 February, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Protestors hold the Ukrainian flag during the ‘No to War with Russia’ march for Ukraine in Kharkiv. 5 February, 2022.

You were photographing an anti-war march in Kharkiv just back in February. What was it like documenting the final moments in your home country before things escalated? Did you and your friends/family expect this to reach such a critical point?

My wife Katya had been saying since December that there would be an escalation of the war, but she thought, as before, on the line of contact, in the Donbass. No one thought there would be widespread bloody invasion. 

During the march there was no thought that Kharkiv would be compared to the ground. But after the legalization of the republics, it became clear that there would be a big war.

IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | A demonstration supporting the Ukraine against the recent attack by Russia in Leipzig, Germany. 5 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | A demonstration supporting the Ukraine against the recent attack by Russia in Leipzig, Germany. 5 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Ukrainian hockey league match Rulav Oddr vs Bilii Bars in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 18 November, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Ukrainian hockey league match Rulav Oddr vs Bilii Bars in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 18 November, 2021.

A big topic right now is of course press freedom and the current information war on social media. What is your perspective on this conflict as a photographer and member of the media? What worries you the most?

I am concerned about people’s lives! This is the most important thing! People have to live! If the military wants to flex their muscles, there are military simulators. And people’s lives shouldn’t be ruined because of their whim. Freedom of the press and social media should not be an issue. After all, in 2022, people should think, analyze, and not believe flashy pictures. I hope that reason will win, and the war will be over.

IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Agla Mary Albertsdottir during the Women Champions League match WFC Kharkiv vs WFC Breidablik in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 9 November, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Agla Mary Albertsdottir during the Women Champions League match WFC Kharkiv vs WFC Breidablik in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 9 November, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Super League Pari basketball match, Sokoly vs Kyiv Basket in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 1 December, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Super League Pari basketball match, Sokoly vs Kyiv Basket in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 1 December, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | May 29, 2021: The football match of Ukrainian PFL FC Metal vs Podyllya.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | May 29, 2021: The football match of Ukrainian PFL FC Metal vs Podyllya.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | The football match of UEFA Women s Champions League Zhilstroi-1 vs. Paris Saint Germain in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 8 December, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | The football match of UEFA Women s Champions League Zhilstroi-1 vs. Paris Saint Germain in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 8 December, 2021.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | The hockey match of Ukrainian Hockey League HC Kharkiv Berserks - Sokil in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 2 February, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | The hockey match of Ukrainian Hockey League HC Kharkiv Berserks - Sokil in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 2 February, 2022.

You photograph a lot of Ukrainian sports leagues as well — can you tell us a bit about your photography career and what interests you as a photographer?

I like photographing sporting events. Thanks to Shakhtar Donetsk, I turned from a family photographer into a sports one. The Donetsk press team gave me accreditation for soccer matches in 2018. 

The main purpose of shooting – to answer 3 questions: who am I photographing, where am I photographing and why am I photographing it? Every athlete takes their time to develop physically, it is their personal feat at 3 years old, 15 years old, and 30 years old, and my job is only to show the success of that athlete.

IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | DEL Hockey match Kölner Haie - EHC Red Bull München in Cologne, Germany. 18 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | DEL Hockey match Kölner Haie - EHC Red Bull München in Cologne, Germany. 18 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Frauen Bundesliga match FC Köln vs FC Bayer 04 in Cologne, Germany. 17 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Frauen Bundesliga match FC Köln vs FC Bayer 04 in Cologne, Germany. 17 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | FIH Hockey Pro League match between Germany and Spain in Mönchengladbach, Germany. 26 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | FIH Hockey Pro League match between Germany and Spain in Mönchengladbach, Germany. 26 March, 2022.

You have also started photographing in Germany now that you are here. How have you been adjusting to this new reality? 

In 2014 I had already lost the job I loved and had to make a living from my hobby. But this time I don’t plan to change my qualifications. Thanks to Bayer Leverkusen, the Kölner Haie, and Bayern Munich, these teams accredited me and gave me the opportunity to take pictures again. It’s emotionally hard to take pictures knowing that shells are bursting in my homeland. But I hope that soon the war will be over and it will be possible to work with normal emotions. Also many thanks to Nikon for their support. Their reverent care gives me a foothold for my work!

Is there anything else you would like to say? 

I want this war to be over!

IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Erling Haaland during the Bundesliga match Borussia Dortmund vs RB Leipzig in Dortmund, Germany. 2 April, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Erling Haaland during the Bundesliga match Borussia Dortmund vs RB Leipzig in Dortmund, Germany. 2 April, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Open training of Ukrainian women football team Krivbas in Cologne, Germany amidst Russia’s attack on Ukraine. 23 March, 2022.
IMAGO / Vitalii Kliuiev | Open training of Ukrainian women football team Krivbas in Cologne, Germany amidst Russia’s attack on Ukraine. 23 March, 2022.
First in our Conflict Stories Series. Vitalii Kliuiev now following German league sports alongside reportage, previously Ukraine-based. Interview conducted by Sofia Bergmann.
 

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