This is part of our photographer profile series. You can read the other entries here.
Oksana Parafeniuk could not pick up a camera. She was working as a fixer in Ukraine, helping Western outlets cover the armed conflict with Russia. As a Ukrainian, Parafeniuk felt like she was part of the story. She could help other journalists tell it, but she was paralyzed herself. “I couldn’t just be an observer,” she told Rest of World.
That finally changed around 2016, when she learned about a development in her mother’s hometown of Korostyshiv, about 100 kilometers from Kyiv. Since the beginning of the war, more than one million people had been displaced within the country. Some of them settled in an old summer camp that Parafeniuk used to walk through as a child.
“It was just so strange to me that it was in this place that I really love,” she said, “and then these people have no memories [of it].”
Parafeniuk took photos of the Ukrainians who were living in the camp and combined them with old black-and-white photos of her family, like a collage. It was a reflection on nostalgia, history, and identity — on how pain can transform the environment around us.
She began to toy around with other documentary projects. After learning that Ukraine had taken third place at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, Parafeniuk documented a sport called goalball, designed for people with visual impairments. She shared the photos with an editor at US News & World Report, and he hired her for an assignment on the spot. She was now a photojournalist.
For the past five years, Parafeniuk has been one of the top photographers covering Ukraine, working for outlets such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Le Monde. She is also a co-leader of the Ukraine chapter of Women Photograph. For an industry heavy in bravado, she is an outlier. Parafeniuk doesn’t like to apply for awards, feeling guilty that she might be honored instead of the subjects of her photos. As she put it, “I still often have a lot of self-doubt and self-criticism.” It’s what makes her work so compassionate.
Before she entered the world of journalism, Parafeniuk worked as a program assistant for the Fulbright Program in Ukraine for many years. She did some photography on the side with a DSLR she spent half a year saving up for, but it wasn’t much more than a hobby. It never seemed like a viable career, especially because her parents had never been particularly well-off.
Still, the office job felt wrong. There wasn’t anything bad about it, but Parafeniuk felt there must be something else. When her friends introduced her to some photographers from the United Kingdom, she jumped at the chance to be their fixer, assisting them with their reporting. They were working on a story about people using self-made weapons in Maidan, the central square in Kiev for protests. Parafeniuk’s job was to speak with protesters and ask to see their weapons.
Her second assignment was with CNBC, right after the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled in 2014. This was television, and she was expected to have contacts for high-profile government officials and other powerful people. “I was just like, Oh my God, what the hell am I doing?” she told Rest of World. It was three stressful days, but she got through it. This was nothing like an office job. She was hooked.
Parafeniuk quickly learned the ups and downs of the fixer life. It was her version of journalism school, for better or for worse. “I often felt terribly uncomfortable,” she told Rest of World. Stories focused on the most depressing aspects of the conflict, all bleak and gray establishing shots. She would be asked to find a crying woman for the camera. “What, are we going to make them cry?” she wondered.
One time, she was working with a photographer following a displaced family, including an older woman. The family had attended church and needed to get back to where they were living, which was far away. Parafeniuk thought that she and the photographer could just pay for a taxi, rather than let the family take the arduous journey back by bus. The photographer told Parafeniuk they couldn’t alter the family’s life. “We’re already altering their life just by being there,” Parafeniuk told Rest of World. “Why can’t we just make their life a little bit easier?”
Talking with other Ukrainian friends in the business, Parafeniuk realized they needed to seize back some of the narrative. She said there were Western journalists doing good work — especially the ones who were based in the country long-term. Even so, being from Ukraine, she could offer a different perspective.
Parafeniuk didn’t want to focus on misery and grief. She began to question the value of difficult shoots and the emotional toll it took on subjects. Was it worth it? Sometimes she knew it was. Other times, she wasn’t so sure. Parafeniuk became interested in other stories: “where there is a little bit more of hope, and where you can show people’s resilience and their dignity,” she told Rest of World.
If you look through her projects, they are atypical for what you might expect to be coming out of Ukraine. There’s the goalball story, and an experimental multiple-exposure series of what it means to dream during Covid. One of the most popular articles she worked on was about the subject of a particularly divisive battle within the Russia-Ukraine conflict: the ownership of borscht, a regional beet soup.
The story appeared in the New York Times. When her boyfriend, the American photographer Brendan Hoffman, went back to the United States for a visit, he brought back some hard copies. They gave one to a 76-year-old woman, Olha, whom Parafeniuk had photographed preparing borscht for the piece. Someone posted a photo on Facebook of Olha holding up her picture in the Times. It sparked a huge wave of Ukrainian media attention — Olha was a superstar.
In recent months, Parafeniuk has spent most of her time working on renovations to her apartment. By her own estimation, she still spends too much time deliberating on new projects, when she should just force herself out the door. Even so, she has become more comfortable in taking it slow. “You don’t need to be a photographer every day,” she tells herself.
When Rest of World spoke to her in April, Parafeniuk had just returned from an assignment in eastern Ukraine. The fighting was picking back up, and international attention turning back to the region for the first time in several years. “It just felt like everybody forgot there is a war, and everybody just called it this frozen conflict,” she said. “But it wasn’t frozen.”
After long, 20-hour days, she was eager to return to a project she had started with a friend, Marichka Varenikova, with whom she also did the borscht story. They are spending time on the front lines, taking portraits of people embroiled in the strife. Rather than portraying them as victims, though, Parafeniuk and Varenikova are focusing on what they love, such as beekeeping. The goal is to demonstrate to the outside world that despite the war, people are still living their lives.
Parafeniuk still wishes she’d spent her early years as a fixer working as a photographer, but she tries to keep her eyes toward the future. “I feel like I’m really just starting out,” she said.