THE first thing you notice about him are his eyes. Their colour is so vividly light blue grey, they resemble those of a husky. Those eyes too have seen things most of us will fortunately never have to witness in our lives.

Be it the burned and charred remains of bodies, or the bloodied, wounded face of a man etched with shock and grief at the loss of his wife, whose lifeless body has just been pulled from the rubble of a bombed out high-rise apartment block.

Death, pain, hardship, unimaginable suffering, all are part of the tragic stock in trade that Pavlo Petrov, a photographer for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine witnesses daily. Still only 27, Petrov cuts a tall rangy figure and speaks with both an eloquence and irreverence derived from a job where sadness and anger sit side by side.

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It was back in 2017 that Petrov first began photographing firefighters and rescuers in his home region of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine which at the time was partially occupied by pro-Russian separatists. Almost seven years later following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, he now works documenting in photographs and video the dangerous work undertaken by first responders as well as those “sappers” currently demining territory retaken from the Russian occupiers.

Petrov’s war is one in close up and has been ever since those first hours when Russian tanks and troops trundled over the border and headed towards the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

“My shift was on the 23rd of February when there was a meeting of the National Security Council and a State of Emergency was introduced,” he recalls of that day as we talk in a fire station in the heart of old Kyiv.

“I stayed at work for the night, and it was in this building that I met the war on the 24th at four o’clock in the morning.And from that moment until mid-April, I went with rescuers all over Kyiv,” Petrov continues, adding that his work now takes him to the most intense frontlines across Ukraine.

Few of those frontlines are more intense than the city of Bakhmut, dubbed the “meat grinder” which Russia claimed to have captured last month, but where fighting has escalated these past days as Ukrainian forces go on the offensive around the city and in other parts of the war’s eastern front.

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It was in Bakhmut in the bleak winter month of December in the last weeks when a rescue unit could work in the city, that Petrov says he probably came closest to paying the ultimate price in the line of duty. “There was a night fire which the rescuers extinguished while Russian shelling continued and, in the morning, we brought people drinking water as well as food kits as the water in the neighbourhood had run out,” Petrov says, recounting the story.

“There was one mother among the community who asked us to bring milk next time. She lived on the first floor of an apartment with her toddler child and her own mother. We offered to evacuate them to Dnipro or somewhere in the region, but she declined,” he continues.

“We left the building, got into the car. Some rockets hit about 50 metres from the car.

“My colleague shouted, ‘start filming’, and I pressed the record button on the video camera just before we came fully under fire from what was Russian BM-21 Grad rockets,” Petrov says, pausing momentarily as if reliving that moment in his mind’s eye.

“The rockets hit the house where the woman lived. It was probably the scariest moment when everything seemed to be in slow motion. You see the rear windscreen glass crumbling into pieces. And you climb out from the passenger seat through the driver’s seat in body armour and helmet in two seconds and run to the nearest building entrance,” he says, describing those horrific seconds.

“That was probably the worst ever moment. The woman, her mother and child survived too, but were later evacuated by the police as it simply became no longer possible to live there.” As Petrov describes the events of that day, he shows me the video he filmed, a terrifying, jarring series of images and sounds the dust, smoke, shrapnel, cries of fear and warning merging into a kaleidoscopic montage of chaos. It was one of those moments when the margins between life and death are slim indeed.

These past weeks those moments have played out before Petrov and his colleagues with alarming regularity here in Kyiv as Russia has subjected the capital – and other parts of Ukraine – to a relentless barrage of ballistic and cruise missile attacks as well as waves of Iranian-made Shahed drones.

Each time the sirens bring their ominous wail, people here scroll through the air raid Telegram channels and start estimating the time before the weapons rain down from the sky. If its comparatively slow-moving drones it could take some time.

If it’s a hypersonic missile that can fly five to 10 times as fast as the speed of sound it could be minutes. Kyiv suffered 20 air attacks in May alone, most in the middle of the night. As people head for the safety of shelters, Kyiv Metro stations, basement car parks or stay at home and hunker down in corridors following the so-called “two wall rule”, Petrov and his rescuer colleagues are mustering. In the shortest time possible they are on the location at the scene of any explosion, fire or falling debris from missiles and drones shot down by Ukraine’s air defence systems.

“As far as I know, Kyiv is attacked the most, if we’re talking in terms of missile and drones, and has been since the very beginning of the full-scale invasion,” Petrov explains.

“Almost after every strike, where the rescuers go, I try to go with them whether it’s day or night. It’s like we went back to last year to the very beginning of the war, and we keep working,” he says as behind us a few of his colleagues start to prepare their kit and vehicles for what is expected to be another very “noisy” night in Kyiv.

“Now we already know what to do, how to react to it and in what context to work. For me it can be difficult as the official photographer as the rescuers change every day, but you get up every night and go do what you have to,” he continues, before I ask him what other challenges he faces personally as a photographer.

“I’ve thought a lot about this, and it seems to me that the most difficult thing is being both a rescuer and a person with a camera who should film it. The most difficult thing is to keep filming, and not to start helping together with the rescuers,” he confesses.

“For example, in the video I showed you when the bodies were burning,” he says.

Only moments earlier he had brought out his mobile phone and played the video clip shot on his helmet camera in which can be seen bodies lying smouldering in the street before Petrov sprays them with foam from an extinguisher as his colleagues go to work in the devastated building behind.

“As a human being sometimes, you just think… not about work – you think, I need to do something right now to help directly with all of this.”

But he’s also the first to recognise how important it is to make those telling photographs enabling the world to see not only the atrocities being committed, but also acknowledging the professionalism and bravery of his colleagues. His photography is “a way to push back against Russian propaganda” he insists.

Among the other challenges Petrov faces on the ground is that he often wants to be ahead of the rescuers in order to film what they are doing from the front rather than shooting from behind.

This though he says has its obvious dangers such as the collapse of structures, spread of fire, potential for explosions or perhaps a Russian drone making a secondary “double tap” attack on the same target, an unnerving experience he has undergone on more than one occasion.

Working too alongside deminers and pyrotechnicians in newly liberated areas is also fraught with hazards, with traps often set for demining teams. For these reasons Petrov even though primarily a photographer must, just like his colleagues, be fully kitted out with his own protective clothing, body armour, helmets and breathing apparatus.

I put it to him that he is in effect risking his life simply to take photographs and whether this feels normal?

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“This is my work, the same as the work of rescuers. If I wasn’t around no one would know what is happening in these situations. Many Ukrainian combat and military photographers risk their lives and unfortunately some of them are no longer here, but they tried to tell something and show the world what is happening here at home. That’s why I think it’s normal, it’s right,” Petrov attests.

As a fellow photographer I was curious too as to whether in the midst of such a high-octane moment at the scene of a missile or drone strike, he was conscious of photographic principles such as composition and lighting or whether his primary role is simply to press the shutter record and document?

“Yes, I follow the rules of composition and light when I can. But when it’s not possible, when something happens such as continual shelling or the need to assist someone, I still try to film but very quickly, it all depends on the situation,” explains the young man who came to his professional photographic calling after years as a keen amateur photographer.

Is there a particular image of which he is most proud I ask?

“I’m not proud of any photo yet, because I believe that I have not yet taken a photo that I can be proud of. What I probably remember most though is the photograph I took on February 26 this year when a missile hit the building on Lobanovskyi Street,” he tells me.

“The photos themselves were nothing unusual, but then, on that very day, I began to fully understand what we are dealing with, as rescuers carried the woman out of the high-rise building after the air strike. They carried her from the 17th floor, and somehow that photo brought home to me the true human cost of this war.”

Like many other citizens in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, Petrov admits to those feelings of anxiety as night approaches but for him that dissipates at least temporarily as he focuses on work once he goes on a call. Can he escape from the pressures of the job I ask?

“I don’t know, sometimes I just think about those guys, not necessarily friends, just all those people who are now on the front lines. I recollect the days when I came under fire. I understand that those guys are constantly under fire, this is their job, this is their life and I feel calm and I can continue my work,” he says as if almost guilty that he is not doing enough.

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As for taking a rest, he and other Ukrainians can have all the rest they want “after we get our territories and country back”, he shrugs. As we prepare to part company, I jokingly ask him why every fire station I’ve ever visited has always been spotlessly clean. “Firefighters are very careful people. In fact, this is a rule, an internal rule – the equipment and the garage must always be clean.

Which probably doesn’t apply to the clothes of the rescuers,” he goes on to explain. “We have a superstition that something might happen after you put on a new fire suit for the first time. That’s why it’s good for it to be a bit dirty as soon as possible,” he says with a mischievous smile. In the same light-hearted vain he recounts a joke recently heard pointing out that when “Prometheus gave fire to humans, he provided them with permanent employment”.

In such a job black humour is not uncommon and often is precisely the tension breaker needed. But all joking aside, sadly never have the skills of Petrov and his many colleagues across the State Emergency Services been in greater demand or under such pressure as they are right now.

Two days after we met, the news broke that the Soviet era-built Nova Kakhovka dam on the giant Dnipro River in Ukraine’s Kherson region had been attacked and destroyed unleashing an enormous torrent of water.

As flooding covered swathes of territory bringing about mass evacuations and coinciding with a growing Ukrainian counteroffensive, the country’s State Emergency Services were instantly despatched to deal with a disaster many say constitute a war crime. Among the first of the rescuers to be deployed was a certain young photographer – Pavlo Petrov – whose job once again will be to document for the record and for history this latest act of war.