On the Ground in Ukraine with Photographer Jason Perry
On the Ground in Ukraine with Photographer Jason Perry
The sky suddenly filled with the sound of anti-missile cannons and the ominous wail of the air raid siren. Then the explosions. Russian missiles and drones streamed overhead and pelted buildings, streets, and civilians. Over the centuries, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv had endured a Mongol invasion, World War II, and Chernobyl, and the day that US-born advertising photographer Jason Perry and the Zeilen Van Vrijheid team arrived with ambulances filled with medical supplies would be the largest attack since the Russian army crossed the eastern border and began its invasion nine months prior.
Despite being thrust into the front lines of the war, Perry was calm and focused. “There was no feeling of fear. In the moment, I felt my resolve harden and my anger increase. I clearly remember thinking, ‘Alright, now there’s even more work to do. Let’s go.’”
This was Perry’s second trip to the war-torn country with the Dutch volunteer team and its ambulance convoy, but it was his third trip to Ukraine. As an intrepid young traveler, he fell in love with Kyiv. He was taken by the warmth of the people, the incongruity of gothic and Soviet architecture, and the authentic Ukrainian cuisine. He spent his days there exploring what was long considered one of eastern Europe’s gems.
Fast-forward to February 2022—following the Russian invasion, some of Perry’s American friends were in Ukraine offering support. He sprung into action from his home in San Francisco. “I made some calls and within two days, I got some medical supplies together and sent a semi-truck of equipment to Maryland, which was then shipped to Poland,” he explains. As the war carried on into spring and summer, Perry continued to offer support where he could, though patchy communication on the ground and internal shuffling in the organizations he worked with slowed the pace and impact of support.
European air travel challenges that July left him stranded in Amsterdam. His search for ground travel led him to Zeilen Van Vrijheid and its founder Veronika Mutsei, a Ukrainian expat and solutions expert living in the Netherlands who was arranging convoys of 120 ambulances filled with medical supplies in support of the doctors in her native country.
“I asked if I could come along with them,” says Perry. Perry joined the group as an ambulance driver, and off they went, fully stocked and bound for the eastern frontier of the European Union on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
“As we were getting closer to the border, I was asking myself ‘What am I doing here? Is this a good idea?’” he laughs. “I definitely had a healthy amount of anxiety about going into an active war zone,” he explains. “But as soon as we crossed the border, all of that went away.” On the six hour journey into Kyiv, the scars of the war became increasingly visible. “After a while, pretty much all the buildings you see have been hit with artillery. Gas stations, apartment buildings, sporting goods stores, big box retailers on the outskirts of the city. All of it was hammered.”
Perry returned from his trip horrified and angered by the callous attacks and inspired by the resilient civilians and the work being done by Mutsei and her team. He was determined to come back later in the year to continue the work. He began searching for companies to support the cause in an impactful, tactile way. Perry, an avid biker, had led AETHER’s community rides in San Francisco for years, and knew our high performance technical jackets were made to withstand any conditions. He contacted our co-founder Palmer West to see if the company had any excess stock we’d like to donate.
“We try to go upstream against the industry when it comes to deadstock,” explains West. “Where a lot of brands will destroy that inventory, we look for the people most in need of decent clothing and give it to them.
“In Jason, we have someone who we know and trust, who is going to a war zone to deliver supplies to people who don’t have anything. It was starting to get really cold out there so we could help by contributing some jackets.”
“AETHER makes really high quality stuff, and for the people on the ground to have more technical, reliable apparel, it allows them to do their jobs better, faster and for longer,” says Perry. “And what they don’t use, like the odd sizes, goes to the shelters. The women and children can take the XS, and people with burns that can’t wear skin tight clothes can wear the XXLs. They’re cold and they need protection too.”
In November, he had the jackets vacuum-packed and shipped to Amsterdam, where he joined the Zeilen Van Vrijheid crew and headed back to Ukraine. Shortly after arriving, he reunited with Oleksii Maslo, a former apparel designer turned ambulance driver and aid distributor. To date, Maslo has helped more than 25,000 people evacuate from war-torn areas of the country, and he and his team are the main recipients of the AETHER gear.
“I don’t use words like hero very often, but this dude’s something else,” said Perry. “I drove with him to Kharkiv with all the gear, where we outfitted his team, and he handed them out to people. He’s one of the most outstanding humans I’ve met so far.”
Being immersed in the support efforts and laser focused on the objectives, it's a little early to gauge the impact that two trips into an active war zone has had on Perry, an advertising photographer-turned-international aid coordinator.
A kinetic, naturally chatty figure, Perry is quick to downplay his contribution as he lifts up those he’s met along the way. When we ask him how this experience has changed his outlook on life, he falls silent for the first time in our conversation.
“You know,” he starts trepidly, “I told myself that because I chose to do this, I wasn’t going to minimize anyone’s experience in life. All struggles are relevant. But what I have realized is that we humans are a lot tougher and a lot more resilient than we think we are. Whatever you’re going through, keep going. You’ll make it through.”
To learn more about how you can support the Ukrainian resistance and donate to the incredible work that Zeilen Van Vrijheid is doing, visit Jason Perry’s Instagram page.