An award-winning Ukrainian photographer has been accused of holding far-right and antisemitic views, leading a Barcelona university to abruptly cancel his latest exhibition.

Dmytro “Orest” Kozatsky, a press officer of the Azov Battalion, a regiment of the Ukrainian Army, documented the defense of Mariupol at the besieged Azovstal steel plant in May. Photos from the conflict, which comprise his series The Light Will Win, were widely published in Western media after Kozatsky was captured by Russian forces, and the images earned him first and third place in the International Photography Awards.

Several of these photos were on display at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) since mid-October, but on November 13, the institution announced it was prematurely ending the show, claiming that it “wasn’t aware of the artist’s ideology.”

“The UPC radically rejects Nazism and regrets the situation created,” the UPC said in a statement.

Earlier that day, pro-Russian Ukrainian journalist Anatoly Shariy had shared multiple screenshots of Kozatsky’s social media posts on Telegram, all of which contained far-right and neo-Nazi hate symbols. A swastika tattoo appears on Kozatsky’s leg, with another drawn in ketchup on a homemade pizza. Meanwhile, a selfie of Kozatsky shows his sweatshirt emblazoned with the numbers 14/88, a combination of two white supremacist symbols, and a Ukrainian coat of arms.

Kozatsky has since denied all allegations, which he claims are part of a larger smear campaign. He argued that the photos were taken out of context and intended as a “mockery” of Russia‘s accusations that Ukraine is overrun by neo-Nazis — a central claim in President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda strategy.

“I understand these photos may have caused outrage, I want to apologize for it,” Kozatsky wrote in a Twitter thread. “When I took those I didn’t realize how it would be used.”

Kozatsky did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Later that evening, protests erupted at DOC NYC’s premiere of the film Freedom on Fire (2022) at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Theatre in Manhattan, which hosted Kozatsky as a guest speaker. Audience members who raised the accusations during a Q&A were forcibly removed from the event. One attendee, student and organizer Kayla Popuchet, said she was attacked by fellow audience members, some of whom called her a “bitch” and “Kremlin shill.”

“I even heard someone call me Russian, which is funny because I am an Afro-Latin American with zero relation to Russia,” Popuchet told Hyperallergic. “[DOC NYC and SVA] should be ashamed of themselves, and it goes to show that Black, Brown, Jewish, and other oppressed groups cannot count on these institutions to defend us from white supremacists.” Popuchet, a member of several left-wing organizations such as the Movement for People’s Democracy and the Communist Party USA, has been researching Ukrainian nationalism for years. She claims the Western embrace of Azov and the far-right Banderite movement contradicts mainstream media coverage after the 2014 Maidan Revolution, wherein US journalists and human rights organizations condemned Ukraine’s bombing campaigns in the contested region of Donbas.

As journalist Moss Robeson noted on Twitter, the SVA Theatre removed all mention of Kozatsky’s name from its event description after Shariy’s Telegram messages surfaced earlier that morning. SVA declined Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment, and DOC NYC has not yet responded. 

Kozatsky was released from Russian captivity in late September as part of a prisoner exchange for Putin’s close friend, Viktor Medvedchuk. Since then, the photographer has appeared on MSNBC to promote his new book and toured Western schools to rally support for Ukraine, including at a Maryland middle school earlier this month.

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Billy Anania

Billy Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

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