"For the first five minutes you can't even raise your camera." War photographers describe their most important shots from Ukraine
Hleb Liapeika
"For the first five minutes you can't even raise your camera." War photographers describe their most important shots from Ukraine
16 мая 2022, 21:38

A burnt-out Russian helicopter and its dead crew in Makarov district, Kyiv region. Photo: Efrem Lukatsky

Mediazona asked six photojournalists covering the war in Ukraine to choose one picture they consider most important and tell the story behind it.

Efrem Lukatsky

Photojournalist, Ukraine

This photo was taken in Makarovsky district, relatively close to Kyiv. You can see a Russian helicopter of Mi-8 series, a 2009 Terminator model made for Special forces. And next to it, the crew, three people. Only two can be seen in the photo, but in fact, there were three skeletons.

When I was driving towards Makarov, I saw a flock of crows over some field in the distance, circling over one place. Crows are peculiar creatures, so I decided to drive up, then walked about 500 meters. And I saw the remains of a Russian helicopter: the tail was intact, with the inscription “Russia” and a serial number on it. This number made it very easy to find out where it came from and where it was based.

The helicopter was almost completely obliterated by flames with only the tail remaining intact. The cockpit burned out. And the bodies of three pilots were scattered around. The third skeleton was torn to pieces, some limbs torn off, some still remaining. And on the ground nearby, there was this Russian military gray fur hat with earflaps and a red star. It was not the first time I photographed a downed helicopter: when the war started, I also took a photo of a downed Russian K-52 near Hostomel. And a hat with earflaps was there. That really surprised me: they have modern helicopters but still walk around wearing those old military hats with earflaps. Maybe a superstition, I don't know.

Naturally, I took a picture with my camera. Then Ukrainian soldiers approached, and they also examined the remains. I took pictures as they were doing that. It was raining. I realized the scene would be more striking if shot from above. So I took out my drone, sent it up and took this photo.

I don't have any recent photos that I'd say I "love". Where there's pain, suffering, and death, there's nothing to "love". I chose this one [at your request] because it is quite graphic. They say that culture and art should improve the human soul. I believe that photography is art, to some extent. But you can't say that about this photo. Perhaps, the opposite is true, it's unsettling.

You know, every day I take a lot photos of dead people–civilians, women, etc. And when I see those bodies, it brings tears to my eyes, and I cry. And then I see those who came here to kill, and I feel absolutely no pity for them. Because they came here to kill. Especially these guys, the pilots, they’re supposed to be the elite, not some morons recruited from the middle of nowhere. And they voluntarily flew here on a combat helicopter... There were also rockets scattered around the helicopter. They made some shots, and the rest remained. They came here to kill.

Of course, deep inside me I know that they should be buried, we're all humans after all. But at the same time, I can't say that I feel for them, I don't. I feel for the murdered civilians.

Hermann Krieger

Watchers, Ukraine

Andrey at his yard in Bucha. Photo: Hermann Krieger / Watchers

Bucha was occupied by the Russians for more than a month. The city suffered severe destruction, many people were murdered by the invaders. Peaceful civilians who did not resist.

I saw Andrey during my trip to Bucha. He calmly cleaned his yard from the rubble left by the Russians. It's been calm in the city for several days now, and once it's been de-occupied, people started cleaning up the streets, step by step.

In the photo, Andrey is standing in front of his house. A large military convoy was destroyed on his street. His house was partially damaged. During the conversation, the man called some Russians "good" meaning those who did not shoot people as soon as they saw them sparing their lives.

When we started talking, Andrey couldn't stop. It was clear that he missed conversing with other people. Andrey told me about the month he'd spent in his cellar hiding from the Russians and the shellings. But he got lucky: the Russians came to his house, found him in the cellar but did not kill him. Those Russians he calls "good Russians". Simply because they did not shoot, because they did not kill him.

Stas Kozlyuk

Babel', Ukraine

Burnt cars and bodies on Zhytomyr highway near Kyiv. Photo: Stas Kozlyuk / Babel'

The photo was taken on April 2 on the Zhytomyr highway near Kyiv, some 20-25 kilometers from the city. My colleague and I went out to take a look around the district villages. We wanted to understand what was happening there and whether we would even be allowed in there.

We passed all the checkpoints, they let us through. And then, in Dmitrovka village, the locals said that a few kilometers down the road was a gas station Russian troops were stationed at for a long time. They said, terrible things had happened there and bodies of murdered civilians were suppusedly to be found.

Five minutes later, we saw this scene. The road, a dozen or more burnt cars, and next to them, terribly burned bodies, totally charred. The first emotion was shock. There were dozens of bodies of civilians. They were killed, and then the killers tried to burn them. I think they attempted to destroy the evidence. At least one body near the car, possibly a male, looked like he was burning alive in this car and tried to crawl out of it.

And for the first five minutes you can't even raise your camera. You just stand there in the middle of this huge cemetery and try to pull yourself together somehow. The second thought that comes to mind is, "Damn, it must be documented, it must be published."

The third thought was, "Holy shit, can we even publish this?" Cause, you know, journalists abide by certain principles and norms in their work. And everything there looked so terrible that perhaps the forensic specialists should have been taking those photos, not reporters. But what else could we do? Taking photos was the only way.

I was afraid to go off the rails, so I tried to focus on a purely technical side: how to compose a shot in an ethical way, which angle would be better, should some details behind the burned cars be hidden.

And then we saw a pile of dead bodies by the road. I don't know how many. They were very badly burned, and it looked like they just melted into this mound. Some had no arms, others had no legs, more had already begun to rot. We could see their innards. Some had gunshot wounds with visible entry and exit holes.

And I just couldn’t bring myself to take a photo. No matter how you take a picture, it will still be terrible, and I'm not talking about some technical nuance. This is a horrendous level of cruelty.

I'm still trying to process that. The photo I chose is one of the final shots I took on that road. There were bodies near the car, so I decided to make the foreground blurry, but at the same time to make it clear that this is indeed a human body in a terrible state, and show a burned car. It was my way to show all this horror and at the same time to show respect towards the dead. Because it is always important to put yourself in the place of these people's relatives. As for me, I would not my relatives to end up in this kind of close-up shots.

Important detail: on that highway, we also saw people who may have been tortured. They may have been thrown out of the cars, because their bodies were not burnt. They had their hands tied. At least one man had a gunshot wound to the head. After we arrived, literally five to ten minutes later the military showed up, they started examining the bodies, and as far as I know, they took them away the next day.

Marek M. Berezowski

freelance photojournalist, Poland

Killed woman in a car by the road to Stoyanka. Photo: Marek M. Berezowski

It happened on March 9 on the road from Irpin to the village of Stoyanka, closer to Stoyanka. We were traveling in an evacuation convoy from Irpin, but we were stopped at a Russian checkpoint. The convoy was about two kilometers long. A car was standing near the road. There were several more destroyed cars, and in one of them, there was a dead woman.

She and the people in other vehicles were likely killed on the day when the Russian army was trying to take Irpin, and civilians were trying to evacuate. I heard that one of the dead was taken away by his relatives.

This photo is important to me for several reasons. To start with, I first came to Irpin on the day it was attacked by the Russian army. I came there by this road in my car. Since my car was “stuck” in Irpin, I had a chance to help a little with the evacuation. When a few days later I heard that there would be an evacuation, I decided that I’d try to leave the city.

Plus, I think I’ve got a chance to document a war crime because this civilian was shot dead in broad daylight while trying to evacuate. I saw a bullet hole. So these people didn't accidentally get into the gunfight or ended up in the wrong place, they were shot intentionally.

And there’s one more reason. I heard that this Russian checkpoint would be open until 9 pm, but the Russians closed it at 5 pm, so the convoy was stuck at this place for the night. For the next 14 hours, I was an ordinary person in the convoy. The Russians were pretty close to us and they were shelling the Ukrainian positions. If the Ukrainian soldiers had responded, we could potentially be hit. But fortunately, the Ukrainian army did not return fire.

Still, it was a night of anticipation and fear, and there was nothing I could do. In the morning we passed the checkpoint, but the Russians took away all the devices that could record and take photos, not only my phone but also my camera. The loss of equipment notwithsdanding, I managed to hang onto my SD card. And this is one of the last photos that I took.

It shows the scene in full. It shows not only a war crime, but the situation in the convoy. When you see the dead by the road just before approaching the Russians, you think: “Okay, they killed these people, so they can kill us.” And I was the only journalist in the convoy, and that’s an unusual situation, usually I work with one of my friends. I was alone, and I did not know how the Russian soldiers would react, because they usually dislike independent journalists.

Alexander Vasyukovich

freelance photographer, Belarus

Injured Natalya in a Brovary hospital. Photo: Alexander Vasyukovich

We visited the hospitals in Brovary to take photos of the war victims. A doctor took us to the ward, there were injured, and Natalya was one of them. Her leg was severely injured on March 14 in Chernihiv, and on March 20 she was transferred to Brovary.

It was a rather distressing sight, as I just recently arrived in Kyiv to work. Of course, I was preparing myself to see the pain and suffering, if you can prepare for this, but everything was a little different.

In this photo she is sitting with the Ilizarov apparatus on her leg, telling her story, but one can hardly notice pain, she basically beams with joy. Now the terror has ended for her to some extent. It’s calm and quiet in Brovary, the wounded get treatment while Chernihiv remains under constant shelling, and she is now safe.

These days, not everyone has a chance to feel safe. My grandmother was born in 1924, she’s still with us. She hardly remembers what you say to her, but she remembers very well what she had to endure during the Second World War and talks about it constantly. More than anything, she doesn't want this to happen again. Only those who haven’t seen war can support it.

Elizaveta Servatinskaya

photographer, “Suspilny”, Ukraine

Destroyed apartment in Borodyanka. Photo: Elizaveta Servatinskaya / Suspilny

It was April 5 or 6, less than a week had passed since Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region. We came on a press tour to Borodyanka. We took photos, walked around the yards between destroyed buildings, and saw all these debris that had not yet been removed. There were many such six- or nine-story buildings leveled completely as some very powerful missiles hit them.

And in one of these yards, I first noticed a children's swing in the playground against the backdrop of those destroyed buildings. And then I saw this shelf. I looked at it and I couldn’t understand how it could have survived all this. Then I decided try the other side to get a better angle. And then my colleague, who is not a photographer, comes up to me and says: “Did you see that shelf? How did it survive? It's kind of a miracle.” And at that moment I realized that the shelf definitely needs to be photographed.

You can see that all the floors have collapsed because this is a panel house. But this one wall survived, and by some miracle, a shelf. I was impressed by the fact that it was completely intact, the doors were neatly closed, even the dishes white and undamaged. It seemed as if nothing fell around this shelf, even though we can imagine how powerful the explosion was. And on top was this clay cockerel jug. As the owner said, there was also a ram figurine. But it didn’t survive.

The apartment owner was a woman in her 70s. When a missile hit her house, she was hiding in the basement of a neighboring house with her friends. And after all this had happened, she was no longer able to return home to her apartment, because there was no apartment any more. And she had to leave, and now she is in a safe place. I know that after the photo with the shelf became a hit, some furniture company called her and offered to recreate her shelf. But this is a little ironic because now she has no apartment, and they just offer her a shelf.

She said that the shelf was put up by her son many years ago. Unfortunately, her son is no longer with us, he died two years ago. And her husband also died a little earlier. The woman lived there alone. And speaking about that shelf she said that she had no idea how it survived because it was attached with just a couple of nails.

At that moment, I thought that the shelf has a certain symbolism, and we need to hold on the same way it did. And then I tweeted that we all should follow the shelf's example.

I took a picture of the shelf and went on my way. Locals were telling their stories, and I was surprised how people continued to live right next to this building. They cooked outside, and I was impressed by a little boy: he was about nine years old, and he cooked lunch for adults in the street in a cauldron on fire. Just across the street from that building with the shelf.

We had long conversations, and I had a feeling that I shouldn’t leave this place. They even offered me to stay with them for the night. They said: “You will stay here, and then you will see how beautiful it is here. Right now you see the ruins and horrors in the city, and at night you will see how beautiful the sky is here and how bright the stars are here above these ruined buildings.” But, sadly, I couldn't stay. We had to go to Kyiv in a few hours because of the curfew.

Translation: Mariya Portyanskaya