Photojournalism has a long tradition of showing atrocities. We have seen images of wounded soldiers, bombed-out civilians, human remains, and sometimes, imminent death. Since February, we have seen many more. The first I remember is that of four Ukrainians lethally shot while trying to escape from the city of Irpin. They were hit by Russian mortars and died on the spot: a mother, her teenage son, her eight-year-old daughter, and a friend, who had accompanied them. On March 7, the New York Times published a photo of the scene on its front page, which shows the four bodies on the street and three Ukrainians in uniform, rushing to help. In the background there is a World War II memorial, reminding us that the country has a long history of being attacked—in 1941, it was the German Wehrmacht that occupied the country and left behind scorched earth.
The Irpin photo was taken by Lynsey Addario, an experienced war photographer, who has reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Libya. She was once hijacked in Iraq, in 2004, and a second time in Libya, in March 2011, and both times she survived. Her job is to take pictures, yet as we have learned from a long list of casualties, war photographers become part of the events they cover. In Irpin, Addario was so close to the scene that a mortar could just as well have hit her.
I have decided not to show Addario’s photo here. You can go to the New York Times article, if you wish to see it. It surely is an important photo, and had I been in charge at the picture desk that day I, too, might have chosen it for publication. However, we can identify the faces of three of those killed, and I imagine that, were it my family, I would not want this picture to circulate. Therefore, I have chosen another photograph, taken at the same spot, somewhat later, by Diego Herrera Carcedo for the Associated Press. Here, the bodies have been covered. The Soviet soldier represented in the World War II Monument still has his back turned on the scene. I find myself wondering, whether he is Russian or Ukrainian.
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“Victims of the war in Irpin, Ukraine: a family has died on the run.” Screenshot from
When the Russian troops began to withdraw from the Kyiv area four weeks later, photographs taken in Bucha made their way around the world. Some of them show dead bodies lying on the streets, others show mass graves. The Kyiv Independent included a selection of these pictures in its dossier 40 days of Russia’s war against Ukraine in photos. Satellite images soon confirmed that some of the bodies had been lying on the streets since mid-March. The killing of more than 1,000 civilians in Bucha—many of them shot at close range and with their hands tied behind their backs, others tortured and/or raped before being executed—now has a Wikipedia entry under Bucha massacre. The images will stay with us and go down in history.
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In me, they have triggered feelings of empathy and solidarity with the victims, and of anger and scorn for the perpetrators. However, as Ukrainian courts begin to take Russian soldiers to court, these pictures also serve as evidence—especially when the victims have names and faces, and when the pictures come with metadata.
Debates are ongoing as to whether, by looking at these pictures, we “once again violate” the victims or whether photographers, by showing the world what happened, make sure that their death was not altogether pointless—and thus restore their dignity. I assume that the answers to this question are as diverse as the victims. Likewise, spectators may have different perspectives. While some indulge in some kind of voyeuristic pleasure, others may need a trigger warning to protect themselves from images that they will not be able to shake off.
War photographer Christoph Bangert has argued that the damage done by the images is small compared to the damage done to the victims, and that we should therefore not look away. I tend to agree. Yet I also know that sometimes violence escalates precisely because a camera is present.
Now that this phase of the war is entering its fourth month, there is a certain risk of being dulled by the ever more photos of atrocities. The idea that the armed conflict will not end soon has sunk in. It is very unlikely that the pictures will stop the war, as the legend about the Vietnam war has it. Yet given that media attention is now fading, the photographers’ task of providing evidence and documenting war crimes will weigh more heavily on them.