Since February, the number of photo stories and photo diaries from Ukraine has multiplied. Some of them have been compiled by professional photojournalists, others by amateur photographers who felt an urge to show what was happening in their cities and villages. These photo reports give us insights into the daily life of a society at war. They show the results of violence and destruction, and they give us an impression of how life goes on under radically changing conditions.
I would like to draw attention to three examples of visual storytelling. The first one is a photo diary by Mila Teshaieva, a photojournalist from Kyiv, who works for the Berlin-based Ostkreuz photo agency, among others. It was published by Dekoder, an “online media source that combines Russian independent journalism with German academic expertise in Russian Studies.” The first two entries in Teshaieva’s photo diary appeared on March 3, followed by a dozen more by the end of April. Some of the pictures show civilians in bunkers, apartment buildings in ruins, and deserted apartments. Others document the destruction in the Kyiv area after the Russian troops’ withdrawal. One shows a sculpture in public space, covered with sandbags to protect it from shelling; yet another one shows steel barricades on Maidan square.
The text in this photo diary does not explain the images, nor do the images reflect the text. They evoke for us what crossed the author’s mind and caught her eye. While some of the pictures reflect anger and despair, others speak of solidarity, hope, and a fierce fight against the aggressors. One picture of the latter kind, taken at a Lviv bakery, shows several baking trays laden with dozens of peanut butter sandwiches. There is no caption, but I imagine that the sandwiches will be offered to those who fled the Eastern parts of Ukraine and became refugees overnight. It is precisely the lack of accurate information that opens up a space between fact and fiction, between documentation and storytelling.
The second photo story that I would like to present reads almost like a sequel to Teshaieva’s bakery photo. Polish photographer and model Anja Rubik documented life before and after the Russian invasion in Lviv. Like Teshaieva, she focused, among other things, on works of art in public space that were protected from artillery fire. Rubik’s pictures were published in the Wall Street Journal on March 20, along with an interview with the photographer. In both words and images, Rubik highlights the reality of being a refugee and the city’s efforts to protect its cultural heritage.
In addition to wrapping statues and enclosing them in cages, people take art works from churches and galleries to basements, for safe storage [undated]. Photo by Anja Rubik
A black and white picture that I found particularly impressive shows a scene at Lviv train station. The men and women crowding the platform may have just got off the Ukrainian train in the background or be about to get on it; we cannot tell. One young man seems to be talking on his cellphone. All this takes place under the gaze of a middle-aged woman, who is watching the crowd from inside the train. She seems to be entirely removed from all that is happening on the platform. While the crowd in the foreground seems to symbolize the chaos of the ongoing war, the woman on the train can be read as the nameless refugee, whose life would be unfolding elsewhere, were it not for the war. Like Teshaieva, Rubik opens up imaginary spaces in the midst of the harsh reality of raging battles.
The third photo story that I would like to draw attention to is very different. It is actually not a story but a sequence of photographs posted on Twitter by Dmytro Kozatskyi, who numbered among those defending the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. The online magazine Ukrinform, a “Ukrainian Online Platform for Media Broadcasting,” republished a selection of photographs—some without further comment, others with only brief captions explaining what we were given to see, or the date they were taken. Thus, unlike other photo stories and diaries, this one was not accompanied by a longer text. To put them in chronological order, we have to return to Twitter; yet there, we now find only a fraction of the pictures that Ukrinform published.
Aesthetically, darkness is a predominant motif, although it is relieved in some cases by a lamp or a bonfire. Yet the overriding impression is that of soldiers holed up most of the time in bunkers terribly lacking light. This is illustrated most dramatically by the image of a soldier bathing his face in a sunbeam, arms outstretched, almost as if he were praying to a goddess or greeting the midday sun.
Some of the images show injured men and women, either receiving medical treatment or shortly after that. Others depict, as a caption explains, the “routine life of fighters, such as lighting a bonfire to cook food and solving crossword puzzles in between battles.” Only one picture shows a fighter outdoors in the sunlight and in the midst of the destroyed steel plant.
The photographs soon went viral on social media, and were re-published by The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Stern, among others. Kozatskyi’s last Tweet appeared on May 20, three days after President Zelensky ordered the Azovstal fighters to surrender to the Russian troops. We still do not know, whether Kozatskyi and those depicted in his photographs are dead or alive.
Some of the fighters whom we see in the pictures, including “Orest,” were once members of the Azov Regiment which, according to Wikipedia, has “drawn controversy over its early and allegedly continuing association with both far-right groups and neo-Nazi ideology, its use of controversial symbols linked to Nazism, and allegations that members of the group have participated in torture and war crimes.”
Even if we assume that the Azovstal fighters were/are, first and foremost, the victims of an unjustified attack on Ukraine, we must still critically reflect on the Western media’s presentation of Kozatskyi’s pictures. The Guardian, for instance, mentions only in passing that the “Azov regiment retains some far-right affiliations.” The Washington Post explains that “Mr. Putin and his propaganda machine” have branded the defenders of Azovstal “as Nazis and terrorists, based on the fact that some came from the Azov Regiment, which began as a far-right paramilitary organization in 2014 in the war against Russia, but has since been reformed and absorbed into the regular Ukrainian army.”
Stern, by contrast, features the photographs without further comment, save for captions briefly explaining the situation in the steel plant. This “neutral” presentation of Kozatskyi’s pictures invites a broad variety of readings, ranging from implicit war romanticism, to allegories of David versus Goliath, to doomsday narratives.
Unlike strictly documentary photography, visual storytelling is unabashedly partisan. Anyone telling a story of this sort adopts a specific perspective and carefully chooses the faces and places to be shown. Nevertheless, the camera always records what “is there.” We should therefore not mistake photo-based storytelling for fiction.