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A lie in photography lives for an hour, while the truth, perhaps not so beautiful, lives forever. A conversation with Ukrainian documentary filmmakers

We continue our series of interviews with professional Ukrainian documentary filmmakers who have become accustomed to filming in the open air during explosions. This time, we talked to Marian Kushnir, Andriy Dubchak, and Serhiy Nuzhnenko about the face of war, reporting from the front lines, and the transformation of their personal optics over the past 10 years.

On the visual gradation of war

Marian Kushnir:

When you look at the period of 2020-2021 from the height that we have now, or when you recall it together with the military: "Do you remember when we were sitting there, a mine hit us, or LNG?" And you sit there and laugh together, because what is a mine, what is LNG compared to a missile, aircraft, cluster bombs?

The risks now and the risks then are heaven and earth. This is a completely different war. If I were to go back a few years with this experience, I would be just laughing and bored there. This is a different war, a different pace, a different dynamic of events, when at one moment you can be surrounded, as at the beginning of a full-scale invasion, and not know where the Russian army is, how it will behave. When I was going to the same conditional Borodyanka after it was bombed, I didn't know whether there was anyone there or not. I arrived and was told on the spot: "Oh, columns of Russians have just passed through here." What should I do?

Andriy Dubchak:

In 2015-2017, you came to the same trench, dugout, mostly to the same military. The picture you saw did not change, sometimes the trenches were overgrown with grass above your head, and in principle, everything was clear. And you were looking for some topic on the spot to tell it more thoroughly. And at the moment, we are just getting there.

On the relevance of the war

Serhiy Nuzhnenko:

Society is tired of the war. Most of the military, when I ask them whether civilian society has forgotten about the war, say that yes, they have. And one of the main reasons they give me is that people have no fear, the fear that was there in March-February 2022. And it was the driving force.

Marian Kushnir:

I would add that civilians do not have this understanding of what is happening in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, what is happening in Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, or Kherson regions, or Kharkiv region. The intensity of the war there is not rockets in Kyiv.

It is the daily deaths, daily wounded, daily destroyed infrastructure, stench, dirt, cold, mud, trenches, machine guns, mice. It's all there. The civilian population in Kyiv will not understand this.

Andriy Dubchak:

There is a problem that people are tired. But Ukrainians inside the country and even abroad, those who have left, they know at least superficially what is happening, they receive this information, whether they want to or not.

But we have a bigger problem: Ukraine is being forgotten at the global level. And this leads to the fact that the leadership of other countries has no incentive to help Ukraine more, to give more weapons, more money. This is where we have to work very hard. 

Marian Kushnir:

At a government meeting with officials, when discussing why the world's interest in the Ukrainian war is declining, one of the most powerful producers of foreign media named one simple reason: international media do not have access. A banal example: two film crews come to Ukraine, and a huge budget is spent on them. These two film crews stay for two or three weeks in a fictitious Kramatorsk because they are not allowed anywhere. The editor-in-chief looks at all this, realizes that money is being wasted, and says: "Let's move to a place where they let us in." And they go to Gaza, or Syria, or somewhere else.

On the face of war

Marian Kushnir:

For me, the face of the war is a woman who went to the ring road in Kharkiv on the night of February 24-25 and brought warm food to the soldiers. These are the women in the village of Yasnohorodka near Kyiv who quickly made sandwiches and coffee for the guys who were waiting for the Russian columns. These are doctors, these are employees of the State Emergency Service, these are... Ukraine.

It is not a specific face, that this is a woman or a man. War is a process that visually looks so scary and horrible that you can't convey it with a photo. You cannot convey the smell of rotten blood, the stench of mice. You can't convey the nasty smell of gunpowder that is in the air every time there is an attack. You can't convey the smell of fear that prevails in everyone, every single one of them. Even the best soldiers have fear, whether they admit it or not.

And this fear is probably the face of war. Fear of losing statehood. Fear of losing loved ones, relatives. This is somewhere about war. Should we show this? Yes, we should. Is it necessary to... Should we look for ways to prove to people that this is terrible and should not happen? Yes, we should. Do we need to look for new ways? As practice has shown, recently we have. Give us the opportunity, we will do it. As one great philosopher said, give me a foothold and I will move the world. We are the same way, give us access and we will show.

Serhiy Nuzhnenko:

Sometimes I ask civilians in a bar or taxi: "How do you see yourself in the war?". Because I realize that sooner or later everyone will have to participate, either storming landings or, excuse me, flying a drone. And some people are starting to hesitate, while others are starting to participate: "I could do this and that and the other." And I wonder if people there really realize this, or if they are just trying to talk themselves out of it.

Andriy Dubchak:

The most effective thing that opposes Russia is civil society. This is the Maidan. It is the volunteers. It is the army. Because for me, the army, if earlier it was professional military men who studied and underwent military training, today the army is Kolya from a barbershop, Uncle Vasya who drove a trolley, and Seryozha, a tractor driver from some village, that is, these are ordinary people. This is civil society.

About memorable shots

Marian Kushnir:

For me, these are stories, not footage. Sofia is one of them.

I was always afraid to film the death of a child. It would be a very strong blow for me. I have never seen children die, and I consciously avoid it. But I didn't think it would be so scary for me to see a child's fear of war. These eyes that look not at you, but through you. We took Sofia out in our car with her mother. And this picture of the child waiting for evacuation with her pig Pepa is an important story for me.

Speaking of memorable shots with the military, this is de-occupation. This is probably the best thing you can shoot: when the equipment with a bunch of soldiers is moving forward. This is valuable.

Photo by Marian Kushnir

Life is more important than any set of all the values in the world, including photographs.

Andriy Dubchak:

War is a terrible thing, but it is also about survival. I recently selected photos that I would like to show and give to one person. And all these are photographs of many faces that survived, that were saved. And there is hope for them that everything will be fine.

Photo by Andriy Dubchak

Serhiy Nuzhnenko:

My memorable moments in terms of photography mean nothing. But I remember two episodes: the exhumation in Izyum and the assault near Khromove.

When they were exhuming the soldiers in Izyum, they didn't have enough people to carry the bodies upstairs. So at first I filmed the exhumation, how they were digging the body out of the pit, then I threw the camera over and carried this white bag upstairs.

Another moment I remember is when Marian and I went on an assault near Khromove, and one of our dead was there. I filmed him being carried out and then, together with the military, I carried his body about a kilometer from the battlefield to the evacuation site. No matter how much your hands burn, you bring a person home.

And everything else - sorry, it sounds cynical, but it's just a normal job.

Photo by Serhiy Nuzhnenko

On ethical issues in photography

Serhiy Nuzhnenko:

We, as war journalists and photographers, have no right to wear a pixel, as, unfortunately, many of our colleagues do. And I don't understand why.

Andriy Dubchak:

You have to film and record even what you think is unimportant. Today, a military man called me and asked if I had a 4-year-old video of a machine gunner. "Let's make a video about him, because he died back in the early days."

Serhiy Nuzhnenko:

Despite the fact that we are filming a lot of suffering, death, and blood, we must remain human. And we must also be humane to what we film, especially to the people we kill.

Marian Kushnir:

You can't re-shoot a real war. There is no second take. 

Andriy Dubchak:

When the Maidan was happening, there was a popular slogan "heroes don't die".

But heroes do die. I saw the corpses. I was in the morgue. I saw their families crying.

Watch the full video on YouTube:

We will continue to invite professional Ukrainian photographers who are used to shooting in the open air during explosions. But we believe that they will come here to us under the spotlight and tell us how it really is. So, see you soon.


Participants of the discussion:

Marian Kushnir - military correspondent for Radio Liberty.

Andriy Dubchak - photojournalist, war reporter, first Euromaidan streamer. He is the founder and head of Donbas Frontliner, an independent reporting media outlet.

Serhiy Nuzhnenko - a military correspondent for Radio Liberty.

Lina Zelenska - journalist, TV presenter and moderator of the meetingі.

We are grateful to for their support and help in amplifying Ukrainian voices


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