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What you shoot cannot be deleted. How photojournalists work at the sites of Russian shelling and in the war zone

Evacuation of a wounded man. Kharkiv, December 2023. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it has become even more difficult for documentary photographers covering the war, as personal risks and threats to life have increased significantly. What are the rules for working at the places of "arrivals"? What can and cannot be published? What to do when filming is prohibited? How to take pictures so that you don't have to delete them? We talk about personal and digital safety with the documentary filmmakers Viacheslav Ratynskyi and Yakiv Lyashenko, as well as with Olha Fomichenko-Zakutska, the coordinator of the training programs and the communicator of the 2402 Foundation.

Photo by Fund 2402

Kyiv courtyard after Russian shelling. January 2024. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

«You can film everything, but can you publish everything?»  

Documentary photographer Viacheslav Ratynskyi has been shooting the most important events in the country since the Revolution of Dignity. He travels to the frontline to visit soldiers and constantly records the consequences of "arrivals" in Kyiv and in border areas for Ukrainian and foreign media.

Clashes between activists and law enforcement officers. February 2014. Photo by Vyacheslav Ratynsky

He is convinced that one should and can take pictures of everything, but when to publish them is the main question. Viacheslav says that every photographer works according to generally accepted and his own moral standards, relying on his feelings and self-censorship. "At the moments when medics provide help to the seriously wounded, you feel whether it is appropriate or not to be present. For example, it can threaten the safety of other people. Or, let's say, your presence interferes with the work of police, doctors or rescuers. There are very different cases. However, the main task of a photographer is not only to capture what happened as widely as possible. The main thing is not to harm. Whether you are at the frontline, at the scene of a tragedy, at the site of a missile attack, etc. The main thing is to remain human," he emphasizes.

A rescuer tames a fire. January 2024. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

«I shoot more than I publish»  

Kharkiv-based photographer Yakov Lyashenko, who records the criminal actions of Russians shelling residential buildings and civilian infrastructure in his city almost daily, admits that "security in our work is a relative concept."

He emphasizes that one cannot record what is in the enemy's favor, and that is why he is very careful in selecting his own footage for publication. "I shoot more than I publish. Of course, if there are soldiers on the ground and they ask me not to take pictures of them, I don't do it. And there are many other things about the military that I would not like to mention. But, in short, I never take pictures of anything that can help the enemy."

An attack on a residential building in Kharkiv. December 2023. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko

Could the Russians strike again? When to go to document the scene of the tragedy

Yakiv Lyashenko believes that efficiency is key. He learns about the explosions from the window of his apartment, so he immediately goes to the scene of the attack. "When there is an "arrival" in Kharkiv, I hear it. Is it safe? Well, I don't use the elevator at that moment. I don't wait for the alarm to go off, I immediately go to the scene to document the events. Because if I wait, there will be nothing and no one there when I arrive," says Yakiv.

A double blow to Pokrovsk. August 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

A woman recovers from the Russian attack on Pokrovsk. August 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Photographer Vyacheslav Ratynsky believes that it is worth focusing on the situation. According to him, in the first minutes after a shelling or any tragedy, the most important events take place, you can see the scale of the disaster, the victims, emotions, the dedicated work of rescuers, etc. But there are cases when arriving too quickly at the scene can endanger the lives of both journalists and rescuers. As an example, he cites the attack on the hotel in Pokrovsk, when medics, rescuers and police were working at the scene, the Russians attacked the same place for the second time. "Rescuers were killed and police officers were injured. One of them was in Mstislav Chernov's film "20 Days in Mariupol". It happens that the Russians hit the city, wait for various services, including the military, to arrive there, and then hit again."

Medics provide aid to a wounded man. Pokrovsk. August 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Destroyed buildings after the double shelling of Pokrovsk. August 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

«Better to check twice» 

During one of the recent massive attacks on Kyiv, Viacheslav Ratynskyi saw a building on fire from the 26th floor of his house. Then he took a neat photo of the city's panorama. The picture shows the Kyiv TV tower in smoke. The photographer found the place of the fire and took a picture, but there was no information about what was inside and whether it was a strategic object. So, the decision was clear: these photos should not be published: "I consulted with the Reuters editorial board, for whom I was taking these pictures at the time. We decided not to take any risks. We didn't want our photos to harm anyone. Then it really turned out that the photo series could not be published."

Kyiv TV tower in smoke. January 2024. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

How do you take pictures in a way that doesn't hurt?

The enemy constantly monitors the information field every day. He gets most of his information from open sources. That is why, at the beginning of the Russian invasion in 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine collected tips for media professionals on how to work in the new realities. 

The truthful information should be shown so that the enemy does not know about the location and movement of the Armed Forces, does not have operational information about the damage caused by them, cannot quickly adjust fire and shelling, and does not identify the most vulnerable points on the ground for damage (hospitals, food warehouses, oil depots and logistics hubs). The consequences of the destruction of social infrastructure, the area affected by the strikes and shelling, and the number of victims and injured can only be announced after the release of official data and without detail.

In addition, the following may not be filmed: military facilities, movement of Ukrainian troops and equipment, personal data of military personnel, location and area of operations, license plates of vehicles and military equipment, location of checkpoints and the terrorist defense forces at them, location and operation of air defense, exact addresses and coordinates of hostilities, and locations of civilian protection facilities.

Rescuers are trying to get into a residential building that was damaged by shelling. December 2023. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko

«The image cannot be deleted»

Being denied access to the site of a shelling is a traditional story in the work of media professionals. Photographer Yakov Lyashenko recently faced such a misunderstanding: "The police wanted to take our cameras away from me and a few other colleagues. Then they detained us without explanation. They didn't even introduce themselves, they didn't let us go for 15 minutes. Why did this happen? In their opinion, we shouldn't be there."

Yakiv explains that this story happens very often, and most of the time law enforcement officers explain it by saying, "the boss said we can't." Then Yakov and the other photographers had to delete the pictures of the injured people and the destroyed house.

A resident of Kharkiv leaves a house damaged by Russian shelling. January 2024. Photo by Yakov Lyashenko

"The fact that my boss said I can't is not a reason for me. I also work according to the current legislation. That's why we often have discussions with the police about why this is happening," says Yakov.

A residential area of Kharkiv after attacks by Russian S-300 missiles. January 2024. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko

It is well known that there are two laws that allow media professionals to work in the areas of shelling. These are the law "On Media" and the law "On Information", and with the beginning of the war, the 73rd order of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was added:

"These two laws, and now the order, are the main ones that guide journalists," says Vyacheslav Ratynsky. They give the right to be in places of natural disaster and danger. "You can, of course, use the law. Very often it doesn't work, because law enforcement or those who prohibit it don't know this law, and they don't care that it's your job. In addition, you need to have an accreditation from the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I always wear it in a visible place."

However, Ratynsky notes that you should only quote the law if you are sure you are right and your presence will not interfere with the work of the rescue services. "Personally, I have a phrase that often works when there is a misunderstanding with law enforcement. When I am sure of the legitimacy of my actions, I say: "You can only carry me out of here," laughs Viacheslav.

Brovary, Kyiv region. January 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

In general, the guys recommend being creative in their actions and looking for possible angles or other places from which to catch a shot that will become history. Ratynskyi recalled how, despite the ban, he was able to document the tragic event that took place in Brovary, Kyiv region: "When the State Emergency Service helicopter crashed and Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi died, everything was also cordoned off and strictly forbidden to approach. We had to look for other options. So, to see this helicopter, I went up to the 8th floor of a neighboring building and took the necessary shots from a small window in the entrance."

Law enforcement officers at the crash site of the SES helicopter. January 2023. Brovary, Kyiv region. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Russian strike on the Nova Poshta terminal near Kharkiv. October 2023. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko

«When to publish photos, if they can be published» 

Ukraine has clear regulations on when photos and videos of the aftermath of shelling can be published. "We clearly know that we cannot post content earlier than 3 hours after it hits a civilian facility, and 12 hours after it hits a military facility," says Yakiv. However, there were exceptions to this rule in his practice. Mostly it happened when there were many victims after the shelling. For example, the tragedy in the village of Hroza in the Kharkiv region or the attack on the Nova Poshta terminal. "At that time, even President Zelensky violated this regulation and posted a photo from Nova Poshta on his Instagram. It was from his social media that I learned about the tragedy at night and immediately went to the scene to document the consequences," says the photographer.

An attack on the Nova Poshta near Kharkiv kills six people. October 2023. Photo by Yakiv Lyashenko

In hot zones

When working at ground zero or in the yellow zones, it is mandatory to wear protective equipment. According to the rules, media workers must wear a blue bulletproof vest with the words "PRESS" on it and keep all their ID cards in a visible place. In addition, when working in hot spots, you should have a first aid kit and know how to use it. Both Viacheslav and Yakov answered the question: "Why do you do your job?" both answered in the same short answer: "Because it is important!". Understanding the significance of this footage for both Ukraine and its history makes Ukrainian and foreign journalists continue to risk their lives, becoming "eyes" for the world. The world's attention is focused on the war in Ukraine because of them.

Photo by Fund 2402

«Risk assessment is the first priority»  

All the existing security protocols for media professionals, which were previously relevant in the world, needed to be revised in the Ukrainian context.

"We are in the midst of a high-tech war, and the risks are higher," explains Olha Fomichenko-Zakutska, a communications specialist and curator of the 2402 Foundation's training programs.

The 2402 Foundation conducts security training sessions for media professionals, volunteers, and civic activists. To date, it has included four days of active training, including digital security, tactical medicine, and mine safety. "And the last day is spent practicing real-life scenarios. The groups work on the field, come under fire and each group is given a scenario. They have to coordinate the work of each participant, provide assistance and evacuate," says Olha.

She also adds that any trip to any potentially dangerous place should first start with a risk assessment. After all, anything can happen at any time: "You need to monitor the place you are going to. What's happening there now? How do you gather your equipment and team? What are the escape routes? If something happens, where do you hide the car? Prepare several scenarios and it will be much easier for you to act."

Olha strongly recommends that all Ukrainians, not just those who work at the front or in the near-front areas, familiarize themselves with basic safety skills. As an example, she cites the tragedy in Dnipro in January 2023, when a Russian missile hit a residential building. At the time, one of the training participants, a journalist, lived in the building opposite, so even before the medics arrived, she ran with her first aid kit to save people.

"She applied the tourniquet correctly, but unfortunately, there were other injuries incompatible with life. That's why we couldn't save the man," Olha recalls.

Photo by Fund 2402

About half a thousand people have already taken the free HEFAT training from the 2402 Foundation. In February-March, the team plans to launch an exclusive virtual reality training that will bring participants closer to the conditions of work in real combat operations.

Photo by Fund 2402


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