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How to take pictures in dangerous and scary places? A frank conversation with military commander Marian Kushnir about shooting in hot spots

Infantry of the 118th Separate Mechanised Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine near Robotyne, Zaporizhzhia region. December 2023. Photo by Marian Kushnir


A documentary filmmaker records events as an observer without interfering, leaving a historical record. How do you turn on the camera when enemy bullets whistle over your head, and your body shudders from the sounds of artillery or shells falling like rain nearby? We talk to war correspondent Marian Kushnir about the photographer's work on the frontline, in the trenches and other hot spots during the attacks.


How to shoot in places full of fear


Marian Kushnir is a Radio Free/Radio Liberty journalist, who has been documenting the war since 2015. He is known for his direct engagement with the military. The journalist got a concussion during the battles for the Kyiv region.


Radio Free/Radio Liberty journalist Marian Kushnir after being injured in March 2022 in Kyiv region


"Perhaps the materials we prepare will soon be used in textbooks," says Marian, explaining his motivation to continue his work.


He mostly works close to the front line, especially with infantrymen. Marian took part in five direct attack operations. In particular, he filmed the attacks in the area of Khromove near Bakhmut, street battles in Bakhmut, and the International Legion entrance during the battle for Sievierodonetsk.


Evacuation of the wounded during the battle in Rudnytske, Kyiv region. 10 March 2022. Photo by Marian Kushnir


During the battles for the Kyiv region, he and Max Levin (a Ukrainian photojournalist who was killed by Russians - ed.) went to Borodyanka. This village in the Bucha district was already occupied, but the guys realized it too late. "We arrived 30 minutes after the plane had already hit Borodyanka," says Marian, adding that they had to work in different conditions. "We were constantly weighing up - whether we were going to come back or not, and whether all this 'movement' was worth the material we were going to get."


Borodyanka after air strikes in the first days of the invasion. March 2022. Photo by Marian Kushnir


«I go there not to be killed or injured»


Marian says that in the nine years he has been covering the war, he has learned to manage fear rather than fight it. "I am aware of all the possible risks that exist in today's war. I go there not to be killed or injured, but to do my job efficiently and professionally." To show the world what is happening in the war, he prepares himself both mentally and physically, by attending various security training courses. 


He says if we stop documenting the war, someone will fill the information gap. Marian believes that sometimes this risk is justified because, above all, he is alive and smiling: "Of course, every picture taken in an unexplored by other journalists area is worth the effort!"


"I leave, not knowing when I’ll be back, whether in 15 minutes or 36 hours"


Marian says that it is always difficult to predict his stay on the front line with the military. Sometimes he is allowed to film for 15 minutes and then he is taken away. Sometimes he has to wait with the military for a day and a half until they are replaced by other soldiers. Sometimes he can live with them in certain positions for a week.


Soldier sleeping in dugout in Kupiansk sector. January 2024. Photo by Marian Kushnir


Once, he spent a day and a half in a dugout with a soldier. The photo was taken in the direction of Kupiansk. It was in the woods on the front line, about 300 meters from the Russians.


"I went in in the dark. I had no idea when I would get out. So I had to wait in that position for a day and a half, without being able to leave the hole. To be in the same conditions as the soldiers. To feel the cold and the thirst. To feel this ton of metal falling into the forest every 15 minutes. To hear the trees creaking and falling. The commanding officer announced the withdrawal after 36 hours. During the night we managed to move to a safer area," says Marian.


It soon becomes clear that not everything can be published when working in a war zone. The photographer believes that the most valuable thing at the front is the story of the people and what they say. Their opinions are so varied. Marian believes it is important to show the world these ordinary people standing up to the aggressor: "There is something very surreal about people flying into space in the 21st century and events happening on Earth that resemble the first century. Ordinary people with guns, under artillery fire, sitting in pits with wooden shelters, cold and hungry, with candles, fending off attacks. This is absurd! This should not be happening in the 21st century. That is my aim - to film this absurdity and say to the world: "Wake up folks!"


Personal safety


Marian points out that the military is not responsible for the journalist's life or health. "It is all my responsibility and the responsibility of the editors. The military can only facilitate and help. And that is what they do. In other words, it is my call to them and their help with the organization. We work together to see how we can do it in a way that is safe not only for me but for the staff. Marian points out. "The military knows how important it is to show them at zero point.


Journalist Marian Kushnir at Ukrainian army positions on the edge of Horlivka. April 2022. Photo by Serhiy Nuzhnenko


The journalist's advice is to first assess the situation and think about the worst-case scenario when working in a war zone. Think about your actions and your evacuation route. Think about the nearest safe areas where you can get a connection.


Role of photography


Marian works in both photo and video formats. But sometimes he prefers photography. "Photography is something that lives forever," Marian emphasizes, "once taken, there will be no more. I go for a shot I'll probably never make again. Sometimes it's just a picture of artillery fire. But mostly I photograph people's eyes". He is convinced that photography is easier to understand and share.


A wood near Kupiansk, Kharkiv region. January 2023. Photo by Marian Kushnir


How to work at the forefront?


If the situation escalates, the army takes several actions, such as firing, reporting, observing, and bringing in ammo. At this point, someone may be injured. Marian insists that the media should be aware of the importance of giving the military space to do their job properly.


The Ukrainian Armed Forces are on their way to a mission. March 2022. Photo by Marian Kushnir


"Imagine you are watching a referee on the sidelines of a football pitch. When the ball comes towards him, he has to move away without interference. In the same way, you shouldn't interfere with the story that's unfolding in your frame. You can follow it and must understand that you may be redundant”.


A soldier plays with a dog on the territory of the Vasylkiv airfield in the Kyiv region. February 2022. Photo by Marian Kushnir


Photos that stuck in mind


In the 9 years of war, including 2 years of full-scale invasion, Marian finds it difficult to choose his own photos that are memorable or impressive. A photo of a little girl, Sofiika comes to his mind first. She had to leave her home village in the Luhansk region after the de-occupation in autumn 2022. "I was struck by the fear in the child's eyes as she was leaving her home under shelling, going to a peaceful territory. She has no clue what is happening around her".


Girl Sofiika holds her guinea pig. Luhansk region, 2022. Photo by Marian Kushnir


He notes with sadness that he has taken many pictures of soldiers. Unfortunately, many of them have died or went missing after their missions. Marian Kushnir says that people don't talk much about the price of the photos and the sacrifices that had to be made to take them. It's not about money. 


"The price of a photo is lost youth and time, just to leave a footprint in the future and prevent it from happening again. A picture can cost a life".


 

Marian Kushnir, 30, is a Ukrainian journalist, videographer, and cameraman working for Radio Free/Radio Liberty Ukraine since 2015. Since then, he has traveled to the front line to cover the fighting in Ukraine and report on mass events. Following Russia's open military attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022, he reports from hotspots of active hostilities. On 11 March 2022, he got a concussion in the village of Baryshivka, Kyiv region.

Cavalier of the Order of Merit III Class (2022).


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