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The frontline is not a safari for photographers. A conversation with Ukrainian documentary filmmakers

Over the 20 months of full-scale war, photography has become one of the main languages in which Ukraine communicates with the world. It is in this language that captures events, records emotions, testifies to crimes, and writes the visual book of history.

We talked to UAPP members Viacheslav Ratynskyi, Serhii Korovainyi, and Danylo Pavlov about the difficulties that still exist in accessing stories, the impact of documentary photography on society, and what it's like to see war at arm's length.

Публікуємо деякі тези із розмови з фотографами:

On the coverage of the war by foreign and Ukrainian photographers

Danylo Pavlov: I believe that foreigners have a qualitatively different approach to building a story. A person who comes from abroad has two weeks to focus on something specific and make a story. And we are constantly in this content. And the overwhelming majority of our colleagues work in the news format not because of their inability to create anything else, but because they are attached to our Ukrainian context and the war. And it's hard to combine two focuses of attention at the same time.

On changing the perception of our resistance

Serhiy Korovainyi: I never thought before this war how important our work was. Because Russia is simply committing atrocities that would be unimaginable in the 21st century if we, our colleagues, had not gone to Bucha, Horenka, Makariv, Trostyanets after the de-occupation of Kyiv region, people in Ukraine and abroad would not have believed that there were bodies of tortured people lying on the streets of a suburb of a major European capital if there were no photographers there. So we are really doing important work. And we have and will continue to work.

Photo by Serhiy Korovainyi

About accessing stories and working in the fields

Viacheslav Ratynskyi: A lot of bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of journalists and photographers getting to the front line. But this is not a complaint against anyone. Press officers often try very hard, do everything in their power, but this is not enough to avoid losing this information war.

Nowadays, Ukrainian photographers are very rarely allowed to stay at the front for a long time, although it is long trips that produce real results, as we can see from Mariupol and the work of foreign journalists here.

Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Serhiy Krovaynyi: In the East, everything depends on press officers and personal contacts. I have a feeling that our army is learning how to cooperate together on the go. To be honest, I have great hope for Illarion Pavliuk, who has taken over the Press and Information Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. He is a journalist with combat experience, and I hope he will establish work with the media, as it was impossible before, and make it better for everyone.

Danylo Pavlov: A lot of photographers want to get this access to places where there are hostilities. Sometimes you need the press officer to understand that you don't mean any harm, you want to make a story that is of high quality in the first place, and you don't want to make a nice picture that will not look quite honest.

I can say that we cannot compete with The New York Times because Reporters is a very small media outlet in comparison.

However, the front is not a safari for photographers.

I understand this desire to constantly go closer, I have it too, but the stories should not be only from the front line. We are surrounded by a lot of different problems and a lot of different stories that we can cover.

Photo by Danylo Pavlov

About the bright moments of the war

Vyacheslav Ratynsky: War, like everyday life, consists of a range of moments, black and white. And sometimes they are very black, and sometimes they are very bright. It's just that these moments change very quickly.

Several things can happen in one day that will just completely or make you absolutely happy.

Sergiy Korovainy: Recently I was working on a selection of photos to submit to annual competitions with my colleagues from the Wall Street Journal. We were making collective submissions and I saw that it turns out that my photos have more light, just physically, more light, more colors. I live here and I see this country as a breathing organism that also lives.

Perhaps this is where I differ from my foreign colleagues at the Wall Street Journal. The fact that we see light where others may be looking for only grief.

Danylo Pavlov: For some reason, I remember the New Year and the Christmas tree in an empty square in Bakhmut, which we carried with the rescuers and put up there to celebrate 2023.

It was a very joyful moment, and then we came back from there and felt indescribably sad.

There is one more bright thing about war: you can feel a person in seconds, see really cool, bright people.
- Viacheslav Ratynskyi

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Sergiy Korovainy is a photojournalist and portrait photographer. He collaborates with international publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian, Financial Times, and others. He shoots his documentary projects focusing on the Russian-Ukrainian war, ecology, and various aspects of Ukrainian modernity.

Viacheslav Ratynskyi is a Ukrainian reporter and documentary photographer. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv. He works with the Reuters agency.

He has been published in many Ukrainian publications (Ukrainska Pravda, Hromadske, NV, Reporters and others), as well as in a number of foreign publications (Time, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington post, The New York Times, Der Spiegel).

Danylo Pavlov is a documentary photographer from Ukraine. He is a photo editor at and a photographer for The Ukranians.

Lina Zelenska is a journalist, TV presenter and moderator of the meeting.

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


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