Civilians boarded an evacuation train in Pokrovsk, Ukraine. September 28, 2022. Photo: Nicole Tung
Nicole Tung has been covering conflicts all over the globe for over a decade: from Iraq to DR Congo, from Syria to Hong Kong, from Libya to Bangladesh. She went to Ukraine in the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion and spent most of the first year of the war there. In her interview with Mediazona, Nicole Tung speaks about people who are adapting to the war but not accepting it, about constantly being on full alert, and about why a picture of a man who was captured by Ukrainian soldiers is so rare and telling.
That last week of February, obviously the news was all about the coming invasion. Is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen? And then—surely enough—early in the morning of February 24, I started to get alerts on my phone. I was actually on a different assignment in the Ivory Coast at the time, photographing US special forces who were training African partner nations, and so I couldn’t leave straight away. But I got back to Istanbul where I’m based a few days afterwards. On February 27, I took a train from Warsaw to Kyiv.
There were very few people going into Ukraine, a few dozen men trying to get their families out, join up the fight. But the Kyiv train station in the morning was just packed full of people trying to get out. Rows, and rows, and rows. People with just a few bags, their pets, children... That was kind of the first shock: whoa, okay, this is real.
I spent most of the first year of the war in Ukraine. I’ve been in the south, and the east, and the northeast as well. My first assignments were for Harper’s. They are really visually focused when it comes to these kinds of feature stories—and they don’t usually do news. So they gave me the time to see where everything was going, photographing all these different things as the war unfolding.
I’ve never photographed in Ukraine before, and I’ve never been to Russia either. It’s a very different dynamic than photographing in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa, the places that I’ve covered before. And there’s so much that goes into the photography, it’s not just about taking a picture of action happening. It’s really about reading people, understanding their body language, how open or not open they are to the camera. A lot to figure out in the first couple of weeks... Because when you lose empathy, especially when you’re photographing such sensitive, difficult situations, I feel like the images won’t be as powerful.
At first, in Kyiv, people were extremely closed off, very suspicious of outsiders. It was the first time many of them had really been faced with that kind of a situation (whereas in the east of the country, you know, many people had already lived through that for the past eight years).
My first pictures from Ukraine for Harper’s were mostly black and white. They are a lot more flexible in terms of styles and and visual language because it’s not purely news, and I was so unsure of all this that I felt that having something in black and white would lend a bit more consistency to the feeling of the pictures. Whereas afterwards, it was The Washington Post, The New York Times.
The nature of the war is also very different from Syria or Iraq. There, you’re worried about kidnappings, terrorists, suicide bombings. Whereas in Ukraine, for a long time it was mostly an artillery war, when there’s not as much urban combat—or you cannot get close to the urban combat. But nevertheless, the artillery is a constant threat, especially if you’re closer to the front line areas. And then, of course, even if you’re in Kyiv or Western Ukraine, a random missile strike can always get you. So no matter what, you’re always on full alert.
A lot of times, you go into certain places knowing that you’re putting yourself at a higher degree of risk. For example, I was working on a story about the Dnipro river and my team and I were near Kherson, in this sort of suburb village Antonivka. You can see the Antonivskyy bridge from there.
That particular area on the eastern side of the bridge was getting targeted quite heavily, shelled consistently after a certain hour of the day. So I would go there and people would be like: “Well, in the morning, I prepare my broshch, and then I do the laundry, and then by noon, I’m underground.” At exactly 11:30 in the morning, even though there was fog, we started to hear the shelling. It started to get closer, and then one [ordnance] landed really close, so we decided to take shelter in one of the houses.
Two elderly women were sheltering there. We got talking to them about why aren’t you leaving. It’s always very interesting to hear many reasons that people decide not to leave. Some hope that it might end the next day and then they can just go about with their lives. A lot of times they may not actually have the financial resources to be displaced because you do need money to get around the country to leave your home.
So we kept talking to these two elderly women, about the first days of the war last year, how the bridge was being fought over. From there, we went back to the history of the river itself and how on May 9 they used to finish school and go to the other bank and have barbecues. How the water was cleaner back then. One of them remembered how in 1986, when the bridge opened, she got off work early to go and celebrate, because it was the first real road connection to Crimea. And then you realise how history and geography come together in that one person.
I can talk to you about horrendous attacks on civilians, but there is a picture that’s just a little bit different because it represents the complexity of the front line. It’s a picture of a captive that Ukrainian soldiers had taken on the front line near Lyman, just before they retaken the city.
We were standing on the bank of the river, when the soldiers were disembarking from this speedboat. Initially I didn’t see him, he was in the back below the seats maybe. And then, when they all started coming off the boat, there was this one guy with a dish towel over his head. At first, it didn’t really come together in my head. And then I was like: oh, he’s being captured.
The photo looks a little bit more dramatic than the scene itself. They were trying to get him off the boat, they weren’t mishandling him, they weren’t treating him roughly or anything like that. Without realizing what was happening, I was photographing it first and then we started to hear what the Ukrainian soldiers talking about him. They said they were going to go and take him to be further investigated and questioned before being handed over to Ukrainian intelligence.
He said he was only trying to collect firewood, but he was apparently caught in this very delicate place, between the two lines, he had Russian rubles in his pocket. And it wasn’t clear, was he really trying to collect firewood? Was he spying for Russia?
For me, being there to capture that moment and witness that situation was so incredibly rare. Because in covering this war, you can’t really get to the front line a lot of times. But in a way this scene was even better: rather than seeing people firing artillery or things like that, this was really about how complicated and complex certain situations can be. Many civilians in the east are questioned about their allegiances, Russian speakers especially. And the writer wrote it in a really good way, I think that really got to the heart of a lot of these issues. The fog of war.
I think for someone who hasn’t been to a conflict zone or to Ukraine for that matter, it’s very difficult to imagine that normal life can also exist in places that are relatively safer but still targeted. For example, this terrible attack that happened in the city of Dnipro on January 14. I was nearby when it happened and went straight there. It was really horrendous, more than 40 people were killed. But then a few days later I saw municipal workers clearing the rubble, clearing the road, repairing barriers. And nearby, all the coffee shops and restaurants were reopened again.
To me that’s a strange dynamic: you kind of think people don’t spend much time mourning or grieving, but they also can’t—because this happens relatively often and they have to get back to life. These dichotomous things exist side by side. But what’s so amazing about it is that people realise they have to go out, they have to live their lives, they have to spend money because they have to keep the economy going.
At the same time, the parallel economy is the volunteerism: people are dependent on food aid, they’re dependent on a lot of things that help them survive. One year into the war, I think that’s quite well established. What hasn’t changed is the supposed enthusiasm of people to volunteer their time or their resources to helping other people.
In any war after its first year in a way people become accustomed to it. They know what to do.
All these cement shelters in Dnipro and other cities are popping up on the streets. You see them and you’re like, wow, this is becoming normal. And it’s not that people accept it—they’re still angry. But that’s how they’re dealing with the situation, coping with it, keeping themselves safe but still live at the same time.
And then the further west you go, the more kind of normalized things are. But it’s really not normal because more than half of the populations in these places are displaced from elsewhere in the country.
Covering this conflict is very different for me, too. After an assignment, you’re going back to a hotel or a city and you can go to a restaurant and eat at night. And then go do your war reporting the next day.
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