Ukrainian Photographers Document the Russia-Ukraine War

CHildren are seen playing chess with the backdrop of a Kyiv bombed house. A highway only miles from the capital was littered with bodies. An Lviv church holds a funeral for fallen soldiers. These haunting photos are among those that remain in the hearts of Ukrainian photojournalists.

They have been documenting the death and destruction caused by Russia’s invasion for weeks, all while dealing with the trauma of a war that has deeply affected them and their families. Many people feel an increased sense of responsibility in their work. “I don’t stay here and do this because I am a masochist,” photojournalist Maxim Dondyuk told TIME in March. “I do it because sometimes a photo can change people, change societies.”

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TIME interviewed five photographers to discuss images they treasure, their reasons for continuing documenting war in such difficult circumstances, and what they do about taking care of mental health.

Oksana Parafeniuk

Oksana Parafeniuk can’t forget the early morning hours of Feb. 24. When she heard the first explosions from Kyiv, Oksana Parafeniuk was still in bed. “It felt like suddenly our lives would never be the same.”

Parafeniuk was 37 years old when she was born near Kyiv and has lived in Kyiv for almost a decade. Because she is expecting her first child in June, Parafeniuk and her husband have been living in Poland and are looking for safer places to call home. The couple hopes to eventually return to Kyiv.

Parafeniuk explains that photojournalists in the local area face special challenges when covering war. This is especially true for families who are confronted with displacement and danger. “I couldn’t work for many days because I was stressed about the safety of my family—trying to talk them into leaving and arranging the evacuation,” Parafeniuk says. “Every Ukrainian I know seems to be going through so much heartbreak and difficulty—so many lost hopes and dreams—and it’s just draining your energy every minute.”

She describes photographing the funeral of three Ukrainian soldiers at a church in Lviv—and the silence when their caskets were brought inside. That was followed by weeping from the soldiers’ family members. “The sound of it just pierced my soul so deep. It was unbelievably heartbreaking.”

It’s also harder to process grief when documenting the experiences of other people, Parafeniuk says. One story Parafeniuk reported on she recalls. Der SpiegelFocused on setting up a center that would allow people to call free psychologists in times of distress. As she listened to the calls, Parafeniuk heard Ukrainians voice their anxiety about the sirens of air raid. “It was very difficult emotionally, because I knew exactly the feelings that all these people who called were talking about,” Parafeniuk says.

Parafeniuk feels she could do better at taking care for herself. Therapy is something she’s considering. She’s changed the settings on her phone so she doesn’t get notifications at night; otherwise she would constantly receive news alerts and not sleep well, she says.

Evgeniy Maloletka

Evgeniy Maloletka began documenting evidence of Russian crimes against Ukraine eight years ago when Putin’s troops annexed Crimea. This 35-year-old was born in Berdyansk (southeast Russia) and was one of the few reporters who reported on the conflict at Mariupol. According to officials, the Russian invasion of the city has resulted in more than 5,000 civilian casualties. Maloletka claims that the devastation of such an affluent city haunts him. He is also saddened at the lives that residents were forced to lead.

Maloletka, who has been attacked while on duty, has found working dangerous. “They are shooting at us with…all types of weapons,” he says.

Maloletka claims that the most striking images he took were those showing how Russian troops killed Ukrainian children and adults. “It’s beyond words. How could I not show this to the world?”

It is difficult to be a Ukrainian in this moment. “All of us Ukrainians are experiencing feelings of anxiety and pride for our country,” he says.

Serhii Korovainyi

Serhii Korvoainyi, 27, said he didn’t even think for a second about leaving Ukraine. “For me—a Ukrainian citizen and photographer, it felt natural to stay,” he says. “I want to make sure the world sees and remembers the situation in my country.”

Before the Russian invasion, Korovainyi—who is from Khartsyzsk, in the eastern Donetsk region—had been working primarily on a documentary about Mariupol’s environmental challenges.

Some images Korovainyi took recently that are still cherished include scenes showing Ukrainians staying in underground and bomb shelters for the night, as well as an image featuring children playing chess at the ruin in Kyiv.

Korovainyi claims he has met people who were killed or displaced. He has been trying to meditate and take breaks to take care of his own mental health but “nothing really helps,” he adds.

“My country is under fire, my parents and the parents of my wife are on Russian-controlled territory,” he says. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Julia Kochetova

Julia Kochetova (28), is a documentarian who works for VICE News. Der Spiegel. She has also been working on an independent portrait series about Ukrainians who stayed in Kyiv and worked in various ways to keep their city safe and running—whether as combat medics, train conductors or animal rescue volunteers.

Kochetova was brought up in Kyiv. It was easy for her to decide that she wanted to remain in Kiev. “My camera always was a friend and therapy,” she says. However, it was difficult to take photos of war. “To film your personal war, it hurts,” she says. “When your people are suffering, your friends are dying and your colleagues are missing, it crushes you from the inside out.”

Kochetova claims that she turned to yoga, boxing and meditation in order to deal with her trauma.

Mykhaylo Palinchak

Mykhaylo, 37 years old, currently resides in Kyiv. He has no plans of leaving, but his wife, and their two children, have relocated to Poland. Palinchak, who was born in Uzhhorod, Western Ukraine, spent many years in Kyiv.

Palinchak feels that documenting history through his photographs is particularly important given Russia’s weaponization of disinformation. “I feel an obligation, being Ukrainian, to document the events,” he says. “I never hold any weapon in my hands but I can hold a camera…Truth is the only weapon Ukraine has.”

Palinchak’s most difficult assignment was photographing Highway M06 about 20 km from Kyiv. “I didn’t expect so many bodies that have been lying on the road for weeks. I had never seen so much death, pain and tragedy in my life before.”

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