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Capturing the war: Ukrainian photographers share their most significant images

The world sees the reality of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine war through the images of those who dare to photograph and document despite the danger.

The work of Ukrainian photographers during the full-scale war has been remarkable. Their work draws the world’s attention to the horrors of the Russian invasion and occupation, serves as evidence of war crimes, and shares the spirit of Ukrainian resistance, even when it is hard to find words.

We talked with Ukrainian photographers about the most remarkable images they took during times of full-scale Russian war and the story behind it.

Bucha massacre. Mykhailo Palinchak

Bucha. April 2, 2022.
Photo: Mykhailo Palinchak

During the first month of the full-scale invasion, Mykhailo Palinchak worked in Kyiv. Russian troops occupied towns and villages near the capital, committing atrocities against civilians and shooting those who tried to evacuate.

In early April 2022, the Ukrainian military liberated the outskirts of Kyiv. Mykhailo knew he had to go there as soon as he saw the official announcement from the Ministry of Defence that Russian troops had withdrawn.

He joined the Kyiv Territorial Defence Battalion, which was delivering humanitarian aid to the residents of Bucha. 

“I saw dead bodies on the way. We arrived at a destroyed supermarket, where the military started distributing aid, and I went back a bit to take pictures,” says Mykhailo Palinchak.

“It was impossible to imagine that in the 21st century, dozens of bodies would lie for weeks in the middle of a European city.” 

“Here, the Territorial Defence is distributing bread and tinned food to exhausted people who have been under occupation for almost a month and survived. And over there, there are those who were less fortunate and were shot because they wanted to leave. It’s surreal and hard to describe in words,” Mykhailo recalls.

The mass graves and atrocities committed by Russians in the Kyiv region were on the pages of the world’s leading media. They showed what the Russians were doing in the territories they occupied. It strengthened support for Ukraine and changed the perception and, therefore, the course of the war.

“It is important to note that not only one or two photographers were there — dozens of Ukrainian and foreign correspondents showed the pictures from different angles, at different times and places. It disproved the allegation of forgery that the Russians were making at the time”.

When Mykhailo Palinchak talks about the importance of the work of media professionals, he recalls the story of a family he met while filming the evacuation from the Kharkiv region. The young couple lived in Kharkiv when Russia started the invasion. The woman was pregnant. At the beginning of March 2022, the couple went to the village in the Izium district because the Russians came close to Kharkiv and intensively shelled the city.  

They had the internet and followed the news, but not much happened in the village for the first month. On April 3, the couple saw photos from Bucha. A few hours later, their village was occupied by Russians. 

“At that moment, they realised that they had to leave as soon as possible. They saw what could happen, and it was a big reason for them to hurry. Now, the family is doing well. They have a wonderful baby boy and are living in Kharkiv,” says the photographer.

First apple. Vitalii Yurasov

Prisoner’s exchange. April 26, 2023
Photo: Vitalii Yurasov

On April 26, 2023, Ukraine returned 42 soldiers and two civilians from Russian captivity. Vitalii Yurasov was able to film the first steps of the Ukrainians back home. He says his most important photograph is of Mykhailo holding an apple for the first time in a while. The soldier had been in Russian captivity for more than a year.

“It is the strongest emotion and the strongest photo I took during the war. These exchanges are a mixture of joy and pain: joy because the soldiers are finally home, and this hell is over for them. Pain because you see their condition and understand what they have been through,” says Vitalii Yurasov.

The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War meets the bus with the exchanged Ukrainians. The soldiers are given a package with necessities, a Ukrainian flag, and food.

The men smoke their first cigarettes in a year and ask if Ukraine has really lost Kharkiv and Odesa. Instead, they are told that Ukraine did not lose these cities and, in fact, launched a significant counter-offensive and liberated Kherson in November 2022. 

“It was painful to realise it, painful to see it, painful to film it. And then you remember where they came from, and you don’t want to remind them of it. Even with your confused, sad face,” Yurasov recalls.

The photographer emphasizes that the Russians are still holding thousands of Ukrainian soldiers without proper conditions. Russia does not respect the Geneva Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and does not allow independent human rights organisations access to monitor detention conditions.

A dog rescued from the flooding of Kherson. Serhii Korovayny

Kherson. June 7, 2023
Photo: Serhii Korovayny for the Wall Street Journal

In June 2023, the Russians blew up the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station. As a result, Kherson and settlements in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions were flooded. Rescuers evacuated the local population under Russian shelling.

Serhii Korovayny read about man-made disaster in the morning news, and a few hours later, he and other journalists and photographers set off for Kherson. They arrived in the evening, spent the night in a friend’s yard, and began documenting the flooding the next morning.

“It’s a terrible tragedy. The water level was rising. But there was a sense of moral uplift, like on the Maidan. Everyone worked together: the police, the military, and many volunteers. Everyone was ready to help,” says Serhii.

He was setting up his camera when he saw one of the boats coming. A shepherd dog was shivering from the cold. It had spent many hours in the cold water and could not walk on its own. When the dog was taken out of the boat, it leaned on the volunteer’s leg and hugged him.

“It was an almost human gesture that showed both gratitude [for the rescue] and a desire to live. This dog seemed more human to me than 140 million Russians”.

Korovayny quickly took a photo of the dog and continued working. In the evening, while reviewing the footage, he burst into tears when he saw this photo and posted it on his social media.

The dog was taken to a shelter in Odesa, where it was found a home just at the beginning of 2024. 

During Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Serhii became more convinced of the power of visual storytelling. He works with foreign media and hopes that his photos will influence the level of support for Ukraine.

“The Russians are doing fierce things. And if there hadn’t been dozens of journalists in Bucha, Borodianka, Makariv… if [Mstyslav] Chernov, [Yevhen] Malolietka and [Vasilisa] Stepanenko (the Ukrainian AP team — ed.) hadn’t stayed in Mariupol, the Russians could have continued to say that these were fakes and that there were no attacks on maternity hospitals and mass graves,” concludes Serhii Korovayny.

Written by Andriana Velianyk 
Translated by Taisiia Blinova