Ukraine, Photojournalism, and the Question of Evidence
Iryna and Viktor Dudnyk weep over the body of their son Dmytro, 38, killed in a Russian rocket attack in Kherson, Ukraine, December 10, 2022. © David Guttenfelder for New York Times.
By Lauren Walsh
Published April 2023
A little over three years ago, I published my book Conversations on Conflict Photography. It takes a deep dive into the journalistic world of photographing war and crisis, exploring topics such as physical risks and emotional tolls that photographers face, questions around censorship of graphic imagery, public fatigue in response to difficult images, and the impact of repeatedly negative portrayals of peoples and places. The whole book was born from an episode that happened in one of my classes at NYU, where I teach. In response to a photograph of a severely emaciated man, taken during a devastating famine, a student said, “I don’t see why I should care about that person. There’s nothing I can do anyway. So why should I be made to feel bad?” He went on to say that he had plans that night and didn’t want his mood spoiled by the depressing photo.
It was a stunning moment for me as an educator, normally privileged to spend time with students who do want to engage with the subject matter and who do endeavor to think about ways to raise public awareness or minimize others’ suffering. It was a moment that forced me to think deeply about why images of pain and atrocity are created, how they are seen, and when (or if?) they have value. After all, though my student’s choice of words may have been insensitive, he isn’t the only one to feel that way. If we are being honest, we probably all have seen a photo that generated a sense of “but what can I do to make things better?” Sometimes the photo is just too much to take in, too distressing to look at.
Markings on the wall inside a torture chamber, where, allegedly, Russians held individuals to extract information. Survivors claim they were kidnapped, bound, detained, and starved, and the brutality included electric shock torture and psychological threats. Kherson, Ukraine, November 2022. © Julia Kochetova.
So, is there a purpose to making pictures of the most horrific scenes imaginable? Do photojournalists actually record all the brutally egregious situations they witness? Is there benefit to that documentation?
These are questions I still think about – now anew with the war in Ukraine. Accordingly, this essay explores these questions through the contemporary lens of photographing atrocity—war crimes and other grievous violations—in one of the deadliest conflicts in Europe since World War II.
Photo editors occupy a vital part of the photojournalism chain. They make the tough decisions about which images to disseminate, how to contextualize them, and why. Violent images can lead to visceral reactions in the news-consuming public. Some may look away (as my student advocated), but others get upset, if not angry.
The violence of an image isn’t necessarily graphic. Photographer David Guttenfelder caught the emotional devastation etched on the faces of an elderly couple, as they stand over the body of their son who perished in a Russian rocket attack in Kherson in December. The accompanying words in the New York Times article [Dec 15, 2022] amplify the impact of the image, referring to the “unspeakable grief” that consumes survivors in the wake of random death as “the world shrugs and moves on, often oblivious to the terrible impact on families and lives.” Guttenfelder’s photo is a visual attempt to stop us from shrugging, and to force us to acknowledge the far away suffering, possibly asking us to suffer (or at least feel discomfort) a little bit, too.
That image, though raw with emotional anguish, is, in many regards, discreet. The body of the son is largely hidden, only his blanket-covered legs in the frame. For many photo editors, the most difficult decisions play out around images of explicit physical violence—much of which they themselves must examine. Washington Post photo editor Chloe Coleman describes this in an article for Nieman Reports [Apr 15, 2022], “As the Russians have retreated from parts of Ukraine, journalists’ access to the sites of apparent atrocities have resulted in a flow of especially gruesome scenes, many of which I must review and consider from my desk: body bags (closed and opened); murdered civilians, burned, their hands bound, some dismembered.” She then asks: “What do readers need to see to understand the reality of war without our coverage being gratuitous?” In short, there is a line that photo editors try not to cross—one that isn’t overly sensational, one that doesn’t re-traumatize survivors, one that doesn’t repulse their readers. Because a repulsed reader is one who turns away and doesn’t take in the news.
Coleman explains that news consumers need to understand that civilians and soldiers alike are dying. But, she muses, “Do they need to see identifiable faces of these people? Not usually.” Both Coleman and Heidi Levine, a seasoned combat photographer who has been covering Ukraine for the Washington Post, refer to such images as “evidence.” In particular, Levine, who authored a Post article [Apr 8, 2022] about what she witnessed after Bucha was liberated from Russian control, observes, “It was a scene that I knew had to be documented for evidence.”
But whom is this evidence for? And what is it evidence of?
At a basic level, it is for the broad public to see, generally in a way that isn’t utterly visually repugnant—so we can grasp the destruction occurring during this war.
A hand in a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, April 2022. As of June that year, the Head of the National Police in Ukraine reported that 1,137 people were killed in the greater area of Bucha during the Russian occupation. © Julia Kochetova.
It is also evidence for policy makers. The international outrage after Bucha was liberated was no doubt influenced in large part by the journalism created in early April 2022, including photos of dead bodies, mass graves, and tortured victims—“the visible signs of war crimes,” as Levine put it.
“I am horrified by the images of civilians lying dead on the streets,” stated Michelle Bachelet, then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Heads of state condemned the apparent crimes in Bucha; the president of the European Council, as well as other European leaders, promised greater sanctions on Moscow. Zelensky called it genocide. And Biden labeled Putin a war criminal, as he pledged a continued supply of weapons to Ukraine alongside further sanctions against Russia.
The on-the-ground accounts from photojournalists like award-winning Carol Guzy are chilling. In a Yahoo!News piece [Apr 22, 2022], the photographer describes Bucha, saying “It was just horrendous. Its [sic] apocalyptic.” The images in that article, like many that were published when Bucha was liberated, are difficult to view; some even push the envelope with the graphic nature of what is depicted.
By and large, however, mainstream media handles such documentation very sensitively, offering views of death that protect both the viewer and the dead. The composition of an image may render faces obscured or individual identities imperceptible; piles of bodies might be pictured from a distance; and torture may appear as a detail— a close-up of bound hands on a deceased victim, for example.
We can think of such imagery as taking an evidentiary stand against Russian disinformation. Responding to allegations of carnage in Bucha, the Russian Ministry of Defense asserted that “not a single local resident suffered from any violent actions” under Russian occupation.
For some photojournalists, there is also the hope that their images may be used to provide evidence of violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), a set of rules that govern conduct in armed conflict and which seek to mitigate the suffering of non-combatants. As veteran war photographer Lynsey Addario said [Business Insider, Mar 8, 2022] after witnessing a family killed by a mortar strike outside the capital city of Kyiv, “I thought it’s disrespectful to take a photo, but I have to take a photo. This is a war crime.”
The International Criminal Court (ICC), working with special investigators, is already probing the possibility that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine—one of the few times in history that such work has been undertaken within just weeks of the apparent crimes.
Evidence of a war crime, or of other violations of IHL (such as genocide), could lead to the indictment and prosecution of the perpetrators. In an extensive analysis of the killings in Bucha, published on December 22, 2022 in the New York Times, the reporters observe, “Historically, journalists and investigators relied on a single photograph or video to expose wartime atrocities.” Today, the authors note, there is so much more, in quantity and detail, in terms of documentation. So does the still photo remain as useful a piece of evidence? And can photojournalists really produce documentation that will stand scrutiny in a tribunal?
Photojournalism and War Crimes
Janine di Giovanni, a longtime war correspondent, has helped to initiate a novel approach to human rights monitoring and journalism. She is the Executive Director and Co-founder of The Reckoning Project, which, she explains, is a Ukrainian-led team of experienced human rights professionals—former investigative journalists who have received training in understanding international humanitarian law and how to create viable documentation for IHL cases. “My vision for this was that frontline witnesses were absolutely the most important people in this puzzle of international justice. But in prior cases, when journalists got called to the Hague, most of the time, their evidence didn’t stand up. It wasn’t transcribed correctly, or they haven’t got witness statements. I know because I myself have been called several times to give evidence.”
Maloletka’s Instagram post on January 14, 2023. “Russia attacked civilian neighbourhood. This is a War Crime.” Screenshot by the author.
This “mobile war crimes unit,” as di Giovanni describes the team, focuses on gathering and verifying evidence and building cases in order to combat the “plague of impunity” she sees in the wake of armed conflict. The Reckoning Project currently consists of twenty-three researchers, all journalists by background but none of whom are photojournalists. This raises the question of whether wartime press photographers should receive training or knowledge around IHL and tribunals. If photojournalists were given this background, could their work be more useful to investigators and prosecutors?
In some senses, yes. Lawrence Douglas, a titled professor and prolific author based at Amherst College and an expert in war crimes and other mass atrocity prosecutions, explains, “If you’re taking a picture of a corpse on the street, we need to know not only exactly where that street is, but a sense of the environment. For example, let’s say there is a trail of blood. Document it. The corpse has been moved. That’s relevant. It might not be relevant as an image to supply to your newspaper; but it could be very important for the purposes of establishing what exactly happened there.”
Wendy Betts, the Founding Director of eyeWitness to Atrocities, concurs: “I wish I could say to the photojournalist, ‘But what’s behind you?’ A panorama would be great, just one 360 so we can see what’s around.”
For Betts, this gives a fuller picture and can help the work of investigators. Her organization, established by the International Bar Association, works to collect verified images of potential war crimes through an app, facilitating the authentication process and streamlining some of the forensic work required for building IHL cases. She explains that there are two primary aspects to consider when evaluating imagery for use as evidence: its relevance to the case (how does it matter here?) and its reliability (is it authentic? Is the “chain of custody” intact? That involves tracing the lifespan of the image to ensure it has not been compromised, for instance through Photoshop or other manipulation).
Betts recalls a training session where a crime scene investigator asked a journalist, “What would you photograph?” The response from the photographer? They would find what’s most compelling, would be thinking about framing and angles, would capture what’s most emotive for a viewer to induce them to read and learn more. By contrast, says Betts, evidence photos are “often boring. They’re shot at 90 degree angles and they are looking at things like license plates and shell casings. That makes them relevant.”
In this sense, Douglas appreciates that photojournalists, particularly those with experience in war zones, likely recognize that they are documenting “not just an act of war, but potentially a criminal act.” But he adds, “knowing how to do that in a professional [investigative] fashion,” will strengthen the value of the imagery for potentially building an IHL case. “Once you decide to use the images for specific evidentiary purposes to prove the guilt of the accused, then you’re suddenly in a very different world than you are in when you’re using the images in the national or international press for the purposes of trying to get people to take these atrocities seriously.”
Photojournalists on the Ground
Evgeniy Maloletka, a Ukrainian Associated Press (AP) freelancer, offers the photojournalist’s perspective. He has a working if not studied knowledge of what constitute violations of IHL: “When Russian tanks shoot apartment blocks. When airstrikes hit apartment buildings or hospitals. I didn’t study war crimes; I don’t have training. I learned it in the field.”
But his images differ from investigators’. As a photojournalist, he prioritizes affect. “You concentrate mostly on emotions, so viewers can connect.”
Bodies of civilians who died during the evacuation of Irpin when Russian troops opened mortar and artillery fire on them. Irpin, Kyiv region, Ukraine, March 6, 2022. © Maxim Dondyuk.
Both Douglas and Betts see tremendous value in photojournalistic images, even if the photographer isn’t trained in IHL. “The photos may help to corroborate witness testimony. They may help to flesh out the story that some of the more forensic information is offering. And really there’s no one silver bullet piece of evidence in these types of trials, because they’re so vast. It is one incredibly large evidentiary puzzle,” says Betts. She adds that the traditional means of getting photos entered into evidence is to bring the photographer in to testify to the fact that they took the image and have not manipulated it. “This is still the primary and probably preferred way of most courts.”
In short, mainstream media and war crimes investigators bring differing expectations to their approach to visual documentation. As Betts observes, evidence photos may reveal victim’s identities or even perpetrators in commission of the crime itself – imagery that is sometimes sanitized by media outlets.
Maloletka echoes, “You’re thinking prior about whether you will show the faces. You don’t want to, if possible. If you’re photographing an injured person, you don’t know if they will live or die, so you try to hide their identity, for example, because you don’t want their relatives to find out this way.”
Betts and Douglas, while mindful of limitations, emphasize the benefits of photojournalistic imagery. “You might see bodies lying on the street, but not see their faces,” says Douglas. “Yet often the identity of the victims isn’t necessarily crucial if you are aware that they are civilians,” he adds, referring to the fact that attacks on civilians is a violation of IHL.
Maloletka explains that he will document a graphic scene—even knowing the AP may not use some photos for being too brutal—for his own remembrance, to acknowledge, if only personally, what he witnessed. Rarely, he may share those images publicly, via Instagram, with a graphic content warning, as he did in October 2022 with photos of rotting Russian corpses, because, as he says, “war is ugly and Russians should see their own dead soldiers as well.”
Julia Kochetova, another Ukrainian photojournalist who has worked for outlets such as Vice, Guardian and Der Spiegel, echoes many of these points. She, too, has never received any training in crime scene photography, but assuredly states, “I witnessed the aftermath of war crimes in Bucha.”
In relating an episode from Kherson, Kochetova adds another layer to this discussion: the photojournalist cannot alter the scene. “I saw the body of a woman who had been raped and killed violently. You could see the bruises and the signs of the sexual attack. I spoke with neighbors who confirmed that Russians did it. They were in uniform.”
“I knew that I was the only person there with a camera so I needed to document. The body was partially naked, partially covered. Her face was obscured by a jacket. As a journalist, I can’t change the scene, so I can’t move the jacket to reveal her identity. I have the photos of what I saw.” This of course differs from the work of investigators, who would collect and preserve physical evidence, take measurements and statements, and document the entire scene and each piece of evidence photographically.
But the photojournalistic work operates on many levels. In addition to their potential evidentiary worth, Douglas sees photos as uniquely powerful in inciting an emotional response—a moral outrage—that presses for legal action. “We have these images coming out of Ukraine, for instance, the pregnant woman who was injured by the rocket attack [in Mariupol] and ended up dying and losing the fetus. That had an incredibly galvanizing capacity in ways that words simply don’t—and that can actually lead towards mobilizing the necessary political will to create war crimes trials.”
First responders and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by Russian shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. The woman and her baby later died. © Evgeniy Maloletka/AP.
Yet the moral pressure on the public also comes with a toll on the frontline witnesses. Maxim Dondyuk, a Ukrainian documentary photographer who has observed scenes of war crimes, says, “There were a lot of things that broke me down.” Kochetova confirms, “this has been traumatizing. It’s personal. It will affect me for decades.”
Dondyuk expresses a bigger picture outlook: “For me, the whole war is already a crime.” He reiterates the point that photo-journalists are not investigators: “It’s not my job. Yes, I have witnessed war crimes and took as many photos as could, but it’s not my role to dig into that.” That is for prosecutors to take up.
Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak, Acting Global Investigations Editor with the AP, makes a related point. She has helped to head up War Crimes Watch Ukraine, a joint project of the AP and the PBS investigative documentary series FRONTLINE, that catalogs incidents of apparent IHL violations. Influenced by, as she says, “the flood of images” out of Ukraine in the early days of the war, Fitzgerald Kodjak and colleagues developed this database—which works with significant numbers of photos but also other forms of evidentiary records—to increase public understanding. And while Ukrainian prosecutors as well as international law researchers have expressed interest in the documentation amassed, Fitzgerald Kodjak is clear in stating, “this is a journalistic enterprise. We aren’t working to meet legal definitions.” In short, there is a gap—one protected as well as respected by many in the field—between journalism and legal application.
Even so, though he has no experience with tribunals, Maloletka nevertheless hopes his images may, one day, provide a frontline view that can hold Russian perpetrators accountable in a court of law.
Ultimately, Dondyuk says, “I hope that people not only see these pictures, but feel it for themselves, tear themselves from their cup of coffee or glass of wine in their warm refined world.” In short: Ignorance and impunity are unacceptable.
The collection of evidence for potential use in tribunals is set to outpace, by an order of magnitude, the evidence amassed in Syria. As Betts says, “you have the technology to collect information, the political will to act on that information, and the capacity of society to assist this process.” The pace will also be faster. Historically, such trials could take years, even decades, to come to fruition. We are now likely to witness prosecutions that feel closer to “real time.”
And as Dondyuk states of his current work, “I’m not a war photographer. When the war in Ukraine is over, I will return to my artistic projects not related to war, and definitely won’t continue covering conflicts in other countries. But this is my country now and I feel that this is my duty to capture this historical moment for the present and the future.”
With gratitude to all in this essay who gave time for an interview or allowed use of imagery.
Lauren Walsh is a professor at New York University, Director of the Gallatin Photojournalism Lab and a leading expert on the visual coverage of conflict and crisis. She is the author of Conversations on Conflict Photography (2019) and Through the Lens: The Pandemic and Black Lives Matter (2022) and the lead educator for new curricula on media and visual literacy, as part of the Content Authenticity Initiative.