Ukraine: A War Crime
FotoEvidence, April 2023
540 pages / $80
Edited by Sarah Leen
By Lauren Walsh
Published in ZEKE: January 2024
Click on photo to view captions.
An individual, centered in the frame, kneels and holds a Ukrainian flag. We can’t see their face, which is fully obscured by the blue and yellow. The caption explains this is a young woman.
This is the first photograph in Ukraine: A War Crime, a massive book that brings together 366 images documenting the first year of Russia’s 2022 invasion of its neighbor. The compilation, published by FotoEvidence, reflects the work of 93 photojournalists from 29 countries; provides text in English and Ukrainian; and was edited by Sarah Leen with assistance from Irynka Hromotska, with overall concept and artistic direction led by Svetlana Bachevanova.
The opening photograph visually announces that this is a book about Ukraine: it is an image more about a national symbol than about the individual “hidden” in the center. But from there, the book brilliantly, carefully, sensitively and, at times, graphically reminds us again and again that, in the end, war is about individual lives. Trauma, destruction, crimes and resilience can occur on a collective level; but each and every person is impacted by the war that engulfs their country.
Ukraine: A War Crime is organized into sections that highlight specific moments, atrocities or aspects of the war, and selected photographers have written statements that pair with their photographs. The introduction, by Volodymyr Demchenko, identified as a journalist and soldier, is less a preview of what is to come and more a plea to the reader to grasp the significance of this compilation: “With visual documentation it is much more difficult, if at all possible, to hide crimes and social catastrophes.”
It is no accident that a majority of the images are by professional photojournalists, because we accord them a special status in the documentation of history. They are not just creating images, but doing so with an ethics that protects and, hopefully, ensures the integrity of the work. Photographer Fabio Bucciarelli describes this well when he references the contemporary media landscape, where the public “scroll(s) on social networks, alternating with images of death and destruction, like in a video game but damn real.” Noting that credibility matters utmost, he adds, “Professionals, who have to continue to work in this panorama of media, carry the burden of responsibility for the search for truth, a truth that in war is even more difficult to uncover.”
As with Bucciarelli’s words, all the short statements by photographers provide powerful glimpses into the thoughts and experiences of the documentarians, and deepen the reaction to what we see in the static images throughout the book. They also demonstrate that photographers do far more than simply “take pictures.” They risk their own physical safety and mental health. This line of work is an embodied praxis. And the camera isn’t their only tool; reading the quotes they transcribe from civilians, for instance, simultaneously enriches the visual documentation and reminds the reader that the photojournalist actually operates across multiple mediums.
“We had to walk for 36 kilometers to reach the Polish border,” says Aline (10) to photographer Espen Rasmussen, whose images—given set-up by the quotes he provides, which offer greater contextualization—depict the intensity of the refugee experience.
The style of photography and writing is expansive. Essays range from neutral to poetic to editorialized. Images, likewise, reflect a breadth of approaches, some highly artistic, many others more traditionally journalistic. Certain photographs feel like echoes from wars past: an eerie revisualization of WWII in John Stanmeyer’s photo from a Lviv train station; or variations on moments from Iraq, like Daniel Berehulak’s full-page spread of a soldier aiming a gun out a window. Other photographs highlight grime and grit; pain and loss; and even beauty. All told, the book shows us civilians, fighters, pets, children, refugees, religious as well as political leadership (including poignant photos of President Zelensky), volunteers, the war effort, destruction, death, grief, resilience, recovery, rehabilitation, perseverance, and myriad aspects of daily life. War spares no facet of society.
As photographer Carol Guzy writes, “Civilian things. Not the stuff of combatants. Humanity’s hopes, dreams, loves – in war, merely termed ‘collateral damage’.” The staccato style of her whole statement emphasizes the fractures of war and the ways that small moments of life become frozen, interrupted forever. The camera, of course, literally freezes time; but Guzy asks us to think lyrically, stating “broken glass becomes a metaphor for shattered lives.” Her photographs carry the same tone and style as her words, depicting small details of life forever upended by war.
Yet it is perhaps the words by Ukrainian photographers that feel most weighted. As Oksana Parafeniuk writes, “It is one thing when your home and your loved ones are safe and you can dedicate yourself to photographing unfolding events and it is absolutely another situation when they are not, when you need to make a decision on how to stay safe, how to keep your future child safe, while also being worried on a daily basis about the safety of all your loved ones.” Or as Myklhaylo Palinchak says, “I never thought of being a war photographer.” He goes on to explain that many Ukrainians began to train for combat or volunteered to help the war effort, “but I knew only how to make photographs, so for me the only option was to take my camera in hand.”
And there is the statement by Evgeniy Maloletka, whose photograph of an injured pregnant woman being evacuated from a maternity ward that was hit during a Russian airstrike was published globally. It is one of the most iconic photographs to come out of this war. (He, alongside colleagues, won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for this work in Mariupol.) And yet in the context of this book, where words and many images come together, any habituated sense of “I have seen this photo already” vanishes. Maloletka’s haunting descriptions provide a vivid, painful, utterly harrowing foundation for his visuals over the next many pages.
At times the imagery is unrelenting. But that is the point. War doesn’t offer “time off” for those trapped within. Even so, the book has a cadence that allows the reader to move in and out of the most grievous imagery, picturing war from a variety of perspectives, not all of them violent.
But toward the end, we learn of the death of Ukrainian photographer Maks Levin, in an homage written by Stas Kozlyuk. This was a powerful and wise decision by the editors to remind the reader of what is at stake in creating such documentation. Ukraine had the highest journalist death toll of all countries in 2022 (International Federation of Journalists).
One of the final photographs, by Liam Kennedy, doesn’t immediately announce itself as war-related at all: a figure walking by a red flower on the ground. With this, the editors intimate that war devastates but it doesn’t, ultimately, need to define a population. This book is a record of the many aspects of this ongoing war, and as the title suggests, of the variety of crimes that remain to be investigated if not prosecuted in courts.
The concluding image of Ukraine: A War Crime ends on a note that beautifully echoes the opening—but with a small twist. Again, we see the blue and yellow flag, yet this time we are privy to the face of a woman who wraps the flag around her, gracefully enveloped in all its literal and metaphorical meanings. She looks sad, but also stoic and resolute.
Click here to purchase book from the FotoEvidence website.