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A Letter from a War Photographer

I was born in 1981 into a family of photographers. My grandparents developed film in the bathroom of their Kyiv apartment back when photography was a popular hobby in Soviet Ukraine.

Their son Mykhailo, my father, became a professional in this field. He enjoyed photographing sports and, while working for news agencies, his camera captured such historic moments as the Soviet Union collapse and the start of Ukrainian independence. With such a family history, we can say, my fate and that of my younger brother was sealed.

As children, my father gave each of us a camera and encouraged us to take pictures. We were often surrounded by photographers, as well as interesting and inspiring journalists, whose work was fascinating.

Photojournalist Konstantin Chernichkin is pictured on a tank while on assignment covering the Russia-Ukraine war in eastern Ukraine. (photo: courtesy Konstantin Chernichkin)

I set photography aside to study economics, with the idea of contributing to the growth of Ukraine. By the time I graduated in 2004, however, I wanted to work as a photographer, and was already negotiating with various media outlets.

Getting my photo published in the Polish edition of Newsweek at the start of the Orange Revolution in November 2004 marked my first major accomplishment as a professional photographer and, with the wave of interest from media worldwide, I began my photojournalism career. I gained experience at two influential local magazines and later joined Reuters in Kyiv, where I worked for five years, followed by 10 years at Ukraine’s English-language newspaper, the Kyiv Post.

This work has tough challenges every true professional must be prepared to tackle sooner or later, such as looking at human suffering, tragedy and death through the camera viewfinder.

Always, I found this prospect intimidating and tried to stay away from it.

So, it was upsetting when death burst into my camera’s field of view uninvited for the first time in 2014, when police forces killed protesters — ordinary citizens — in the central square, known as the Maidan, of my hometown of Kyiv during the Revolution of Dignity.

It hit me hard. I stood in shock, my camera down, while the dead bodies of people who had been standing next to me a minute ago were carried past me. I remember being chilled to the bone, the complete disorientation of the moment, a feeling of the fragility of it all. It took me a while to pick up my camera again and press the right button. The only thing that helped me cope was staying in the square among the people and living through those losses together. They gathered at the murder site that evening, singing, reciting prayers, crying and holding each other. Photographing this scene through my own tears was healing for my soul.

It was then that war in Ukraine officially began. Russia did not want to lose its former colony from its sphere of influence and thus invaded the eastern regions of Ukraine with ground troops. My work as a photojournalist was gaining incredible pace, as I found myself in a frantic whirlwind of events happening all over the country.

I came close to a real threat on my life when I was injured while standing next to military equipment near Mariupol in August 2014. The injury turned out to be a serious one, and I was afraid I would lose my leg. I saw it as a sign to stop, to bring an end to this constant run for hot news, and to think about my values and goals in life.

“I have had the opportunity to meet bright individuals who shine like beams of light in these dark times.”

I spent a year bedridden, rehabilitating my body, mind and soul. I had to learn to walk again, and I managed to recover fully. This time allowed me to analyze myself calmly and see my loved ones in a new way. I often had not seen their true love behind the wall of my own stereotypes and ambitions — and I got the push I needed to reconsider my life choices. I accepted that the role of a driven war photographer did not quite fit my personality. Upon returning to work, I hardly ever visited the front line in the east. Instead, I curated and organized photo exhibitions about the war and even thought about retiring from photojournalism and starting something new. I had no time for big decisions, however, as I was once again caught up in the tsunami of historical events.

Shock and numbness overtook me on 24 February 2022, just as it did during the Revolution of Dignity, only now everything was much more serious. Death was not just flashing across my camera viewfinder; it was knocking at the door of my home.

The historic Virgin Skete of Sviatohirsk Monastery in Donetsk Oblast was damaged by shelling in May 2022. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

On the very first day of the full-scale invasion, when Russian troops crossed into Ukraine heading toward Kyiv, my wife, our two children and I packed our bags and headed west. After a couple of days of driving through refugee traffic jams, my family reached Poland, where they could finally feel safe.

I instead remained in Lviv, confused and lonely, barely coping with the terrible events and the scale of violence surrounding me. Morning after morning, I woke up feeling helpless, spending these most difficult months of my life in an internal dialogue, fighting against an all-consuming fear and searching for solutions.

Liudmyla Shoshu, a medical assistant at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Hospital in Lviv, offers at-home care to a palliative care patient. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

At the same time, the demand from media worldwide for local professional journalists was insane. Job offers came from everywhere. Interestingly, as soon as I started accepting them and went on doing my job, I felt the professional burnout of recent years and the burden of past experiences gradually disappear. Moreover, the realization that my work was needed, that I was needed, that my images and vision in capturing a scene resonated with readers and supported Ukraine gave me the new energy and inspiration I so desperately needed. I rediscovered the old truth about the important role of the photojournalist in times of war, where the concept of a “professional mission” was no longer abstract and empty, but clear and concrete.

Documenting these events with a cool head is challenging. It is impossible to remain “just an observer,” as required by our professional code, when your hometown is being bombed, when women with children are fleeing, when friends are joining the army, and your homeland is being burned. There is a big difference between being a war photographer of “other people’s war” and being a war photographer in your own country.

A monk enters a building of the historic Sviatohirsk Cave Monastery, located in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, which was heavily damaged by shelling. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

I have found it impossible to photograph suffering children. It has been difficult for me to photograph events in my native region of Kyiv. I could not find the strength to approach the mass grave of ordinary people killed by Russians during the occupation of Bucha. While a local priest was showing dozens of journalists the large pit filled with bodies found on the church grounds, I stood off to the side, not understanding how such horror was possible in what was a beautiful resort town, where my family and I had come often for weekend strolls. There was little I could shoot that day, but the photographs I managed to take still serve an important role as evidence of war crimes — that is why they had to be taken in the first place.

Hanna Yarmish stands amid the ruins of the Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary and Memorial Museum in Kharkiv, Ukraine. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

There have been many more shoots all over the country, a country on fire: more mass graves, damaged houses and flattened cities, the wounded, the refugees,  and the front-line soldiers — just ordinary boys and girls, teetering between life and death. I have gone to the front rarely, but every encounter there has been memorable.

Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw seek assistance from Caritas Poland. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

The pace of the work does not usually allow sufficient time to stop and notice the goodness that still exists. Thanks to my collaboration with ONE, I have had the opportunity to meet bright individuals who shine like beams of light in these dark times. The heroes in the stories I have covered for ONE impress me to the core. They bring aid to dangerous front-line cities without fear, loyal to God’s will; they tirelessly treat the many sick and injured. I have seen gratitude, hope for the future, and faith in the victory of humanity emerge around them. With these stories, it has been possible to capture and convey the strength of spirit and the beauty of the human soul.

Basilian Sister Lucia Murashko delivers aid to a front-line village in southeastern Ukraine. (photo: Konstantin Chernichkin)

These assignments are new, motivating and rather calming experiences. Constant stress and anxiety tend to have a cumulative effect. Thus, it has been important to see these good and kind-hearted acts amid the constant suffering and seeming hopelessness.

The infrequent meetings with my family over the past year and a half have been incredibly restorative, healing and renewing. The same can be said for long-awaited meetings with friends, scattered across the globe. Now, these meetings begin and end with a tight hug.

I have no idea how this war is going to end. Nevertheless, the thought of returning to a peaceful life and of being safe keeps me moving with my work, which plays a small part in achieving our goal for peace.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

About the Author: Konstantin Chernichkin

Konstantin Chernichkin is a photojournalist based in Kyiv. He has worked as a staff photographer for Reuters, the Kyiv Post and Dutch NRC

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