Our fifth episode of Ukraine Through the Eyes of Reporters features Wolfgang Schwan, a photographer who’s been in Ukraine for a year now, working for Anadolu and Wired agency. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on the role of photography in the time of war, reflects on the experience of creating one of the first viral photos depicting a Russian missile attack on civilians as well as discusses how the Russian propaganda machines uses real photos to create disinformation.
Ukraine Through the Eyes of Reporters is a special series aimed at highlighting the work of international journalists in covering the Russian war against Ukraine and understanding how they approach their important role.
How long you have been in photography? And why did you choose to do photography?
I have been taking photos for about 4 years or so. I’ve been working in the news for about 2 years. Most of my life, I’ve been into rock climbing. And I got into photography after getting tired of taking photos on a cellphone of friends climbing on rocks. When I bought a camera, I fell in love with it. And a handful of years ago, I got into documentary photography, working with people in a neighbourhood who were dealing with addiction and homelessness. And then I got into more breaking news photography. Two years ago, during the large protests in the United States, I met editors and worked my way into that space.
Is this the first war that you’re covering?
Yes. The current invasion of Ukraine is the first conflict that I’ve covered. I don’t think I had the wish to be a war photographer. I wanted to come here and learn more about Ukraine and its history and what had been happening in Donbas, to get to know sort of the culture in the East and the rest of Ukraine. And I think as a by-product of that, I just fell into covering a conflict while wanting to learn more about why it has happened.
I came [to Ukraine again] in January, a bit before what’s happening now. [The war also became an environmental story and I wanted to cover that but [ I had to work in the Donbas region, shooting the daily life of soldiers in the trenches on the Ukrainian side. So my first intention was to work on a longer, more environmental story. But I found myself getting more daily news.
What’s the difference between working for newspapers vs. agencies? Could you tell us about your agency, Anadolu?
Most of the time, I’ve worked for the Anadolu agency, a Wired service. They also rate stories. Most Wired service agencies are about pure facts, photos, and more daily news, and then those photos can be used by any publication, newspaper, or magazine. So it’s our job as a Wired photographer to find stories and anticipate what would be useful to the larger media market in the coming days or weeks. For instance, I was here in Kyiv on the 10th of October, and that day rockets were striking. And that day, it’s my job to try to get to the scene as quickly as possible, take photos of that, and get them out as fast as possible so that somewhere like CNN or Amazon BC or whatever publication out there can use those photos and stories as quickly as possible. Then I made a trip into Ukraine during winter, when many people in the East, in these liberated territories, were dealing with a lack of electricity, heat, and blowing gas lines. So it was my objective on this trip to cover the issues of people dealing with those circumstances.
When you were there in the Donbas region with soldiers, did you feel that smell of war was coming? Did it help you to understand more deeply what was going on?
Coming here in January and speaking to Ukrainians, the overwhelming sense I got from almost everyone here was that it wouldn’t happen – Russia wouldn’t invade. Two days before the war, everyone I talked to didn’t think this would happen. And from speaking a little in depth with folks, I concluded that it was a bit of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” with many people here having a fatigue of Russia doing this for so many years. And I think people just got tired of worrying. But I’ve been prepared to cover the conflict after being here for several months. Of course, if I had been here for years beforehand and lived, studied, and worked in Ukraine, I think I would be better equipped to tell the story. But I think since I came here a few months beforehand, I was able to navigate the situation. At least I got a little bit more understanding doing my job more effectively to tell the story of what is happening.
Can you tell us about the 24th of February? How was that day for you?
On the 24th, I stayed in Bakhmut. For almost two months, I rented a flat out there, and I was working up and down the frontline from Stanytsia Luhanska in the north from Mariupol. Putin made his speech, where he just recognized the separation of Luhansk and Donetsk. There was a lot more shelling happening along the entire frontline. And the night of the 23rd, there were a lot of weird movements on the Russian side. There was a complete media blackout, and there was no Internet for many people. So that seemed weird. The Ukrainian side shut down every airport in the country that night, and it looked like it [the full-scale invasion] would happen.
I was working with 2 friends and colleagues. We were staying together, and debating about going south to Mariupol and working on a story there, or heading north to Kharkiv. And we decided to go to Kharkiv and cover what we can there. And if everything seemed like it was collapsing and Russia was rolling over everything, we would move towards Kyiv, which is on the way out. And many people thought Russia would just storm across the entire country very quickly. Ukraine surprised the entire world, maybe even surprised themselves with this valiant defense. And at this point, they pushed back the Russian army.
On that day, we woke up at 3 or 4 in the morning from the news that this was starting. We packed our bags, got in the car, and headed for Kharkiv. On the way there, we were reading Twitter, and it looked like the entire country was under the attack: paratroopers falling on Boryspil, Kyiv was under bombardment… We made the plan that we would make our way to the capital. I believed that was where the story was going to be. At one point, we saw a big plume of smoke that was [coming from] an air base in Chuhuiv, which is a little bit south of Kharkiv. So we headed in that direction. The plume just kept getting bigger as we approached. And as we got into Chuhuiv, we were looking for the turn where we could take photos of this giant smoke cloud. By chance, we pulled into a neighbourhood with old Khrushchov-style apartment buildings. And a missile strike landed right in the middle of these buildings. So we saw first responders coming in, ambulances and stuff. We got out of the car to cover that situation. And this is where I took the photo of Olena Kurylo. She was one of the first people that we had on the scene. We took photos of her, got her information, and then continued covering the scene. So we spent about an hour covering the police and fireman working in the building, pulling out injured people. And then we decided to head to Kharkiv, thinking that what we had just witnessed was happening nationwide.
It was much calmer there. It seemed normal, but with a very tense feeling in the air. People were still waiting at bus stops but checking their phones all the time and looking around. And then we decided to make our way to Kyiv. On the trip to there, we got off at the E4 at the main highway because it was deadlocked like after a traffic jam, and usually it takes a 6-hour drive normally without traffic. So if it were bumper to bumper the whole way, it would take forever. So we took backward, about 10 hours from Kharkiv to Kyiv, with almost no cell reception the entire time. And it was a surreal experience knowing the war started, seeing what we saw that morning but having a quiet backroads drive at the end of winter with melting snow. And it was like a clear blue sky that day… The sun’s out, wonderful day.., but you know that all of this chaos and terrors happening across the country. So late that night, maybe around 1 a.m., we arrived to Kyiv. We found an Airbnb to stay at and gauge what happened that day. I think the first week was like everyone was running around with their heads off, not knowing what was happening.
You made the story of the teacher Olena very famous. And she became the face of the war, it was one of the first photos of civilians. This photo became viral. What do you feel when your work receives so much recognition?
I think that day I didn’t understand the gravity of making that photo because we made those photos on iFile, we drove across the country on backroads without much cell reception. And I was under the impression that what we witnessed wouldn’t be unique for the first day of the war. And it took until the next day and the day after to realize that those sorts of images weren’t captured anywhere else, at least the first day of the war, like no one else had images of a civilian area bombed. I thought that would be widespread or at least widely covered, and you would see photos from all over the country. So I didn’t think that it was going to be as unique. But it turned out that the photo of her that I filed was one of the first photos that were filed anywhere in the country that day, and it was civilians who were injured by Russia’s invasion. So it became the face of the war.
I think I felt like I contributed to telling the story of what this war would look like. And I think civilian suffering is a massive characteristic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where military targets are not differentiated from civilian targets. This entire war for them is just total war. So [it was crucial]to capture that and put it on display on the first day and not let people look away from what it is. At that time, I didn’t know that, but it has become a characteristic of all of this. I’ve felt like I was just doing my job, it’s not like a proud thing. I wouldn’t feel proud of taking that picture of an injured person, someone in the worst stage of their life. But I feel like I effectively did the work that I came here to do and did the situation justice, and helped show suffering to a greater audience.
These photos were also used as propaganda, where they said that she was an actress, which was false. And I heard that Olena was hurt emotionally also. What do you think about this?
Even on the10th of October here in Kyiv, I was messaged by a few different outlets worldwide and talked to a Dutch newspaper about Russian claims that the woman there was hit near the train station here in Kyiv and that she was an actress. And it’s been an issue this entire war. \ But for me, this is a new thing to see here and to have images that I personally made that day, that image that I made of Olena, plastered onto a newspaper article from 2018, with a gas leak explosion. It was interesting to see ‘how sausages are made’, which means quickly watching the breaking news and how my photographs turned into a lie and seeing people believing it. It’s fascinating and terrifying to see the speed with which Russia can turn out this disinformation. And because it’s so fast, it turns out to be effective. It’s horrifying, worrying, and terrible to see someone’s pay cheque come from doing that sort of work. But it’s widespread across the entire world. It’s not unique. Maybe this is the first time that it’s so quick in our social media age during wartime and used effectively. I think it’ll be interesting to see years from now. I was having this conversation the other day with a colleague when we were wondering: is this mostly about Russian consumption domestically? So that the population stays in support of the war and they don’t question it. They think that whatever their army is doing, they’re not targeting civilians. So they see civilians that are injured, they don’t believe that it was their army. They think that these are lies.
We have this in the United States with Trump calling everything fake news and not believing the mainstream media. I’m sure it was traumatizing for Olena to go through those traumatizing events of her entire life and then to be dragged across the Internet – to be the face of this war and to have media from around the world wanting to get her information and contact her, do interviews after suffering so much. It’s crazy, and I can’t imagine living through that. And then to have this other part of it where a huge population believes that you’re a liar. And calling your name and threatening you and your family. It is something that I didn’t think about before making that image. I don’t think that would have changed my mind before making it because there’s still more value to showing what’s happening to the audience who believes it. Which, I believe, is much larger than the audience that would deny that was true. I’ve watched some of her interviews where she wants to inform people about what’s happening here and how they can help. It is remarkable to have a human being go through that and be so selfless in the attention shown to them and pointing to helping her people. I’m meeting her for the first time since then when I go to Poland, which I’m quite excited about. It’s going to be a full circle-like moment.
Now you see that photography can serve in both way – show the truth and be the instrument of propaganda. Do you understand that Russia always uses a photograph as propaganda to show the false, and how can we work with it? How can we prove that it’s propaganda?
We go out and take photos of what’s happening, and most of the world believes that that’s true. And it’s our job to show the truth and depict this situation truthfully and try to give as much as we can. And then parts of that can be cherry-picked and used for disinformation or propaganda. But that doesn’t even come close to outweighing the need to show what’s happening. That’s like a by-product of doing a very important job that will be taken by some people and misconstrued. And that’s something that needs to be dealt with separately, I suppose. I don’t know that there’s an answer for how to remedy this situation in Russian society, where there are so often people who don’t believe what’s happening in the West or don’t believe what’s happening in Ukraine. But I don’t have answers for that. So I think it will take many-many-many years to solve and fix the issues there with this disinformation, as well as the rest of the world. This is happening in many countries that are slipping further away from democracy by moving into more right-wing politics and discrediting new services everywhere. Our role is to keep doing our job and show things as truthfully as possible. And to do it to create empathy with our audiences and make them want to care about the situations we care about.
What can you say about war photography and its role in this war that helps us win, showing the truth worldwide?
I guess helping Ukraine win is not my job. It’s my job to inform the audience back home about what’s happening. As a journalist, it shouldn’t ever be your job to come in directly. That’s bias. I want to depict what is happening here accurately. Ukraine is defending itself, and it’s defending its sovereignty from an invading force that wants to ethnically cleanse who they are, whether through genocide or the erasure of their language, their culture. Photographing that and informing the public back home is helping to justify why my country, the United States, is sending billions and billions of dollars here. And why do they need to do it when we’re facing some economic hardship at home, like gas? When I was at home for the last time, it was like four dollars a gallon. Everything is a bit expensive at home now. The housing market is crazy, and people feel that in their wallets, and then they see on the news that we’ve just sent another thirty billion dollars to Ukraine. And we have voting next week in the United States on November 8th. Many candidates are running on: why are we sending money there when we need that money here? I care deeply about what is happening here through everything that I’ve seen and the people that I’ve met, and I would like to articulate that through photos. And help show American taxpayers why their taxes are coming to a place on the other side of the world and why that’s necessary.
Do Americans support Ukraine? Or do they want to give Russia some territories and stop the war? Because we heard from some Europeans: “Oh, it’s so expensive, just stop this war, give them these territories,why don’t you want to give your regions?” How about Americans?
From the beginning in the United States, it seems like there is an overwhelming support for continuing to send aid here, at least send money, send weapons. There’s not overwhelming support at any point to sending American soldiers to go fight here. I think that was very off the table. With our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has gone out of twenty years of boots-on-the-ground conflict. And I don’t think the American people have the appetite to dive back into that. We have the insane Margery Taylor Greene, who’s been talking about wanting to cut funding. I think most Americans see what’s happening here, and they want to continue to help. And you have the stories of Mariupol and Bucha, and then there’s a need to keep supplying this country so that they can defend themselves. And then you see things like the Kharkiv offensive this summer, where those weapons and aid are directly helping Ukraine win. I think that most Americans are in support of continuing to do this by giving all of this money and these weapons to Ukraine. Usually, the United States just gives money and weapons to not the most reputable partners, but here every single one of those javelins that comes to Ukraine ends up in the side of the Russian tank. The money is going exactly to that. And no American soldier has to die. I’m a little confused about why the more pro-war hawkish side of our government, the GOP, is suddenly not supporting this.
Let’s come back to Ukraine again. How long are you planning to stay here and what have you discovered this year about Ukraine for yourself?
I originally wanted to do this story on coal mines in the East and their environmental impact. And I ended up doing the trench life, which turned into covering a war story. And I was motivated to keep working and showing what was happening and be able to work for someone the entire time. I ended up staying much longer than I had thought. At a certain point, I went home to take a break. I also have another job, where I have a moving company with my little brothers. I simultaneously have to juggle these two things: journalism and the other job. I went home for a month and a half and then returned here to work on some other things, mainly in Donbas. Then I did the same thing again when I went home and came back here. So it’s like part of me has my foot in the door in Philadelphia with the company and life there, and part of me wants to continue to help show what is happening in Ukraine to a wider audience. And I have fallen in love with the country, food, and people and would like to keep spending time here to learn more about what is happening through history and people.
It will take me years to talk to people and learn even a fraction of what you guys have lived through, but I find the issues with Donbas and the rest of the country fascinating. I grew up in the very rural area of Pennsylvania in Appalachia, Pennsylvania, a few hours north of Philadelphia. It’s in the mountains. My area is a little bit south of the major coal region. It kind of mirrors the issues you have with the population in Donbas, where there was a big industrial area for many years. It had been affluent enough, there was money going there. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had a lot of steel, and at some point, the sixties-seventies area of these industries has dried up. Those areas became less affluent, there was less money going there. That leads to less education, it leads to more crime, that’s just the way things go.
There was a situation here in Ukraine that is very similar to that, except then you have an outside force preying on that and helping to sow that divide already there. We also have that at home, and I think many countries have similar things. But then having a foreign power coming and help sow seeds and spread that divide further until the conflict starts.
Will you be researching for years and waiting for the rebuilding of Donbas? Will you come back and shoot again to do a long story about the region?
I would hope that I will get the opportunity to keep coming here and speaking to the people of that region and the rest of Ukraine. It’s not just Donbas where this is happening. Donbas people are affected, and the people in Lviv are affected, and people in Donbas are affected by the people in the West of Ukraine. So that is just the region where the most fighting has happened. It’s the region where the invasion happened in 2014. But it’s all of Ukraine’s story, and I would like to keep coming and keep learning about this and as things unfold. The situation changes, hopefully someday, this war will end, and we will see how the reconstruction happens. Does Ukraine really find a way to include those people and except this diversity or make everyone in Ukraine speak Ukrainian in a forced way, or do they invite the people from the East to want to be more Ukrainian speaking? I don’t know, but they will need to bring education and money back into that region and find ways to lift that up so that the people are not looking for the greener grass on the other side, which I believe happened.
We’re all waiting for this rebuilding. Do you have a favourite region in Ukraine?
I think that everywhere that I’ve been is beautiful in its way. In the East of Ukraine in Kharkiv, in Donbas, I have a very similar feeling to East Coast cities in the United States, whereas back home, we have this culture on the East Coast of people in a hurry. They are seemingly rude just because they don’t want to waste time. They’re kind of suspicious when they don’t know someone. But very quickly, once you get past that wall after a few minutes of talking with someone, they are the most inviting, hospitable folks you’ll ever meet. There has been the same experience. I’ve met most people in the Donbas region and in Kharkiv. I am not being biased, it’s just that where I’ve spent the most time in Ukraine. After spending five minutes or an hour with someone, you feel a genuine, sincere open-heart from people. And the sense of humour is amazing. Just the culture there, I love it. I need to spend more time in the rest of Ukraine, but I love Kyiv, I spend a lot of time in Kharkiv, it’s great… Only a little bit in the West. In Kherson, I went on this trip for the first time, and everyone there was smiling to me. When you make eye contact with a stranger and smile, it’s a very weird thing for the person being smiled at. And I get the reaction like this person wants to sell me something, or he’s trying to do something to me, and I don’t like it, why are they smiling at me? But in Kherson, it was actually the first time that I experienced when folks smile and wave at you back. And it’s just like, wait, am I in Ukraine? What’s this?
Maybe people in the South are always smiling more because of the sun. Do you have a favourite or special story or special pictures that you did during this year, except for Olena?
My favourite photo that I’ve taken this entire time was after the Russian troops left Kyiv oblast and Sumy early in the spring. We went out one day towards Zhytomyr on the West bound highway from Kyiv. There were a lot of blown-up Russian tanks on the side of the road. And at that time there were a lot of people coming back home from the West or Poland. On the way back, on the highway, there were these destroyed Russian vehicles, and they became this pop-up stands for almost like tourism. Almost like a monument to this destroyed tank is proof that the Ukrainian army is winning. And to someone who was forced to flee their home and their family, they are coming back, and this is a proud symbol that they’re winning and they’ve beaten that adversary. Folks would come, families would take selfies, or little kids would hang off the cannon on this tank and a mom would take photos of them. We were trying to make images of these selfies and stuff for thirty minutes, and a young woman came up with her boyfriend to take a photo of her doing this sexy pose in front of the tank. It was like a silly moment, but it speaks volumes… I think it was my favourite image that I’ve made here.
Do you know any Ukrainian photographers?
I’ve met quite a lot of Ukrainian photographers here, just brilliant ones. One of my favourites, the most inviting sweetest guy in the world, is Anatolii Stepanov. He’s mainly a conflict photographer. He does street photography as well, but he’s been working in Donbas since 2014. I met him on my second or third day working in Ukraine, and to me, it was like a seasoned photographer from this country who meets some younger foreign guy who has never been in the war. Every single time that we’ve spoken, he’s like the sweetest guy. Evheniy Maloletka and Mstyslav Chernov, the EP guys who stayed in Mariupol – I had the chance to meet them two nights right before the full-scale invasion. And they had said that they were planning on heading to Mariupol. Yulia Kochetova working with der Spigel and Vice is also an absolutely incredible photographer. Maxim Dondyuk is one of my favorites. We haven’t met in person, but I think the very peaceful photos of chaos that he’s able to make are like Renaissance paintings of what’s been happening. His work from Maidan is one of the best that is out there. Hopefully, one day I can meet him, I’m a big fan.
Do you have favorite pictures of Ukrainian photographers that also represent the faces of war?
I know the guy that was the photographer in Azovstal that made an unbelievable photo of the soldier standing in the beam of light in the destroyed building, like arms open and this light pillar coming down and hitting him is one of the most remarkable things.
That is one of the most incredible photos I’ve seen throughout all of this. There was a photo of a woman who has saved all the dogs from Irpin, I am not sure who made that photo, but that is just unbelievable. Then Evgeniy and Mstyslav work from Mariupol, from the maternity ward, and their work in the hospital and staying down there. Also, getting the first photos of Russian tanks coming into that city and the one tank that fire the residential building. Those two guys have done some of the most heroic work throughout this entire thing.
What did you understand about Ukraine during all that time? And how can you explain to your friends in the US what’s happening here?
This is not just the larger invasion of the war that started in 2014. The way that I understand this, it is a final act of Ukraine’s revolution and separation from the USSR and Soviet Union and Russia as a whole, as well as solidifying its sovereignty. In a way, it started a thousand years ago, in a way it started in ninety-one with the break-up of the Soviet Union, in a way it started in 2014. And I think this is all just chapters in the history of Ukraine, but I think this may be the final part of the separation and breaking away from the tie of Russia wanting to control this land. And I think that it’s an interesting thing to watch how nations make their own history, forge their own path, and find their national identity. It’s history. We all get to watch it. You guys are the ones writing it. I’m just helping to show what is happening and hopefully learn more about it for myself and make photos of that.
And my last question, what do you advise for young photographers and journalists that come to our country from other countries?
For any journalists or younger folks that are coming here, whether you’ve been here a lot or it’s your first time, I think just try to go to as many areas and speak to as many people about the history of this country or their family’s histories. Try to learn what’s happening and why from folks that are here and living it. I think it’s the most important part.
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