Pushing the envelope

Photographing war crimes in Ukraine

People don’t typically welcome television crews to burials. But recently, in Donbas, Ukraine, a distraught father invited journalists from Vice News to document the funeral of his eleven-year-old daughter, who, along with her pregnant mother and a reported fifty-seven others, had been killed by a Russian missile strike in Kramatorsk while trying to flee to safety. The father didn’t have anyone close to him at the graveside, and he wanted the journalists to show the world the misery Putin had wrought. 

Sobbing, he placed a white teddy bear into the open casket. “I don’t know if this can be forgiven,” he cried, touching the girl one last time. The camera panned to her bruised and chalky face.

In the first edit of the funeral in Ukraine, Vice News obscured the child’s face—a standard practice, in which visual journalists blur or don’t film faces of the dead in order to respect privacy. However, Isobel Yeung—a Vice News correspondent who has reported on many conflicts for the outlet, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen—fought to restore the full picture. 

“I agonize over what images to put in,” Yeung says. “You want to show the brutal impact, but you also don’t want to be exploitative. We had spent the day with him and were the only people at this depressing funeral. He said, ‘I want people to know this unbearable pain.’ It’s our responsibility to show that.”

A “robust discussion” ensued, according to Craig Thomson, the co–executive producer who oversees Vice News’s Ukraine coverage. Ultimately, everyone agreed the visage could be shown on Vice News’s YouTube page but be blurred on television.

War is ghastly, and US news outlets have long wrestled with how grisly to go, sometimes showing more restraint with images depicting American casualties. But the scale of, and access to, Russian atrocities has created such moral outrage that many US media outlets are pushing the envelope in what they publish. They say the graphic images, which are typically accompanied by advisory notes to prepare viewers, become justifiable when Russia distorts facts and commits brutality of such proportion.

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“We’ve had these discussions with the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq,” John Daniszewski, the standards editor for the Associated Press, says. “You don’t want to be too grisly but also not to airbrush the awfulness of war.” In its coverage of Russia’s invasion, he says, the AP has “embraced the role of trying to document war crimes against civilians because it’s so glaring in our faces.”

Lyndsey Addario, a Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer for the New York Times, was aghast to witness a mother and her two kids in puffy coats killed by deliberate Russian mortar fire. They were trying to cross into Kyiv along a civilian evacuation route on March 6. Addario felt compelled to film the splayed bodies, bloodied faces and all.

“I’ve witnessed many horrors in the past twenty years of covering war, but this is pure evil,” she wrote on Instagram that day. The Times later ran the picture on the front page.

Ukraine is perhaps the most documented war in history, due to the number of photojournalists on site and the multitude of platforms that exist to get their work out; the speed and intensity of the war has made such macabre photos widely accessible. The Washington Post has assembled a database of more than two hundred videos that depict the horrors of the invasion. Other outlets have relied on satellite technology, Twitter, and Instagram to document civilians dead in their homes and gardens, on streets and in mass graves. In one instance, leading American media published bodycam footage smuggled out by a captured Ukrainian medic, who leads the viewer on a macabre tour of mangled flesh, operating rooms, and a dying boy, whose eyes the medic closes after his death.

“The war has escalated rapidly, which I think added to the sense of urgency,” says Kathryn Humphries, the art director of Harper’s Magazine, about the proliferation of images. “Russia invaded, and five weeks later we had information and images coming out of Bucha that indicated war crimes had occurred.” 

That massacre, in early April, after Russia withdrew from Kyiv, prompted a series of discussions at The New Yorker about the line between showing the raw reality and being sensationalist. As Luke Mogelson was finalizing a harrowing piece from Bucha, the photographer there on assignment, James Nachtwey, messaged the photo desk to expect some “pretty tough stuff.” 

“I’ve been trying to make the images bearable, but this particular story is focused squarely on death,” Nachtwey wrote to colleagues. 

A small group that included members of edit, photo, and social media gathered around a laptop in the office of David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor, to view the photographs together. Remnick made the call to run them. Once published, deputy photo editor Andrew Katz sent Nachtwey the link to the Web story. “Very good that you had the moral courage not to hold back,” Nachtwey replied. “However horrible the situation in the picture, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

Other wars entail just as much dreadfulness, but no recent conflict has provided journalists such access to the front line. Few risked going into isis territory. It’s hard to move around Yemen and Syria. In Afghanistan and Myanmar, repression serves as a barrier. Media often struggle to obtain consent to film people who worry about retribution by authorities.

Not in Ukraine. Grieving grandmothers want to remain in the news cycle just as much as the government. Medics unzip body bags to film. Ukrainian officials bussed photographers to Bucha, where survivors begged them to take pictures of executed bodies. 

Nora Savosnick, a freelancer from Norway, was taken aback at one hospital visit when an adult relative pulled a blanket off of a wounded boy, exposing his penis as well as the injuries. “He kept saying, ‘Show what the Russians did.’ I had to explain that I couldn’t take that picture.”

When journalists can’t get to a place, they rely on social media posts by others. Dmytro “Orest” Kozatsky, a defender holed up at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, shared portraits he took of maimed comrades on Instagram and Twitter. The mainstream media picked them up. (Orest asked viewers to share his images and submit them for photo awards and contests. “If I win something, it will be very nice to find out about it after my release. Thank you all for your support.”)

For guidance, Daniszewski, of the AP, thinks back to two defining images of the Vietnam War, which won the news agency Pulitzer Prizes. One shows a naked girl running down a road, screaming from napalm burns. The other depicts the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner at point-blank. Both had a profound impact on American public opinion of the war. 

“You could say they’re too graphic,” he said. “Yet it would have been a huge historical mistake if they weren’t published.” This line of thinking enabled one of the AP’s most iconic pictures to date from Ukraine: a pregnant woman rushed on a stretcher through the bombed rubble of Mariupol’s maternity hospital. Holding her belly and bleeding, she became a symbol of the senseless carnage. That she and the baby died lent tragic import.

Daniszewski says the news agency won’t flinch at the gruesome if it helps the public’s understanding of the war or serves as a reckoning of sorts. If something requires a warning, he says, then the AP will issue an editorial note. 

He also says to expect more raw scenes to come. “This is war,” he says, “and people have to see.”

This story has been updated to correct a reference to Kathryn Humphries.

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Judith Matloff teaches conflict reporting at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. She's the author of two books on conflict, Fragments of a Forgotten War and No Friends But the Mountains, as well as a manual for journalists covering dangerous stories, How to Drag a Body.

TOP IMAGE: Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)