It took some time. A rapid strike, chaos, and then the coverage of the Russian War began. (This post is about still photography in particular and not television news.) As a former photographer with a head for news, my engagement with stories like the Russian invasion of Ukraine is filtered through an odd but specific lens. Images. Vietnam put photojournalism in front of me, and in fact, was the determining factor in my becoming a photographer. Images from Vietnam made me feel in a way I had never felt before, and my goal was to make my own images that made others feel the same as me. Easier said than done.
The coverage of Ukraine is expanding as journalists now have weeks of work and experience to convey. I for one do not have the courage to cover something like this, and I think that what these journalists go through is over overlooked, downplayed, or somehow tossed about like “Ah, I could do that.” No, most likely, you could not. In fact, I think most of us would have a difficult time even getting into the country, let alone finding shelter, food, power, transport, and a way to stay alive while attempting to capture the realities of a shifting frontline.
It’s very easy to sit stateside and talk like we know what is happening. Armchair experts armed with the best misinformation the internet and our network of choice can provide. Are the journalists covering this war perfect? No, not by a longshot but what human actually is? I know for a fact that many of these folks actually care about what they are covering and take journalism, ethics, and story as foundational elements in their lives. They are far more dedicated than you can imagine. And when you add a layer of editors on top, you refine the experience even more.
A good editor says “stop.” A good editor says “Go, fast, now.” A good editor says “Dig deeper.” A good editor can tell you when you’ve lost your objectivity or crossed an ethical boundary. Journalism is a team sport, at least when given the chance to be. And when the team is under fire the degree of difficulty ratchets up. Even the lucky sometimes don’t make it home.
When I think of the wars of my lifetime, places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechyna, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Rwanda, The Balkans, the Drug War, and now the Russian War, the film reel of my mind flickers with still images and the faces of the men and women behind the lens. I feel that in many ways, the journalism of today is a time capsule. Captured today but best sealed away until the world is ready to deal. We are so fractured and radicalized as a nation, and I can only speak to the current version of America, that we often suffer self-inflicted wounds driven by party line more than common sense or what our eyes reveal to us. Good journalism is evidence, proof, testimony, and survives for the eyes of future generations.
And even though the news element, the timeline, and the deadline drive headline news, I still feel the best work often takes an additional period to fully polish, package, and deliver. Shock value is enough at times, but at other times and perhaps for long-term lasting impact, full stories must be edited, sequenced, sharpened, and pointed at just the right time. These days, this time allowance is more and more difficult to find.
So, when I look at the images emerging from Ukraine, I temper my expectations but marvel when I see something that stops me and demands my full attention knowing the resources, focus, risk, and energy that went into such a moment. And finally, let us not forget the simple, fundamental reality of war. For a handful of corporations and connected individuals war is good business. But for the rest of those involved, from the conscripts to the civilians caught in the middle, this is pure Hell. War is the result of total failure on multiple fronts and those responsible should never, ever be allowed to cover their scarlett letter.
Hearts go out to the families of the journalists lost since the Russian War began. Here is a bit of advice from a pro.