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Magnum - A Year in Ukraine

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A bomb shelter in the basement of an orphanage. Lviv, March 12, 2022 © Rafał Milach/Magnum Photos.

Both Milach and Towell capture the effects of war on the built environment, but in different ways. While Milach documents how spaces are repurposed for survival, Towell’s work shows the trail of human loss and devastation left in liberated towns like Bucha. Neither were working on assignments, and so could capture how daily life continues for everyday people, without the demands of the news cycle and its focus on troop advancements and casualties and press conferences.

I don’t usually do hard news. I almost never have assignments. So I have to think a little differently,” admits Towell. So, what compels a Magnum photographer to document conflict? “I photograph for history,” he continues, adding that this is particularly relevant in a country like Ukraine, which has been forced to forget the history of its own suffering.

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After the Russian withdrawal. Bucha, April 2022 © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos.

For more than five decades, the Soviet regime forbade discussion of the origins of Holodomor, a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine that resulted in millions of deaths (estimates range from 2.5-7.5m) in the early 1930s. Holodomor denial had been so deeply ingrained in Soviet society that, even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it took more than a decade for the government to officially recognize it as an act of genocide.

The harrowing scenes of mass graves witnessed by Towell in the liberated towns and villages around Kyiv were published in Vanity Fair several months later, alongside war reportage from Bucha by human rights advisor and investigator Janine Di Giovanni, titled, ‘Holding Russia to Account for War Crimes in Ukraine.’

The article shares her work on The Reckoning Project, an initiative training local journalists to meticulously gather evidence of war crimes while war rages on, so that eyewitness testimony can eventually be used in international tribunals. Her hope is to speed up the process to make Russia accountable for its brutal war on Ukraine. Gathering evidence is more important than ever. She writes: “The question of whether this war constitutes a genocide will be decided in the months and years to come. But history isn’t waiting this time.”

In the photographs of Towell and Milach, the spaces themselves become a collective protagonist: bringing attention to the scale of destruction without resorting to the sensationalism of human suffering seen in typical war reportage. However, these photographs don’t capture everything, as they don’t show the human need to distance oneself from the horrors of war.

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Burned out civilian car. Highway E 40, Kyiv region, April 7, 2022 © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos.

I noticed that the Ukrainian army very quickly cleaned up the dead bodies, the burnt-out tanks and memories on Highway 40. All the horrible things that were scattered up and down the streets of Bucha were gone, and gone quickly,” says Towell. “I think that stayed with me more than anything.”

Sometimes it’s the moments of normalcy in these spaces that can be shocking to witness. In January 2023, Milach made a trip to the Pozniaky district, which was one of the first residential areas of Kyiv to have been attacked by Russia in the first days of war. The photographs show a neighborhood blanketed by snow. Milach then went on to Hostomel, a destroyed residential district northwest of Kyiv, where he interviewed the residents who had returned to their apartments and renovated the spaces.

That was one of the hardest experiences during that trip: being shown the pictures of how the flat was damaged, and hearing all the stories of what happened there. I really admire this mindset of not letting the perpetrator break you.”

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A residential building in Pozniaky bombed by the Russians in the first days of war, and now, a few months later, renovated. Kyiv, January 16, 2023 © Rafał Milach/Magnum Photos.

As Russia’s offensive in Ukraine persists, photographers continue to bear witness to the way life persists and adapts amidst the conflict, capturing images of memorials and the myriad ways in which daily life interweaves itself within the ruins of war.

Jim Goldberg’s work focuses on the omnipresence of war in daily life - even in locations far from the conflict zone. In 2022, he traveled to Lithuania, a country with a Soviet past that sits at the crossroads between Europe, Belarus, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

In a border town called Kybartai he photographed a local resident who explained that after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she had become more sensitive to the usual noises, like the sound of the railway. She is now fearful of any loud sound in general. Many people he met had been affected by the Soviet occupation, and these anxieties have only been compounded by the NATO military buildup and tensions over transportation of goods through Lithuania, which has caused long-dormant tensions over Kaliningrad to erupt, further straining relations between Russia and the West.

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Military exercises. Near Kazlu Ruda, Lithuania, May 28, 2022 © Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos.

Suddenly, you’ve got this fence going up amid these idyllic scenes, overpowering the landscape.”

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Watch tower used in prisons and gulags, exhibited in Grutas Park, an outdoor exhibition of dismantled Soviet monuments. Grutas, Lithuania, May 24, 2022 © Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos.

In recent years, Lithuania has faced an influx of migrants on its border, with thousands arriving since 2019, reportedly pushed by Russia’s ally, Belarus, as a provocation. EU officials and human rights organizations believe this humanitarian crisis was intentionally escalated by Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, as retaliation for the EU’s support of his opposition. Last August, Lithuania announced that it had finished building a fence along its border with Belarus to restrict illegal immigration.

Goldberg speaks of its incongruity within the landscapes he photographed: “There’s a peacefulness to Lithuania. It really is a beautiful country. You’ve got rolling hills, lakes, and animals grazing. Then suddenly, you’ve got this fence going up amid these idyllic scenes, overpowering the landscape.”

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Immigrants detention center in former Kybartai Prison, Lithuania, May 23, 2022 © Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos.

When I look at Goldberg’s images of migrants who have fled the Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and are now stuck in limbo at detention centers on Lithuania’s border, I am reminded of Jérôme Sessini’s photographs showing victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy, which was brought down by a surface-to-air missile in eastern Ukraine in 2014. The incident killed 298 passengers who had no knowledge or connection to the war in Donbas, but were tragically affected by it. Both sets of images demonstrate how war and conflict can have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences, affecting innocent people who have no direct involvement in the conflicts they are caught up in.

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The remains and the corpses of the passengers of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which crashed down over eastern Ukraine. Torez, July 17, 2014 © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos.

The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with images of tragedies across the world, so much that we may forget that each of these photographs can also offer a moment of pause. Anniversaries give us this chance to commemorate what has been lost and ask what we can do next to support those still affected by war. Larry Towell believes that they offer a way to preserve the memory of past events and establish connections to the present.

He asks, “Why do we have birthdays? Why do you have founding anniversaries? To remind you that something important has happened and is happening.” Consequently, anniversaries are a moment to consider how Ukrainian refugees have been resettled, the intensification of anxieties in border regions, and the best approach to commemorate what has been lost while celebrating the lives that continue to thrive.

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