Conflict photography: Telling Ukraine’s story

At a train station in Lviv where soldiers were saying their goodbyes and embracing their loved ones, Daniel Carde sees the humanity of war. 

The freelance conflict photographer captured emotional scenes among soldiers and civilians in one of the most war-torn areas in Ukraine. “They were just joking and being friendly,” he said. “And then they were just back to their soldier selves.”

Some of the best pictures coming out of Ukraine have not just been a moment in time, but those that show the broader scene of a region in crisis. I spoke with Carde, who is currently reporting from Eastern Ukraine, by phone in April. We discussed his process for developing each story and the complexities of reporting in areas affected by conflict.

“I wanted to try to show all the emotions that I was seeing” among the Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, “and if they were sad all the time, that’s all the images would have been,” he said. “But I didn’t only show sadness. I showed what they allowed me to see.”

Choosing the location and the story

Freelance journalists have the flexibility to choose their stories. Carde has reported in the Middle East, Southeast and Western Asia, and the United States. 

“I want to make sure things are documented,” he said, referring to times of war when, often, not enough pictures are taken. “So that’s why I got on the hard news, but I kind of choose things based off of [my] interests.”

Carde often sends pitches to news agencies. Those pitches could be accepted as a commissioned assignment or on “spec,” in which he would rely on his own funds to do the assignment. On spec, the agency would pay Carde for his work if it is impressed by it. A commission means a journalist is working with the news agency’s funds. 

In Ukraine, Carde has taken pictures for Le Point, a mainstream French magazine, and videos for German broadcast station Tagesschau. His photo agency, ZUMA Press, also has sold his photos to various publications throughout the world. 

Planning the trip

Preparations for the trip begin before departure and continue throughout the time in the country. A journalist could set up a place to stay and, suddenly, that building or area might become unsafe. Or, a journalist could spend weeks arranging a “fixer” or a driver, only for them to cancel for a better paid opportunity or a change of heart. “It’s just trying to make sure everything lines up so you can get to where you’re trying to get for the day,” Carde said.

Complications can come from any direction. On the day of our call, Carde was headed to Severodonetsk when his car broke down. A drive that was supposed to take under two hours resulted in him spending most of the day at a nearby auto repair shop.

Mitigating risk

Carde stressed that there is no preventing risk, only mitigating it. This process is threefold: bringing the right equipment, preparing for any conceivable scenario, and making the right decisions in the moment.

In Ukraine, Carde carries body armor rated for the rifle rounds that Russian and Ukrainian troops use. He also carries basic first aid equipment, including bandages and tourniquets. As a former Army engineer, Carde received military and medical training. It is also standard for journalists reporting in unstable areas to receive hazardous environment awareness training (HEAT) or some equivalent. Much of the burden of mitigating risk comes down to real-time decisions. 

Carde emphasized the difference between necessary and unnecessary risk: “I try not to take risks that aren’t needed.” He asks himself, “Do I really need to take that risk for this story?” Last summer while in Iraq, he decided against entering a minefield even though he had a de-miner with him. “It was very dense jungle. The area that we were in [was] very foresty and the ground was covered. And so I stayed outside. I would have gotten much better images, but I didn’t feel like it was the right decision.”

The reporting

“There’s no typical day here,” Carde said. Sometimes his day is just mundane tasks — washing his clothes or reading the news — but often he’s chasing down leads, making calls to ensure his plans are still solid, and working on assignments. 

Working with locals is often crucial to getting the job done. Local assistants, sometimes called fixers or local producers, can provide transportation, language skills, or connections to foreign journalists like Carde. They also can be an instrumental part of the storytelling process: Correspondents and locals have different priorities when telling a story, and Carde thinks journalists should tell the story that locals find important as well. Carde finds his local sources in various ways. 

Many Facebook groups (or social media equivalents) can help establish connections between locals who need work and journalists who need locals. Carde also meets people by keeping his eyes and ears open. On a train ride to a new location, Carde met and exchanged stories with a Ukrainian local who introduced him to her circle, opening a doorway to many new connections.

Many journalists find strength in numbers and often will share rides and lodging with each other. “I try not to go out too often on my own. I prefer to be with another journalist,” Carde said. “For the most part, I’ve been with other freelancers and journalists.”

Framing the story

Photojournalists need to take pictures that accurately and fully tell the story. Destroyed buildings are common in war-torn areas, Carde said. It can be helpful to capture smoke coming out of a destroyed building to show urgency because, in the viewer’s mind, that photo could be from five minutes or five months ago. “You’re trying to find things that show that it’s a timely event,” he said.

“Photos are always going to be subjective, as long as the photographer is a human,” Carde said. To minimize the appearance of bias, photographers can try to get the whole scene in one picture, then show as many sides of the story as possible. This may mean getting a higher vantage point, using a wider angle lens, or stitching together multiple photos to make a panorama. 

Capturing moments beyond bombings and devastation is important, Carde said, to show the reality of life in a war-torn area. 

“Editors pick what they want out of what we send them, but our job is to show them what we’ve seen,” Carde said.

Carde has reported from Ukraine since the beginning of March. If you want to see more of Carde’s work, visit his website or Patreon.

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