Yefrem Lukatskyi has been working as a photo correspondent for Associated Press for more than 30 years. He has documented war in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Transnistria, and Ukraine.
Yefrem speaks here about experiencing the war in his own country, about propaganda, and about photography as testimony.
First days of the war - thoughts, experiences, actions
To Yefrem Lukatskyi, the morning of February 24 felt like the logical ending of a long anticipation rather than a surprise.
A month before that, he had already managed to order body armor for himself and his colleagues in Kharkiv. He recommended his friends, especially those who had little children, to move out from Kyiv; he prepared his equipment and a first-aid kit. Nothing else was to be expected, in Yefrem’s opinion, after the D/CIA came to Kyiv for a meeting with the President of Ukraine.
“I was not skeptical, at least,” Yefrem recalls. “It was not intuition. I was surprised that Putin had not declared war in his speech because it had really seemed like he would. Still, I had no doubts that Russia would launch an offensive.”
When the first bombardments began, Yefrem went to document the war directly from the AP office in Kyiv. His bosses gave the Ukrainian capital three days maximum to hold on and demanded his evacuation; still, Yefrem stayed in Kyiv despite threats to fire him. His office was located 300 meters away from the presidential administration, so Yefrem opened his windows regularly to listen if any sounds of battle could be heard.
Yefrem was shooting from day one. It was he who took the pictures of a missile near the Holosiiv square and of the battle in the Shuliavka district of Kyiv. He was photographing in Hostomel and on the Zhytomyr highway; later he went to work in the Chernihiv and Sumy regions, then to the city of Kharkiv.
“I felt the most badly stressed when the Russians seized Kherson in the first few days without a single shot,” says Yefrem. “We had been documenting the Ukrainian army’s annual military exercise at the Perekop isthmus together with my colleagues. We were told that everything around us had been mined and every meter of that land had been pre-sighted. Of course, we have to be concerned about what has happened because many thousands of our fellow citizens have already paid their lives for that, but many more will still have to die before we can get our territory back. Our total unpreparedness was revealed very soon after the invasion.”
To prove his point, Yefrem talks about how he photographed a stricken Russian KA-52 attack helicopter near Hostomel on the very first day of the full-scale war. Next day, he saw an empty road to Dymer where the Ukrainian military, armed with Javelins, were digging trenches in front of a demolished bridge. Yefrem was shocked. How could the Russians have managed to reach the Shuliavska metro station? How could a tank battle take place on the Zhytomyr highway? After having seen so many casualties, Yefrem admits, he was on the point of going crazy.
Yefrem gained some confidence later when Kyiv emptied for a few days due to the first long curfew. He could not just sit in the office instead of photographing the deserted city. For that reason, he arranged to meet Andrii Kryschenko, the deputy chairman of Kyiv city council. On his way past the Besarabskyi Market, Yefrem was predictably stopped by the military, but the officer had turned out to be an acquaintance of his from the Security Service of Ukraine. He wished the journalist good luck and even showed him a recently detained enemy artillery spotter. It was only at the city council where Yefrem finally managed to calm down. Contemplating the seemingly senseless preparation of Molotov cocktails which had no chance of stopping the Russian tanks, Yefrem heard Kryschenko telling somebody on the phone: “No worries, we are just warming up.”
After that ‘warming up’, Yefrem went to the frontline; later he started working in the liberated territories. Even his many years of experience in documenting wars did not help him to withstand what he saw.
“I was horrified after seeing Bucha,” Yefrem recalls. “I have never witnessed anything like this. And then we went to other towns and villages… the Russians had broken into the houses, beaten people and knocked their teeth out with hammers, raped and looted. They came for nothing but profit. I saw the Russian military stealing carpets and TV sets in Chechnya, but nevertheless, I thought them to be wealthier than they really were. I could never imagine that they would descend to such a level. The survivors of the occupation told me that the Russian soldiers showed signs of being high on either alcohol or drugs. They were all very young. It’s a painful spectacle. It affects the nervous system harshly.
It's very painful to see a 5-year-old child trying to put her mother’s torn-off head back together with the rest of her body after the shelling, so that the mother could come back to life again. It’s painful to witness and photograph the funerals of your acquaintances. It’s painful to see the people in Kharkiv who sit next to a burning house without paying the slightest attention to it because bombardments have become an ordinary part of their reality. It’s painful to see an old grandfather, a former Soviet serviceman, who refuses to leave his apartment on the tenth floor, regardless of the two missiles which have already hit the block, because this is the place where his wife had died; the widower has her portrait on the wall, and he wants to stay with her. It’s painful to see the people who have been living in the metro for weeks. And even more so, it’s painful to hear the questions which cannot be answered: ‘Will my 15-year-old daughter who has been abducted by Russian soldiers come back home?’
I became very sentimental. I have never shed so many tears as I did in these months. I often couldn’t do anything but cry. This war is so very close to us.”
While shooting, Yefrem talks a lot to the protagonists of his stories to establish contact with them.
Sometimes, the shelling survivors retell him Russian television propaganda.
“Informational warfare is a separate front,” says Yefrem. “To prevail, we must oppose the Russians with our own propaganda. Due to their media, 70% of the Russian population hate Ukraine. We have ended up in a state where we are unprepared for this. I have a theory by which it’s journalists and informational workers who make war. Ukraine has always lost the ideological front, and now we are beginning to lose it again.”
Yefrem thinks like this because he sees how many foreign journalists who are coming to Ukraine after having worked for Russia Today. Among them there was a Bulgarian reporter who was convincing his colleagues in the Bucha mortuary that it was not real dead bodies lying there, but dummies. At the same time, the Russian defense ministry organizes press tours to the besieged Mariupol for the Western media, which, in Yefrem’s opinion, is equivalent to Goebbels organizing a tour of Auschwitz. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs does not react to it in any way.
“Russia invests billions into it. RT’s people are paid incredibly high fees for their loyalty. But as soon as a journalist sells their conscience, they begin to believe in ‘fascists’ and ‘Banderites’ themself because they’ve got no other option.”
Still, the journalists who are not serving Russian propaganda can’t consider this war their own, either. Most of them have come here as if they were on safari, Yefrem says. They chase a good picture, brag about their prey (i.e. images of atrocities), they come together for dinner and discuss what they have just seen during the exhumation in Bucha, they laugh and make jokes.
Yefrem cannot act like this. He will not be able to just come home from this war, as he had done before. He can’t be impartial. He is frightened, Yefrem admits with all honesty, but he can’t leave for the rear, because a journalist has no right to tell a story they haven’t witnessed. And the story of each person, even a dead one, can be seen through a photograph. For example, the Soviet-style belts on the Russian uniforms indicate recruits from the so called ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, the inscriptions on the papers communicate the names of the remote Russian towns where the other soldiers come from, and so on. A photo can serve as document and testimony at once.
“The biggest problem for a journalist with a camera is to see dying people who are begging for help and addressing their pleas to you,” says Yefrem. “But I can’t save people. I can only photograph them.” By way of illustration, he photographs the wives of the defenders of Azovstal, even though he could not get anybody out of the besieged steel plant.
“Knowing that we are losing our best soldiers while Russia just gets rid of its scum is torture for me,” Yefrem admits. “We will have to raise a generation to restore this stratum of the elite. So it will take 20 years for the country to start developing again, because Russia is waging war against Ukraine’s best people – the ones who are transforming the history of their own country and that of the whole world, and who could have just as well transformed the history of all the post-Soviet territory.”
Yefrem is wary that the war might be delayed for a long time and Russia could freeze the conflict. They have already achieved their desired result in the regions they have seized in the south: proof of this is in the air defense weapon systems which they are setting up to consolidate their positions. As soon as the conflict is frozen, the attention of the Western media will drop off. Negotiations about lifting of the sanctions will begin. This frightens Yefrem a lot; still, he cannot insist that his fellow Ukrainians keep dying in the war.
“I am a pessimistic person,” Yefrem summarizes. “I am well-informed, I’m careful about everything. And yet, I don’t see any sense in the fighting without faith in victory. I don’t know whether it’s God or someone else who will back Ukraine up at the last moment. Of course, we will prevail – but what will it cost?”