Images of Bucha remind us that war photography can be resistance

the pictures coming out of Bucha, Ukraine are heartbreaking, almost surreal.

A quiet residential street completed with smashed and burnt-out war machines, one appearing to have almost melted into the pavement next to a sign pointing the way to the supermarket.

civilians desperately looking for loved ones who have passed away without knowing where or how to start. In the chaos of this mass grave, anyone could be anywhere, everywhere or nowhere.

A Russian tank turret stands in an open field littered with smaller debris, the reservoir to which it belonged was nowhere in sight, a testament to the unspeakable violence that had been inflicted on this city.

A brightly colored schoolyard crushed and shredded by artillery shrapnel.

And the bodies, a lot dark side on the street with their hands tied, others manifest only with feet protruding from hasty preparations mass graves.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky places the civilian death toll in Bucha at more than 300 people. Many of the dead were first tortured. Some of the carnage came as Russian forces retreated from the region around kyiv in a bid to reset and restart their chaotic invasion. Russian Defense Ministry spokesmen denied the accusations, calling them a “hoax” and saying the killings took place after Russian forces left the town, but an analysis of satellite images shows that many dead had been lying in the streets for weeks.

The worst, apparently, may yet be to come. Iryna Venediktova, Prosecutor General of Ukraine, spoke on the Ukrainian national television channel on Monday.Venediktova said the number of casualties in Borodyanka, about 23 km west of Bucha, would be higher than anywhere else,” reports the Guardian“but did not provide further details.”

“We can talk about the kyiv region because yesterday we had access to these territories and are currently working in Irpin, Bucha, Vorzel”, noted Venediktova. “In fact, the worst situation with civilian casualties is in Borodyanka. I think we will talk about Borodyanka separately.

Most of the photographs revealed so far were taken by press photographers who braved war to capture these truths. They needed you and me to know what happened there, and like any good journalist working under duress, they got the job done.

Joseph Galloway, widely considered the “dean” of war correspondents by his peers until his death in 2021, first faced combat in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley in 1965. He describes the experience for NPR Terry Gros:

Men next to me fell with a bullet in the head. I was lying as close to the ground as possible, it seemed like the right thing to do.

When I felt the toe of a combat boot in my ribs, I kind of turned my head, bowed and looked, and it was the battalion sergeant major, a man 6-foot-3, a big bear. And he got down at the waist and kind of yelled at me so I could just hear him. And what he said shocked me. He said, son, you can’t take pictures lying on the floor.

And I thought about it for a minute. And I realized he was right. I can’t do my job here. And the other thing that crossed my mind is that I think we’re probably all going to be killed. And if so, I better get mine standing up anyway. So I got up and went about my business.

Bucha joined a long list of places where horrors have been visited upon innocent people, to be exposed by the pen of the reporter or the eye of the photographer. My Lai, Srebrenica, the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, Rwanda, the Disappeared in Argentina. The difference between these tragedies and Bucha is the accelerated speed of the story of his fate going global.

“Bill Clinton regretted not having responded to the killings of Tutsis in 1994”, reports Patrick Wintour for the Guardian“saying that he didn’t ‘fully appreciate the depth and speed with which [Rwandans] were engulfed in this unimaginable terror. Srebrenica was probably only the culmination of an ethnic cleansing that had lasted for three years. My Lai, revealed two years after the event, only added momentum to a pre-existing American anti-war movement. The extent of the British suppression of the Mau Mau Rebellion was not truly documented until decades later by a Harvard historian, Caroline Elkins, in her book British Gulag.”

This time it was different. The work of these journalists in Ukraine’s war zone shook the world this week. Hopefully they will remind us all of the brutal human impact of war, beyond its politics.

Of course, war photography can be used for sick — fueling nationalism, xenophobia and militarism. But, in the right context, it can bring humanity back into the picture and illuminate the deep and heartbreaking human toll of mass violence.

Documentation can be a resistance.

Stewart C. Hartline