The Costs of Russian Onslaught in Ukraine
The New Yorker
May 09, 2022
Photographs by James Nachtwey
Destruction, brutality, and terrible loss in Bucha, Kharkiv, Irpin, and elsewhere in Ukraine.
The invasion of Ukraine has been described as the first social-media war, and a key aspect of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership has been his ability to rally his country, and much of the world, via Facebook, Telegram, TikTok, and Twitter. At the same time, war photographers in Bucha, Irpin, and beyond are working—in the tradition of Mathew Brady at Antietam or Robert Capa on Omaha Beach—to capture the grisly realities of what Vladimir Putin insists that his people call a “special military operation.”
James Nachtwey, now seventy-four, is among those keeping their eyes trained on the realities. Influenced by the photography that emerged from the civil-rights movement and Vietnam, he began his career at the Boston bureau of Time and then took a job at the Albuquerque Journal. When he read about the hunger strike in Northern Ireland, in 1981, he headed for Belfast. Four decades of covering conflict ensued, bringing him to El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, Rwanda, Chechnya, and many other places. He has been injured in the field, lost colleagues and friends; his hair was once parted by a bullet. Nachtwey calls himself an “antiwar photographer.”
After an exhausting day in Ukraine recently, he sent this text before getting some sleep: “The barbarity and the senselessness of the Russian onslaught are hard to believe even as I witness them with my own eyes. Bombing and shelling civilian residences, firing tank rounds point-blank into homes and hospitals, murdering noncombatants in militarily occupied areas are all tactics being employed by the Russians in a war that was inflicted on a nonthreatening, neighboring sovereign state. . . . ‘Ordinary’ people are displaying extraordinary courage and determination, if not downright stubbornness, in the face of tremendous destruction and loss of life.” His refusal to avert his gaze from the true costs of conflict belongs to a larger mission: to keep the world from doing so.
Published in the print edition of the May 9, 2022, issue, with the headline “A Harrowed Land.”