Brendan Hoffman: “I was at risk of being kidnapped or shot for the first time in my career”

American photographer Brendan Hoffman who covered the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine talks about his first steps in war photography, his most important photos and professional tasks worth taking a risk for.

Brendan Hoffman profile photo
34 years oldBrendan Hoffman,

Documentary photographer based in Eastern Europe who covered the crisis in Ukraine for Getty Images starting in early December. His work has been extensively published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Stern, Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal. Brendan has received awards for his photography from Pictures of the Year International, American Photography 29, the White House News Photographers Association, and other organizations. He has worked on long-term documentary projects in the US, Haiti, Russia and other countries, and is a co-founder of the photography cooperative Prime.

You now work in Moscow and Kiev. Why did you decide to move? What interests you here as a photographer?

I’ve been interested in Russia and the former Soviet Union for a long time, since I took my first trip here 10 years ago. I’ve always wanted to move out of the Unites States, at least for a while, and this part of the world is very interesting with its long, complex history. It’s poorly understood, but it’s incredibly relevant to what is happening everywhere in the world right now. I don’t think there is as much good reporting done here as there could or should be.

Shooting on Maidan and in Eastern Ukraine — was it your first work experience in a war zone?

My background is in Washington DC, primarily covering politics, Capitol Hill and the White House, political campaigns and a lot of portraits. Most of those events are very carefully managed. The visual presentation is set up ahead of time. Political campaigns are my favorite; they’re very scripted, but at the same time it’s a much more complex narrative, it’s a high-stakes story that unfolds over the course of a year and a half. Everywhere you go, when you are covering a political campaign it’s not only the candidate that’s interesting, but you can photograph everything around you, all people that attend these events, even the way it is visually staged is interesting. To me photographing on Maidan was very similar. In a 360°panorama around you, 24 hours a day, there were interesting images to be made. All day long I could just walk, and look, and photograph. And to me, that is the style of photography that really works and plays to my strengths.

“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140425BH0224.jpg”,
“text”: “Ukrainian troops are guarding KPP by village Barvinovka, 25 of April 2014.”,
“alt”: “Ukrainian troops are guarding KPP by village Barvinovka, 25 of April 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140427BH0345.jpg”,
“text”: “Pro-Russian activists are protecting the entrance to TV station TRK Donbass, after taking over the building, 27 of April 2014.”,
“alt”: “Pro-Russian activists are protecting the entrance to TV station TRK Donbass, after taking over the building, 27 of April 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140504BH0338.jpg”,
“text”: “Overtaking of the military court building in Donetsk, 4 of May 2014.”,
“alt”: “Overtaking of the military court building in Donetsk, 4 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140504BH0377.jpg”,
“text”: “Overtaking of the military court building in Donetsk, 4 of May 2014.”,
“alt”: “Overtaking of the military court building in Donetsk, 4 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140510BH0354.jpg”,
“text”: “A captured military machinery in Mariupol next day after the armed encounters, 10 of May 2014.”,
“alt”: “A captured military machinery in Mariupol next day after the armed encounters, 10 of May 2014.”

I went to Eastern Ukraine not specifically because I wanted to photograph conflict, but because conflict happened to be part of the Ukraine story I was already so enmeshed in. It’s a different style of working, with lots of waiting, lots of driving, and lots of having no idea what’s going on. Most of the time we missed the action as it was taking place and instead photographed the aftermath — the scene of a firefight instead of the firefight itself, and lots of funerals. It took me a while to adjust to the pace of work and to lower my expectations for the number of good images I could make in a day, but that was a valuable experience by itself.

Can you emphasize a certain story or a photograph that you made?

While we were in the East, it was difficult to be present for actual fighting, or to access daily life of the combatants on either side, separatists or Ukrainian military. As a result, one of the few places we could get close to people was at funerals.

One of the most important stories I did was to attend the funeral of a civilian woman who was killed. Her name was Elena Ott, and she’s from a village called Starovarvarovka. The day before the funeral we met the family members who told us to the best of their understanding what had happened. She had been driving with her son back from visiting her sister. It was late in the evening, and it started to get dark. Unfortunately, it happened to be at the same time that the Ukrainian military started to conduct an anti-terrorist operation in the area, which of course she didn’t know.

“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140516BH0318.jpg”,
“text”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014″,
“alt”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140516BH0011.jpg”,
“text”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014″,
“alt”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140505BH0271.jpg”,
“text”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014″,
“alt”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140516BH0584.jpg”,
“text”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014″,
“alt”: “Elena Ott’s funeral, Starovarovka, 16 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140514BH0762.jpg”,
“text”: “Ukrainian soldiers defending a checkpoint in Novotroitsk, 14 of May 2014.”,
“alt”: “Ukrainian soldiers defending a checkpoint in Novotroitsk, 14 of May 2014.”

We did a lot of old-fashioned reporting to track down the story. We actually went to the police and got access to see the car that she has been riding in and saw how many bullet holes were in the car. We talked to friends and family as they were digging her grave in the cemetery. And the next day we attended the funeral.

We spent two very long days telling as much of this story as we could. And with some other colleagues we published what I think was an important piece of journalism in several outlets — Al Jazeera ran a long story, the New York Times had a photo on the front page, and the pictures I took ran in a spread in a German magazine, 14 photos. Some of my colleagues just went back 2 days ago to visit that family and check in. I feel good that we were able to highlight the civilian cost of the fighting in Donetsk region, but if nothing else, this story was important in terms of helping this family to memorialize such a tragic accident.

As we arrived the morning of the funeral, Elena’s family was crowded into the house with a priest for a religious service. Her body lay in the middle of the family room, incense smoke filled the air, and relatives were weeping. I only stepped in for a minute to make a quick picture, but it was such a poignant and emotional scene. There are some other images in my head that I don’t have preserved in a photograph. Most of the time you are trying to photograph such situations without being intrusive, and occasionally there are moments that are powerful, but for whatever reason I feel better about letting them go unrecorded. But, out of the pictures I do have, the images of Elena’s sister riding with her body in the back of a truck from her family’s house to the cemetery, as well as a picture of her grave being filled in after the funeral service come to mind.

What was different about your experience in Eastern Ukraine from the one on Maidan?

The pace and access were very difficult. In Kiev, at Maidan, everyone was open and willing to talk, almost everyone was willing to be photographed. And in Eastern Ukraine the default was “no pictures, no pictures, no pictures.” Sometimes people warm up after a bit of time, but still it was a much bigger challenge.

Speaking about the visual comparison and the role of photography in these two conflicts in general, I don’t think that Eastern Ukraine is a story that was inherently visual. Maidan was so fundamentally visual — more so than any other story that I can think of, and probably more than any story I will ever cover again. If it wasn’t for the photographs that were coming out of Kiev during that, I don’t think there would have been nearly as much attention paid. And without that attention from the world I don’t think that movement would have been sustained. That is one of the few stories I can think of when I’m convinced that photography was an integral part of keeping that story relevant.

You worked on both sides of the conflict. Was it difficult to make the switch, morally? Did you feel a deeper compassion towards one of the sides after you spent some time there?

No, I don’t think that was a challenge for me. And maybe the main reason why is when I cover any story, I try really hard to assume that all people, no matter how it looks from the outside, have very complex motivations. And I try to go in assuming that I don’t know everything about what drives people to act the way they are acting and there is more information for me to learn and understand. So I’m trying not to be judgmental, and to understand that most of the people that are participating, whether they are Ukrainian military, separatists or members of the Vostok battalion, they all are doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do morally.

The shooting was going on all around us. It was pretty sketchy, but we knew we were in a unique position to cover a strategically important battle.

How was it, for an American like yourself, to stay in the camp of armed fighters? What do you call them — separatists, terrorists, followers of federalization or something else?

Being an American obviously posed an issue. I couldn’t tell people that I was an American. The one time I did, it created problems and the pro-Russian activists seemed very pleased to have an American in their hands. For most of my time in Eastern Ukraine, I was on assignment for Getty Images, which is a news agency that provides pictures all over the world. Usually it’s too difficult to try to explain exactly what Getty is at a checkpoint, for example, often I just told them that I’m from London because I work with an editor based in London. I never carried my passport, so if they wanted to search they wouldn’t find that or anything else that identified me as an American.

I generally refer to them as separatists, because they were fighting first for this referendum on separation from Ukraine. It’s not a term that has to be taken literally, it’s just verbal shorthand. I don’t get into semantics usually, it’s more for simplicity sake.

What was the most dangerous situation that you encountered?

For me personally it was the day after the election, May 26, when early in the morning a number of pro-Russian separatist fighters took over the Donetsk airport. When we first heard of it, they were there occupying it and there were negotiations going on. A number of journalists went as close to the airport as they could, just waiting to see what would happen. After a few hours people started to give up, decided it was not interesting and left. Around 1 o’clock in the afternoon I was there waiting, and sort of without warning a few Ukrainian military helicopters flew over and a firefight started. We ran for cover and tried find the best balance between getting to a safe place and still making photographs, yet there were times when we were exposed while the shooting was going on all around us. It was pretty sketchy, but we knew we were in a unique position to cover a strategically important battle which represented a major escalation in the conflict. In the late afternoon, a large number of heavily-armed pro-Russian fighters arrived and took up positions right next to us. They wouldn’t allow us to photograph them, and then, almost immediately, they came under attack by a military helicopter. That was too much for us, and we left.

“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140521BH0983.jpg”,
“text”: “A member of pro-Ukrainian unit of volunteers Donbass raises his gun in the field next to KPP in Dobropolye, 21 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140523BH0247.jpg”,
“text”: “Members of pro-Russian unit Vostok are gathering in the morning at roadside, after encounter with the pro-Ukrainian fighters in Peski,23 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140525BH0184.jpg”,
“text”: “A woman at a voting location on the day of Presidential elections in Ulyanovka, Ukraine, 25 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140526BH0290.jpg”,
“text”: “A group of journalists is running amidst shooting near the airport in Donetsk, 26 May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140526BH0416.jpg”,
“text”: “A separatist next to Donetsk’s airport, 26 of May 2014.”
“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140526BH0560.jpg”,
“text”: “A separatist next to Donetsk’s airport, 26 of May 2014.”

What was it that you took a risk for in Donbass?

It’s always difficult to know how the situation is going to develop and how important it will turn out to be in a long run. Generally, if you are in a position when you can cover this type of fighting and you think it’s an important part of the larger story, and it’s more or less safe, then yes, to me it’s worth doing. That may very well be one of the most important pictures that comes out of the whole conflict. There is no way to know in advance what picture you will make and what impact it will have later on. But there were moments, on May 26 in particular, when the pictures I made were not worth the risk that I was taking.

Do you believe that your photos can change things?

I think it’s really idealistic to believe that you will go and take photograph that will change the course of a conflict. The best thing that I can hope for is simply to create a historical record that in a hundred years or three hundred years, — when people are trying to understand this time, there will be primary documents in a form of my photographs that they can look at. I don’t think my photographs will change the course of this story. But, for example, I do feel that the story about Elena Ott that was broadly published in the international media was important to photograph. She was one of the first civilian victims of the whole conflict, and I think it’s an important thing to highlight. Having that record of her funeral is important, if for nobody else — then just for her family and people who knew her.

Has a certain experience affected your life in some way?

Working in Eastern Ukraine was the first time that I covered what can be considered a war. It was a very different experience for me. When I was covering Maidan on February 20, that was the first time I’ve been shot at in the course of my work. This is the first story that I covered when the risk of being kidnapped or shot was present most of the time — and that does things to your mind. It makes you evaluate whether the work that you do is worth it. And you probably have no choice, but to believe that, because otherwise you will not be there. I think that it forces you to look at your life in general, at the choices you’ve made, and what’s important to you. It makes the other risks you take in the course of normal life seem trivial in comparison, and in a way I think that’s healthy.

Nowadays there is very little trust that journalists are neutral.

Can you comment on the today’s role of war photography? Has it changed over the years?

Since the American invasion in Iraq in particular, the media have become politicized in a way they weren’t a generation ago. Nowadays there is very little trust that journalists are neutral. And I think in a lot of situations in Ukraine in particular that view is justified. There were a lot of journalists who were not neutral. I think the Russian media was really unfair, I don’t think the Ukrainian media was very good either.

Before there was a level of respect for the role of a journalist, from all sides of a conflict, and that is almost totally gone. Maybe my nostalgia is based on an unrealistic understanding of how things used to be, but it seems there was a time when war photography had the potential to be more valuable than it is now — access was better and the audience was more receptive to photography as visual truth and not propaganda. It’s much more difficult now than I think it was during the Vietnam war. Now it’s so difficult to get access on all sides of the conflict. And I think the absence of that diminishes the impact that the photojournalism can have. It’s unfortunate, but war photography might be less impactful than it used to be.

Please name a few war photographers whom you admire.

Obviously, a lot of the work that James Nachtwey has done in terms of the civilian impact of war, I think is really important. I also think Moises Saman does really beautiful work. Peter van Agtmael did a nice job telling perhaps the most comprehensive story of the war and US experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“img”: “http://bird.depositphotos.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/140514BH0805.jpg”,
“text”: “Ukrainian soldiers are guarding KPP on 14 May 2014 in Novotroitsk.”,
“alt”: “Ukrainian soldiers are guarding KPP on 14 May 2014 in Novotroitsk.”

Is there anything that you wanted to shoot and couldn’t?

I think the big one at the moment has to do with civilian impact of the conflict, particularly in Slavyansk. I also think that in the whole Luhansk region there are probably really important stories of civilian impact, but access in that region, at least for me as an American, is extraordinary difficult. People are not interested in talking to me, and they are definitely afraid to be photographed. Their fear is justified, and the last thing I want to do is put my photographic subjects in danger.

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