‘It makes our voice as a country louder’: A Ukraine photographer’s battle against Russian propaganda

·4 min read
A woman from Irpin cries on a policeman’s shoulder as she is taken to an evacuation area of Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
A woman from Irpin cries on a policeman’s shoulder as she is taken to an evacuation area of Kyiv (Alina Smutko)

Before the war, Kyiv-based documentary photographer Alina Smutko’s work focused on politics, sport and social justice. Her work has taken her to many areas of Ukraine including the disputed Russian-occupied territories of Crimea, Luhansk and the Donetsk.

Alina has now taken on the role of war photographer. She spends her days recording stories of innocent people who have been hit by bombardments, refugees fleeing and charity workers attempting to provide aid.

More than 12 million people in Ukraine have been forced to leave their homes, according to the United Nations. An estimated 6 million are thought to have fled to neighbouring countries, with another 6.5 million displaced within Ukraine itself.

Photographers like Alina have decided to stay and document the crisis, putting themselves in great danger. She hopes that photographing the war will tell the world what is happening in Ukraine and she said she wants her work to “win against Russian propaganda”.

“It makes our voice as a country louder,” she said. “The more pictures we have, the more we suffer for the world and the more the world helps us.”

A man disassembles parts of a burned car near the destroyed houses in Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
A man disassembles parts of a burned car near the destroyed houses in Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
A woman with a child waits to be evacuated in Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
A woman with a child waits to be evacuated in Kyiv (Alina Smutko)

But Alina added that she feels angry about some people questioning the authenticity of photographs or labelling injured people as actors. These tactics have been a permanent feature of the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign about the war.

A Russian airstrike on a Mariupol maternity hospital resulted in at least four deaths and 16 hospitalisations on 9 March. One photo appeared on many front pages the next day, showing an injured pregnant woman being carried out of the hospital.

Other newspapers included an image of another bloodied pregnant woman walking down the stairs of the bombed building.

But the Russian Embassy in London responded by tweeting that the women pictured were actors and falsely claimed the hospital was a legitimate military target hiding supplies.

A tweet from the Russian Embassy in London which were later deleted by Twitter for violating its rules (Supplied)
A tweet from the Russian Embassy in London which were later deleted by Twitter for violating its rules (Supplied)
Another tweet from the Russian Embassy in London spreading disinformation, which was later deleted by Twitter (Supplied)
Another tweet from the Russian Embassy in London spreading disinformation, which was later deleted by Twitter (Supplied)

Alina said she fears fake news theories are already so widespread that there is little news agencies and photographers can do to combat these forces. “A lot of people don’t get it, because Russian propaganda has been working for really a long time and you already can’t resist it,” she said.

“We photograph a pregnant woman from Mariupol who is bleeding because Russians hit the hospital where she was. Russians immediately react by saying ‘oh well, it’s not true’, ‘this woman is an actress’ or ‘the hospital is a military base’,” she added. “What about the photographers who took those pictures from Mariupol? They risked their lives, but others just devalued their work. They were called liars, despite being well-known professionals from world-famous news agencies.”

Residents of a building in Kyiv watch the fire extinguishing after an morning air attack (Alina Smutko)
Residents of a building in Kyiv watch the fire extinguishing after an morning air attack (Alina Smutko)
Kamil, a member of the territorial defense of Kyiv, in his friend’s apartment in Bucha which was occupied by Russians (Alina Smutko)
Kamil, a member of the territorial defense of Kyiv, in his friend’s apartment in Bucha which was occupied by Russians (Alina Smutko)
Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, actors of the Kharkiv theatre, and members of their families, have shelter in the basement of a theatre (Alina Smutko)
Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, actors of the Kharkiv theatre, and members of their families, have shelter in the basement of a theatre (Alina Smutko)

The war in Ukraine has been a battle fought on several fronts. One of those has been social media. The photos of the invasion being posted on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Telegram have been crucial for galvanising large parts of the world into supporting Ukraine financially and militarily.

The heartwrenching video of a young girl sheltering in a basement singing along to “Let it Go” from the film Frozen touched many. Glimpses of these powerful images have helped Ukrainians cast themselves as survivors struggling against a powerful aggressor with no moral authority.

But the massive influx of these photos has also meant images of war and destruction have now become common. And it’s a challenge for war photographers to keep their work relevant.

“We now see these types of pictures everywhere. In the past, there might be one or two incredible images to come out of a warzone but it’s different now because of the development of photography technologies and easier access to the war locations,” Alina said.

Workers of the Ukrainian public broadcasting company hide during an air raid in the basement of a Ukrainian radio house in Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
Workers of the Ukrainian public broadcasting company hide during an air raid in the basement of a Ukrainian radio house in Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
One of the first residential buildings in Kyiv, which suffered from the bombing in February (Alina Smutko)
One of the first residential buildings in Kyiv, which suffered from the bombing in February (Alina Smutko)
Viktoria with her cat in a volunteer centre where she and other volunteers help locals with food and the army with medical equipment (Alina Smutko)
Viktoria with her cat in a volunteer centre where she and other volunteers help locals with food and the army with medical equipment (Alina Smutko)

Photographers are also aware that it’s important to keep the momentum of support behind Ukraine by bringing new, impactful stories from the battlefront. But the saturation of photos being shared threatens to weaken that support.

“A really small number of us understand that spectators are already tired of seeing the images of destruction,” Alina says. “The more we create, the more they are tired.”

But this dilemma has also played strongly in Ukraine’s favour. It has personalised a global conflict and amplified the voices of those who may have otherwise gone unnoticed. “Luckily Ukrainians have their voice and can explain what is happening. Even people in Syria didn’t have such kind of attention from the foreign audience,” she said.

Said Ismagilov, Mufti of Ukrainian Muslims and member of the territorial defense of Kyiv, at his home in an apartment in Bucha, near Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
Said Ismagilov, Mufti of Ukrainian Muslims and member of the territorial defense of Kyiv, at his home in an apartment in Bucha, near Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
People try to save what is left of their belongings after a rocket hit their house on the outskirts of Kyiv (Alina Smutko)
People try to save what is left of their belongings after a rocket hit their house on the outskirts of Kyiv (Alina Smutko)

It’s clear from Alina’s work that besides spurring support for her country, she is also reminding the world that her people are still resisting and surviving. Every day Alina posts a photo to her Instagram account to remind the world that the country is still fighting. They read: “Kyiv still stands”.

You can see more of Alina’s work on her website and Instagram account.