The Current

Killing of fleeing family in mortar strike 'a moment that had to be documented': NYT photojournalist

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario was in Irpin, Ukraine, on Sunday when four Ukrainians, including a child, were killed by a mortar attack on an evacuation route.

WARNING: This story includes a disturbing image of death

A Ukrainian soldier runs through smoke from a mortar attack in Irpin, northwestern Kyiv, on Sunday. (Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

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WARNING: This story contains graphic images, including of civilians killed in a mortar strike

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario says images capturing the invasion of Ukraine are crucial to combating some of the misinformation around the war.

"Putin has claimed that he's not targeting civilians.... I think the journalists have proven otherwise," Addario told CBC Radio's The Current from Kyiv, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"We are on the ground, we're not taking sides, we're not here to decide the outcome of the war — we're here to simply document what we see."

Lynsey Addario is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, currently in Ukraine. (Sam Taylor Johnson)

Addario has been in Ukraine for the New York Times since Feb. 14, capturing the country's brutal transformation during the days before and after Russia's invasion on Feb. 24.

On Sunday, she took a photograph of four Ukrainians, including a child, killed by a mortar attack on an evacuation route, in what Addario said was an intentional targeting of civilians by Russian forces.

Addario went to the evacuation route in Irpin, northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, early that morning, along with a New York Times security adviser and freelance videographer Andriy Dubchak. She planned to take photographs of people fleeing over a damaged bridge across the Irpin River.

Ukrainian soldiers were helping civilians across the bridge, but Addario said she could hear artillery and weapons fire in the near distance.

Addario began to take pictures but soon realized that mortar rounds were falling closer and closer. The Ukrainian military was returning fire, but from a distance of about 300 metres from the evacuation route, she said.

"I very naively thought, 'Well, they know where the civilian route is, so they're probably zeroing in on a Ukrainian mortar position off in the distance,'" she told The Current.

Soon after, a mortar landed about six to nine metres from where Addario and her colleagues were standing, "so close that we weren't even sure whether we were injured," she said.

I saw these four lifeless figures and I was trying to connect the dots, and I realized one of them was a child.- Lynsey Addario

"It was completely chaotic ... dust kicked up in the air, there was a dog barking," she said.

Four people lay on the ground nearby, suitcases scattered around them.

"I saw these four lifeless figures and I was trying to connect the dots, and I realized one of them was a child," Addario said.

Three of the four people were already dead: Tetiana Perebyinis, 43, and her two children, Mykyta, 18, and Alisa, 9. The fourth, Anatoly Berezhnyi, 26, was a church volunteer who was helping the family get to safety. He died later of his injuries.

Despite the shock of the blast, Addario said she knew she had to photograph what had just happened. As soldiers tried to help the fallen, she quickly took pictures from several angles.

WARNING: Graphic image below of civilians killed in a mortar strike 

She then left the area with her colleagues and the civilians, as more mortars fell.

One of the pictures she took was printed on the front page of the New York Times on Monday and shared tens of thousands of times online.

Tetiana Perebyinis and her two children, Mykyta and Alisa, as well as Anatoly Berezhnyi, who was helping them get to safety, were killed by a mortar in Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on Sunday. (Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Addario said she believes the civilians were intentionally targeted by Russian forces, and that's why it was important for her to take pictures in that "horrific moment."

"This was a moment that had to be documented. We bore witness to this, and that is our responsibility as journalists," she said.

'The whole world should know'

Serhiy Perebyinis was away in Eastern Ukraine, caring for his elderly mother, when his wife and two children were killed in the mortar attack.

He knew they were trying to leave Irpin that day, but he only learned of their deaths on Twitter, when news of the deaths was posted by Ukrainians. In images posted soon after, he recognized his family's suitcases.

In an interview with the New York Times, Perebyinis said it was important that the events had been recorded in photographs and video.

"The whole world should know what is happening here," he said.

WATCH | Zelensky calls Russian attack on Irpin 'murder': 

Zelensky calls Russian attack on Irpin 'murder'

9 months ago
Duration 5:26
WARNING: Video contains graphic footage. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to hold Russia to account for the 'murder' of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin on Sunday, after heavy shelling on the only escape route.

Images of extreme violence, suffering and death are carefully considered by news organizations before publication, but they can sometimes be criticized as insensitive, or an affront to the dignity of the victims or the sensitivities of the audience.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Meaghan Looram, the New York Times' director of photography, said the "exceptionally graphic" nature of the image was considered among "high-level" editors before publication.

Ultimately, their decision was that "this was a photograph that the world needed to see to understand what is happening on the ground in Ukraine," she said.

"To my mind, it was the event that happened here that was horrific. The photograph that documented that horror was necessary."

A residential building hit by missiles in south Kyiv on Feb. 25. (Lynsey Addario for The New York Times)

Single image can have 'outsized impact'

How audiences react to these extreme images could relate to the kind of media they consume more generally, said Aaron Mauro, an assistant professor of digital media at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

"If you seek out your news in the traditional news media, in the two-and-a-half-minute clip on the evening news, you're less likely to be exposed to that," he told The Current.

But the tolerance for distressing images may be higher for the "more adventurous people, who are seeking that information out, perhaps even directly on Telegram," an instant messaging service that is being used by government authorities and civilians in Ukraine to share news, images and videos from the war.

Mauro said it's important to bear witness to the events in Ukraine as they unfold, in part so that the public is aware and ready for the aftermath of the war and the prosecution of war crimes that might follow.

Those legal battles will rely on the work of journalists and photographers, but also on the records of civilians in Ukraine, capturing the conflict on their smartphones.

"The quality of the cameras and the distribution of those cameras across the country means that we have a collection of data like we likely have not had in other conflicts," he said.

Addario stands in Ras Lanuf, Libya, in March 2011. (John Moore/Getty Images)

But Mauro warned against the "outsized impact on public perception and opinion" that a single image can have.

"I hesitate to place too much onus on a single image ... to make truth claims," he said.

"They are highly emotional images to consume, and [audiences should know] that the emotions that we feel have us carry that truth forward."

He also warned that extremely emotive images, once public, can be co-opted as propaganda by any side and have new meaning attached, particularly online.

Audiences should try to consume a wide range of media, from a wide variety of sources, to get a more comprehensive account of events, he said.

For Addario, what she's seen in Ukraine has reinforced her belief that in war, "it is always the civilians who pay the highest price."

"We have to bear witness, and we have to hold people accountable," she said.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel.

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