Notes From the Frontline: Reporters Document the War

Special event
Event Format
In person
S050, CGIS South, 1730 Cambridge Street

One of the Davis Center’s 75th anniversary events, this panel discussion highlights the challenges and dynamics of reporting on Russia’s war against Ukraine. REECA Program alum Matthew Luxmoore, who has been reporting from Ukraine for The Wall Street Journal, discusses the risks journalists face — exemplified by Russia’s detention of his colleague Evan Gershkovich — and the importance of reporting from the ground amid the disinformation characteristic of war. 

Fellow REECA alum Alisa Sopova, a native of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, and her long-time collaborator, photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind, broaden the definition of frontlines, cautioning against sensationalism and over-reliance on visual tropes: The pair have been documenting lives upended by Russia's military intervention in Ukraine since 2014, even when the damage and destruction seemed invisible to many — hidden landmine risks, disruption of essential services, lawlessness, lost jobs, lost loved ones, despair, stigmatization. They discuss spotlighting these often-overlooked human stories — for audiences and editors alike — along the lines of their pioneering #5kfromthefrontline project on Instagram, featured in the Davis Center’s Shifting Ground exhibition

The discussion is moderated by another REECA alum, Imperiia Project director Kelly O’Neill, and the speakers are introduced by REECA students Lavinia Teodorescu and Valerie Browne. 

An unedited transcript of the event follows below the video.

Remote video URL

UNEDITED TRANSCRIPT (Please check against recording before quoting.)

Lavinia Teodorescu:

Thank you so much, everybody, for making it to yet another panel. We know many of you are really tired and have listened to a lot of information over the course of today, but we are hoping that this panel is going to be able to re-energize you for the rest of the day. 

My name is Lavinia Teodorescu. I'm a concurrent ABMA student studying government in the REECA program. I'm very glad that I got to be part of the REECA program, given that it was only in 2022 that they actually started accepting undergrads as part of the program. I am originally from Romania, so this field and this region is very close to my heart. I'm going to pass it on to Valerie. 

Valerie Browne:

Hello, everyone. Thank you again for being here. I'm Valerie Brown. I'm a first year master's student in our program. I'm interested in the interaction of linguistic identities and political identities in the post-Soviet space. 

I chose the REECA program here at Harvard because of the amazing opportunity it provides for interdisciplinary exploration and the development of a well-rounded holistic understanding of the region, and of course, for the incredible network, as you all can attest, the program maintains across other departments, other research institutes. Significantly for me, the Ukrainian Research Institute. Other universities, and even across the globe. 

Today, it's an honor, and frankly, an inspiration to introduce some REECA alumni who have taken their degrees and have put them to tremendous use. Matthew Luxmoore is a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, covering Ukraine, Russia, and the former Soviet Union. 

Prior to joining the Journal in January, 2022, he spent more than a decade reporting from Russia as a Moscow based correspondent for Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and as a contributor to The New York Times, Guardian in foreign policy. Matthew grew up in Poland and holds a master's degree from the Davis Center. 


OK, I'm so excited to introduce our next two speakers. They are the master mind for the photo and articles that you're seeing outside in the concourse. I am excited to introduce Alisa and Anastasia, who have created the 5K From the Frontlines project right outside. 

Alisa Sopova is a journalist and an anthropologist who is born in Donetsk, Ukraine. She has been working to show the reality of the day to day lives of the people in Eastern Ukraine during this time of violence. She is trying to-- she is trying to report on violence in her city, the violence that broke up in 2014, and has devoted her career to using storytelling to convey true to life experiences of war survivors. Alisa is a graduate of the Davis Center REECA master's program, and currently pursues a PhD in anthropology at Princeton University. 

Our second speaker is Anastasia Taylor-Lind. She's a British Swedish photo journalist and poet, interested in issues related to women, war, and violence. Anastasia has been reporting on violence for more than 20 years, and working in Ukraine and Russia since the beginning of the war in 2014. 

Anastasia's first book, Maidan, Portraits from the Black Square, documents Ukraine's revolution of dignity. Anastasia and Alisa have been collaborating for the better part of the last decade. 


And this panel will be moderated by our very own Kelly O'Neill. Kelly O'Neill is an amazing historian of the Russian Empire and an advocate, a firm, compelling, even obsessive advocate for spatial history. 


In her book, called Claiming Crimea, a History of Catherine the Great's Southern Empire, she began the work that became the Davis center's Imperiia Project in 2018. The Imperiia Project integrates history, geographic information science and historical cartography. It produces amazing maps and historical insights, many of which can be found on our website. 

Kelly has a PhD in history from Harvard and an MA from, you guessed it, the Davis Center REECA program. Kelly, over to you. 

Kelly O'Neill:

Thank you so much. 

Matthew Luxmoore:

I just wanted to quickly say a couple of words why we're wearing these badges today that say I stand with Evan. Evan Gershkovich is a good friend of mine and a Wall Street Journal colleague. He celebrated his 32nd birthday two days ago. But he didn't celebrate with friends and family. He celebrated in a-- well, marked it in a jail cell in Moscow's Lefortovo prison. 

He's been-- he was arrested in March on trumped up espionage charges and has been in jail in Russia ever since. And we're, as the Wall Street Journal, we're trying to step up a campaign to publicize his case and try and bring attention to it. So this is why my colleagues as well, fellow journalists and Kelly are wearing those pins today. 

And we can write letters to Evan and he responds to us. So I do encourage anyone, if you want to write a letter to Evan who's an enterprising young reporter who's very passionate about Russia and should be back on Moscow's streets reporting on it, I encourage you to do that. And you can come up to me afterwards and ask the email or perhaps there's another way to distribute that. 

And I also have a few of those buttons. If anyone wants them, I can hand them out later on. There's about 10 left, I think. So just wanted to start with that. 


Wonderful. So welcome to the panel. We are keenly aware that you need, as it was whispered to me in the hallway, toothpicks to hold your eyes open at this point. We understand. 

But I have happy news for you. Over the course of today, you have heard from an incredible range of political scientists and historians and literary scholars and diplomats and economists, and we are now making a really wonderful pivot to the world of journalism, in both its print and photographic forms, and even its hybrid forms. 

And I think it's a great moment in the day and a great moment in the conversation for us to make this pivot. In particular, I think many of us-- I'm hoping many of you feel the way I do. Not that I want you to be saddled with the feeling, a very unsettled feeling. 

But it's a feeling that I've had since the outbreak of the war, a very unwelcome feeling of an imposed distancing from the people and the places that I have spent my life studying, and that many of you have spent your lives studying and working with. 

My own last two trips to Ukraine took me to Simferopol and Kherson and Mykolaiv. Those were, in the silly way that academics do, I was thinking of those as my places, right? These were my places to go and do archival research and see the past, right? From Kherson and Mykolaiv and Simferopol. 

And and it would be ridiculous of me to think of those places that way now, right? They have changed. I can't see the past through them in the same way as I did before. As Sergei said this morning, most of us in the room don't even really know what the food tastes like in Moscow right now. So there's this sense of distance. 

And so the war has changed the way we think about Ukrainian space. And far more importantly, it has changed the way that Ukrainian space is experienced by Ukrainians. So we're making a pivot right now toward journalism. And we're not really-- except maybe metaphorically-- talking about archives. 

No, we're talking about frontlines. And we have three wonderful voices here with us today. And really, we just selfishly want your notes from the frontlines, right? That's what this is all about. And we're really grateful to have you all here. 

So I thought we could maybe start by-- I would ask all of you to give us a sense of what and where your frontlines are in the frontlines where you have been doing the work that you are doing. Kind of paint us a picture. Bring us there a little bit so we can begin to ground ourselves in this space again. 


Well, I never thought I will be covering frontlines when I was hired for The Wall Street Journal in January, 2022, in the Moscow Bureau, alongside Evan. We thought we'd be covering Russia. 

After five days, I was sent to Ukraine for what I thought would be a one month assignment. And then the war broke out while I was there. So you become-- I think all of us essentially become war correspondents without really necessarily wanting to. 

The frontline is-- I mean, I guess a definition would be where the fighting is taking place. But it's much broader than that. I mean, there's frontline cities, right? There's frontline villages. There's places that are further from the actual fighting, which Ukrainians refer to as the zero line. 

So that's really where 300 meters apart Ukrainian soldiers are facing off against Russian soldiers in separate trench lines. So we, as The Wall Street Journal, we spend a lot of time there, because the only way to understand what's really happening in the war and what territory is changing hands, even if it's meters, which is essentially what is down to these days, in terms of the progress that we can speak of. You have to be there on the ground. You have to be talking to soldiers. 

Like it or not, you have to be a kind of a witness to what's taking place, especially in war, where there's so much disinformation. As they say, the truth is the first victim, right? So you have to be on the ground there. You have to try and talk to people actually fighting. 

And then I guess try and make sense of the Russian side as well, which these days comes down to scrolling through Telegram channels where pro-Kremlin bloggers, people who tend to give a much more candid version of events on the front line, compared to the Kremlin opining on what's taking place and trying to report on the latest. So you're piecing together all this information. 

Ukrainian soldiers are often also giving you a sanitized version of events. They're not going to start crying in front of you and tell you that they miss their mother, which occasionally happens as well. But most of the time, they're going to tell you how tough it is, that they need more artillery shells, more weapons. 

So that's how you-- that's how you piece together the information. So that's, I guess, for me the frontline is all these different elements. 

Alisa Sopova:

Well. Yeah, I guess front lines can be framed in many different ways and there are many kinds of technical discussions of where the front line-- because our project is called 5K From the Frontline. We were talking a lot about where actually the frontline is. And nowadays, we can not really go that close to the frontline, to the actual line in Ukraine, where we used to go. But at the same time, the frontline can be technically anywhere, where Russian missile can reach. 

But speaking, I think my personal frontline is behind the Ukrainian zero line. It's in the city of Donetsk where I'm from and where many people who I love still live, and where I cannot go. And I kind of-- somebody mentioned obsessive advocate. So I guess my personal battle for the past 10 years has been to be obsessive advocate for these people, reminding that they are in this kind of double bind, living under this extreme political repression from Russian occupation. 

Like we've been hearing a lot how unbearable life has become in Moscow in the past year and a half. So in Donetsk, it has been like this and worse since 2014. And when we speak of Bucha, we just haven't been to Donetsk, because we have no access. But it must be Bucha on steroids. And at the same time these people are disowned and demonized by Ukraine. 

And so I-- yeah, I guess it is an actual frontline. There is constant bombing. There is no running water. And people are struggling a lot. And usually, they don't get the public representation in media, especially for the combination of reasons. Because first, there is no access there. But second, we somehow accepted this whole narrative that these people deserve what is happening to them, and they are not worth fair representation. 

And yeah, those people I've been around for a while. And many of you probably remember me before the invasion as this angry Donbas woman, always like party pooping and reminding that it's really bad in Ukraine, even though we forgotten about it. So that is my frontline. 


Anastasia Taylor-Lind:

Photojournalism is often very concerned with the frontline, in terms of location and distance and proximity. Of course, as a photographer we can only really speak about the things that we actually see. I mean, in order to photograph something, you have to be within meters of it, usually. 

But one of the really interesting things that Alisa has brought into our project, since she became an anthropologist, is this idea of war and peace existing simultaneously to each other. And it's a struggle. I mean, it's a representational struggle as a photographer, making photographs that are essentially very close to the frontline but don't look like it. 

And since there are so many ways to photograph or to report on the frontline, our concern has never really been with soldiers, although many soldiers occupy that space. But it's been with the relationship that civilians have with soldiers and with the landscape in that space, and the idea that the real horror can be taking place a very close proximity simultaneously to what we would consider ordinary life going on. 

And it's something that comes up a lot when we're reporting together. It can happen that we're having a dinner and someone takes out homemade wine. Of course, we're guests and we're very well looked after by the families and the communities that we report on. 

And when I go to make a picture, perhaps before drinking and laughing and telling us stories, sometimes the people in my photographs themselves say, oh, come on, don't take a picture of us having a good time while there's a war going on. So it's on the mind of me as the photographer, but also of the people who are being photographed in that way. 


So you have to be able to see what it is you're going to report on. But the act of reporting also involves conversation, right? Interacting with people on the ground. So I wonder if you all could think about-- give us a sense of the kinds of conversations that you have with people. 

Are you in the driver's seat in these conversations? Do you sit back? And seeing is one thing. What are the kinds of things that you've been learning through the various conversations that you've had along these front lines. 


I mean, you're speaking to anyone from an alcoholic living in a frontline village, to the president, if you're lucky, or high placed officials who really need to understand how to allocate resources, or whether to stage an election at war time. I mean, in terms of your role, I guess you're listening first and foremost and trying to ask the right questions and draw conclusions from them. 

But yeah, I mean, it's often-- sorry, it's often very sensitive, because if you're speaking to someone, for instance, from a village that has just been liberated by Ukrainian forces, the Russian forces fled as, for instance, in Northeastern Kharkiv region last year, I was speaking to a woman who she lost her entire family because the Russian soldiers removed almost the entire population to the village and forcibly moved them to Russia, and drove them across the border. 

She's terrified about what's going to happen to her family. And you know, I've come to her and I say, I want to hear her story. And she tells me, you know, I'm terrified to talk to you. Not only, but the previous journalists who came here, they told me that they would give me a tarpaulin to fix-- to cover up part of my house that's been ruined by a shell, because the entire bathroom is exposed. Or another journalist from Spain promised me some medicines for my 90-year-old husband. And she's terrified to talk to you. 

And I think in that situation, I mean, you just have to be incredibly sensitive and you put away your phone and your recorder and your notepad, and you just sit down with her and I guess try and make her feel more comfortable about this situation. 

I mean, there are lots of situations where as a reporter, you just have to make a decision. I mean, I was-- three weeks ago I was in the largest camp for Russian POWs in Ukraine. And as a journalist, this is a very difficult situation as well, because you're there with the Ukrainian guards at the prison. 

They are the people who brought you in, and they are also the people who are keeping those soldiers, some of whom have committed terrible crimes. But you've got to respect their right to make a decision about whether they want to talk to you or not. 

So you can ask them if they want to talk to you, but are they speaking to you under duress? Are they telling you things honestly? It's a difficult situation for both of them and for you. 

And there are lots of those kinds of situations. And I guess over time with experience, you just become better at trying to judge the moment and the situation and how to approach people and how to make sure that their rights are safeguarded. 

And you know, I won't even get-- I won't even start discussing kind of how you then present that in print and all these different kind of questions that you have when you talk to your editors in the standards department of the paper. But that's the kind of highest level of a process that begins with conversations on the ground from people from all walks of life. 


Well, I was thinking today about what concrete example I could come up with in response to this answer. And I actually remembered that recently Anastasia went on a reporting trip to Ukraine without me. 

And then she sent me back notes that she took while talking to a woman whose photo, of whom you can see here on the exhibition, she's laying on her side, and you can see her back and her wound being dressed. This woman is Leona. We've been working with her for many years now. She's from this village of Opytne that is between Avdiivka and Donetsk. 

It's been a gray zone all along. And it's been very bad all along. And then, when Anastasia came to visit her this winter, she told her basically what happened in the meantime with the village. And then Anastasia took the notes and sent them to share with me. 

So I will just quickly read through these notes. So just notes, as you said. So they're not very, very polished at all. 

The woman in charge of the two story apartment was killed. An incoming shell killed a few of them while they sat on the bench outside. One person had just left to feed the chickens. Another to go to the basement. 

They called to tell us what happened. The daughter of that woman begged the separatists to let her go get the body, torn apart, and left for 40 days. The separatists said, no, we don't even evacuate our wounded soldiers. 

Dedushka Sasha was blown onto the coal heap in Donbas. Everybody has coal heaps in the backyard. Dedushka Sasha was blown onto the coal heap in another incoming one morning. He couldn't get up. The house caught on fire, and his brother climbed onto the roof. 

The tiles gave way. He fell through the roof, broke his arm, got all burned. Dedushka Sasha kept living there. Dedushka Sasha was one of those old men who latched the door when he went to bed. 

When the Russians came, they went house to house to check who lived there. They found Dedushka Sasha dead, half eaten by rats. They said the Ukrainians must have locked him in there. 

But Dedushka Sasha always latched the door. I guess he fell and died. They buried him in a shallow grave in the garden. The blind guy got killed too. Nadya-- this all refers to people we met before many times in this village. Nadya got injured. Then got out. 

She's with her son somewhere in Donetsk Oblast. It turns out, after all these years, Nadya was waiting for the Russians to come. I can't even step over myself to call her. This is recording of what our interlocutor said. I can't even step over myself to call her. 

Tanya's husband had the same idea as Nadya. So he stayed. After his place was looted twice by the separatists, I asked him, how do you like your boys now? Yes, the Ukrainians looted too, but only empty houses. The separatists loot the places where people live. 

So just like when I read it, I knew all these people and they approximately had the idea of what happened. But when you just like reading it, it kind of reminds me of like Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez, you know, where just there is so much information and it's just so intense, that you just like run out of capacity to comprehend it all, and it's just like is too much. 

So basically, I think Rachel probably will agree with me. Often, when you talk to people who live in these kinds of places, it just ends up this way, and you just sometimes don't really know how to represent the story in a way that is relatable, because it's just like way too much and less-- way outside of kind of any possible experience that we here can relate to. 


May I just quickly make a point on this. There are moments as a reporter when you've been covering a war for 18 months or longer, where your eyes just glaze over. You hear another story like this, and you think, this will not be interesting to people because they've heard 1,000 stories like this before. 

And you have to actively stop yourself from having that instinct, because at that point, if you go along with that instinct, you're essentially kind of going along with a process of normalizing what's taking place. 

And if you think about the readers who will be reading the story, if you are not interested in it, if your eyes glaze over, their reaction will be even more disinterested, right? 

So part of our task as reporters is to keep finding new angles constantly for these stories, to present them in a different way to keep people interested in this story. Because especially with everything that's taking place right now, it's becoming more and more of a challenge to keep reminding people that we have the largest land war since World War II taking place in Europe right now. And that is something that we should not turn our eyes away from. 


And something else to keep in mind as well. We often talk about this, is who we are reporting stories for. But those are other people in other places who don't know very much about the situation. But we're also reporting for the people who we report on. 

Like it's our responsibility as journalists when we tell people's stories to represent them fairly, and in a way that they would recognize themselves. And sometimes, those two things are possibly at odds with what someone somewhere else might find as interesting. 

But again, this is something that you bring very much to our collaboration. And I mean, and you've been thinking about since you worked for Donbas Newspaper in Donetsk, before the war started. 




So this search for new angles and ways to, I don't know, kind of move the kaleidoscope in such a way that the people who are consuming the texts and the photographs that you produce can relate to them. I don't-- maybe it's unfair to ask for a look under the hood, but how do you find the angles? 

How do you shift the kaleidoscope just a little bit, and know that you have something right? Is it a matter of just shifting your perspective a few degrees, right? Taking a step closer, taking a step back, finding a new voice? 

Do you have a method that you can fall back on? Or is it constantly a matter of reinvention-- of trying to find a new solution, because the solution that worked yesterday doesn't apply anymore. 


Yeah. I mean, I guess there's three kind main types of stories. There's many, many more. But to kind of simplify things, there's the political story, mainly in Kyiv, which relies on talking to officials. 

And perhaps, usually, it's not so hard to find a new angle, because people will tell you something that is happening the diplomatic front, and usually, this is news. There's a civilian story, which is people living in frontline towns, people, characters in, for instance, like the amazing project that Alisa and Anastasia have been doing. 

And there are-- maybe it's a case of finding a story that can really grab people, and kind of explain things in a different way, as someone who is experiencing this misery and this war in a way that is slightly different, or someone who can explain it in a way that's slightly different to the people who have appeared in the other stories you've written. 

And the third story is kind of the military story on the frontlines. And quite often, to find something really new at the moment is becoming more difficult, especially when the frontlines aren't really shifting.

There it's often a case of either embedding with a unit. And we can talk about access. Access has also become more difficult in Ukraine. Or quite often it's a case of traveling along the frontlines for two weeks speaking to different units, you know, artillery drone, infantry units who are involved in different aspects of Ukraine's counteroffensive. And then, piecing together a picture of what has changed, and what new technologies and weapons are being used to what effect. 

So it is becoming more difficult over time, just like any story does. But I guess that's one way that I try and find new angles on things all the time. So you've got to put in the time quite often. 


Yeah. Well, I think, you speak of angles and how you represent it. Something that makes it, I guess, easier for me than for most people who would do that is that, again, even though I live in the US for many years now, it's still like in many ways, it's my own experience. And many people I report on, I know personally. 

And I just hear so many things from them occasionally, because it's all my family and all my friends in Ukraine. And I still hear from them all the casual things that they maybe wouldn't tell to a reporter, because they would think it's not important enough to mention. 

But they just tell them to me. And I'm always like-- even though-- no matter how much I talk about it and we all talk about it, I'm always stunned by this disconnection between what is actually-- what people actually care about and what they actually live through, and this grand scheme representations we think about. 

One of the examples, like when during one of our reporting trips last summer, I kept hearing the stories about beauty salons and how women go about taking care of their appearances under the circumstances. 

And they would tell me stories like in Donetsk, a woman wants to dye her hair. And Anastasia, I think, has the stories about dyeing hair too. It's kind of-- 


Tell the the story. It's good. 

Because if you have no water how do you go to a salon and dye your hair? 


Sure, yeah. 


It sounds frivolous-- 


As you know, women in Ukraine care about this a lot. 


Women don't-- 


I don't want to-- but maybe in Ukraine, especially so. So for example, when Anastasia was photographing refugees in the first weeks of the invasion, many women were hesitated to be photographed, because they didn't have their hair dyed recently. And they-- yeah. 

And this is not something we think about much, right? And then, soon after that, I hear this other story of this woman in Donetsk telling me that I desperately need to have my hair dyed. I go to a beauty salon. 

And they say, OK, we can put dye in your hair, but we don't have water to wash it off. So we put it, and then you wrap it in the towel and call your taxi and you go home. And then at home, you figure it out, how you take it out. 


Everybody has some buckets and everything. And then it's like a middle aged woman who is very dignified and she says, no way I'm going home in a taxi with a towel around my hair. We have to find out something else.

And then she says, OK, maybe I will buy this bottles of drinking water and bring it to you, and then you do this. And they are like, OK. That's not how we do things usually, but I guess we can do this. 

And then they heat this water up with some other contraption, which I don't remember quite right now. And this is kind of stories. 

Or like I know the stories how people do their laundry without water. But they just cannot wash it all with hands in the bucket. So they have washing machines. And then they found out that you can just pour water by hand into the washing machine. 

But you just need to stand there and listen to the particular sound that it makes when it tries to suck water up. But there is no water. And then you just quickly pour water. 


And this is how people do laundry. And this is all like-- right? Like you all like the story, right? It's like such interesting-- such interesting details. And we never really get to know them, because first of all, people kind of self-censor themselves, because whenever we talk to them they assume you expect some grand political narratives of who they support and stuff like that. 

And then journalists probably also filters it out a lot, because they also don't quite expect to focus on that. And so I just always tried to hold these kinds of details in front of me as something I want to focus on. 


I dare you, imagine, let's make a headline for your next article. 



My editors will love this story. No, but honestly, there's so much kind of real life taking place that we really-- people really forget. I mean, if you went to Kyiv now, you would encounter, what, like a pretty normal life an approximation of pretty normal life. 

I mean, Russia hasn't started smashing the energy grid yet, which may well happen this winter, just like it happened last winter when a lot of us were living without light or water for a long time. But I mean, over the summer, already in June 2022, just four months after the war started, Alisa and I went to a show about Putin and Lukashenko. Like it was a real Ukrainian humor. 

Putin, Lukashenko fleeing a Ukrainian occupied Moscow dressed as prostitutes. 


And finding asylum in Ukraine, because no one would expect them to be in like the land of the Nazis or whatever, right? And it was a packed out show. People were absolutely loving it. 

This was June 22, right? Like just a few weeks after Russians were expelled from Kyiv and we were discovering about Bucha and all the other atrocities, right? There are candle lit parties, dinners, you know, weddings, bar mitzvahs, everything. 

But even close to the front lines, even close in the places that you guys are, there's all these great stories of people just getting by. If there's one thing that I learned more than anything else last year-- is a completely crazy year-- is that people's ability to adapt to situations. 

I just never, never understood the extent to which people can just adapt to different situations. And it's just amazing. I'm just not just talking about myself personally, but mainly about Ukrainians. There's just so many stories of how people just get by, and people get on with their normal lives, dye their hair, you know, wash their clothes in whatever circumstances they're in. 


I feel like what you want me to do is ask more questions about beauty salons. But I'm going to ask one last question before we turn it over to-- 


But Anastasia, did you have something about the angle? 

We kind of took it over. 


No, no. It was perfect. It was perfect. I was just thinking about this-- there's a journalism industry. It's a business and it's a hustle. It sounds sort of not very pleasant. But it's true. 

So when we talk about news hooks and angles, this is part of the business of journalism. And I think it's important to note, that like Alisa and I are working as freelancers, which is very-- and not for one publication. So we don't have the strict parameters that Matthew does. It's a very different sort of approach to journalism. 

And particularly in those years between the most active phase, at the beginning of the war in 2014 and 15, and the full scale invasion. And this was a question we were asked every time we-- so we go and we-- the two of us go out reporting on our own for nobody. 

Our project until this year has been entirely self initiated and self funded for the last five years. And once we've made our reporting, we would go and pitch it to magazines usually. And of course, we were always asked, OK, well what's the news hook? What's the angle? What's changed? 

And this was at a time when the war in Ukraine was known as a frozen conflict or the forgotten war in Ukraine. And even in 2021, we had intended to go and report that summer. And we just couldn't come up with any new news hooks or news angles. That spring, we said COVID. COVID along the front line. 


Yeah, the last story we published, we published before the invasion, was about COVID in the war in Ukraine, because that was the only angle and. Everybody was like-- of course, everybody is interested in COVID. Who cares about the war in Ukraine. 

And now, it sounds just ridiculous. But it's kind of shortsighted, really, in my opinion. This is why I ended up in anthropology. 


But this is the way it works, yeah. 


So one last question. And Matthew, you mentioned the idea of access and mobility, right? Your ability to move through this space very much determines the stories that you can tell, the things that appear in newspapers, the conversations that you can have with people. 

I wonder if you have any particular stories about a particular episode of gaining access or being denied access to some part of the frontline, metaphorically speaking? That might help us understand how all of this works and how you've experienced it too. 


Yeah, I mean, it's usually the same story where there are these overarching press centers, I guess, that kind of control media access to different parts of the frontline. The kind of usual system is you send a request to them, and they then approve it or delay approving it, and then give you access to a certain unit, or you say you want to go and see some artillery being fired and talk to the soldiers or some infantry. How close you want to get to the so-called zero line. And then they come and determine what kind of access they're going to give you. 

But this is all becoming much, much, much more difficult. And I won't go into all the details on that. But you know, and then we travel with a security team. It's not just me jumping in a car with a camera. 

Every article I produce from the frontline usually involves about five people and two vehicles, and lots of other things. So it's a big process involving a lot of different people. And sometimes, you have to wait a long time to get certain access. 

But one situation, I guess, is when Kherson was recaptured by Ukraine, and the journalists immediately flocked to try and get into Kherson And Ukraine immediately tried to restrict access to the city. Partly for the right reasons, because they were still demining it, and they were going into buildings that the Russians had mined, raiding the city, trying to find Russian saboteurs and spies and trying to prevent journalists from heading in before some of the units that actually recaptured the city had even entered the city center. 

But partly for perhaps not the best reasons, which is restricting media access. And a lot of journalists had their accreditations stripped, including I think Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian TV station, and CNN, if I'm not mistaken. And then Ukraine backtracked on this and, then restated the accreditations. 

And we were one of the teams that got into Kherson, just a couple of days after it was liberated. But you got-- constantly gotta kind of balance these different things. And you have 1,000 contacts on your phone to different soldiers and press officers. And it's always a negotiation and kind of fixers who are helping you organize that whole process. 

But I think Kherson is a good example of how it was important to find a balance between giving journalists access to this place so that people really want to know about, because the amount of stories that you find in a place that have been occupied by Russia for eight months is just staggering, and the kinds of stories you find-- and the kinds of stories that we as journalists found, finding a balance between that and also understanding the very legitimate Ukrainian concerns about these crazy journalists with their cameras running around everywhere, trying to harass locals and soldiers. 

So I get that whole perspective. But I guess it's constant, constant kind of dance and tango with Ukraine. And I think, I guess we've found kind of like a golden medium over these 18 months. But it's a constant process of recalibration. 


Yeah. So there are all kinds of logistical aspects of access that what you just spoke about. And so I think I'd like to focus on a different angle of this problem, which I'm currently experiencing, which I can talk about because I'm a graduate student, not at this university, but at a different university. 

And as a student of anthropology in the different university, I'm supposed to go for a year to do field work in my field. And my field is Ukraine. And so now I'm fighting this bureaucratic battle with a special office of security and whatnot that is supposed to regulate my access to a place that can be potentially dangerous for me, but which they obviously mean that can potentially make them liable to getting sued by me if something happens or whatever. 

So thinking of that, I think that we should not-- and when I'm saying this, I see people nodding because we kind of recognize the situation. And we kind of accept the situation, because we assume this is how bureaucracy works. 

And I just think that maybe we shouldn't take for granted the two aspects of that. First one is that so many times, when I'm reading books about Ukraine written by social scientists, they begin with this methodological chapter that says, oh, we're not only about Ukraine, actually, about other war zones too. 

Obviously, I could not go there myself because this is too dangerous, so I just used some other roundabout sources to access information. And we just take the statement for granted. Obviously, I couldn't go there. 

But then, do we assume that this is too dangerous to us, as a first world scholars, to be there, but it is not too dangerous for people who about-- who we write to be there. And so I don't invite anybody to just like go and be killed somewhere. 

But I think that every such statement can be unpacked and questions can be asked, what exactly is dangerous and where is it dangerous? If you look at Ukraine, Ukraine is not some kind of homogeneous one spot where it's dangerous. Like if you go to Donbas, it's pretty bad. But if you're in Kyiv or pretty much anywhere in Western Ukraine, it's not more dangerous than like downtown Baltimore or something. 

But we just assumed that Ukraine is dangerous. And so I think that in order to provide ourselves and our readers better access to knowledge of what happens in such places, we should not take it for granted such statements, and should go deeper. 

And in the same way, I think we should take more proactive position in challenging academic bureaucracies who don't allow us do such things, and to ask questions whether this is OK to write and talk about people who live in such places without ever going there. 


Yeah. I'm just thinking about how-- about the restrictions on access, as you framed it, but actually going there and going out each morning to make photographs or to spend time with people and to report on their lives is impacted by the logistical challenges that the full scale invasion has brought. 

Because Donbas, which is the Donbas region, which is where Alisa and I have been working on our joint projects all this time-- only a small part of Donetsk Oblast is now accessible to us. The small part that's still under Ukrainian control. All of Luhansk is occupied now, and a lot of Donetsk Oblast. 

So the limitations that places on us as freelancers. We don't have a budget for armored vehicles or security advisors or a team of people, and we don't have a guarantee that the work we make will be published or seen anywhere, shown anywhere. 

We didn't know when we made this work that it would be here, or that it would be published in The New York Times or Time. We always-- we hoped it would, but that was never a guarantee. And in order to work safely-- safely like in order to work-- in order to work as safely as is possible in Donbas, a lot of that depends on how much money you have, you know? 

And it's not just-- and it also means that our-- I'll speak about myself. My time is more limited, you know? In the days before the full scale invasion, we would rent an apartment in Avdiivka and go out and by foot and walk around neighborhoods in old Avdiivka and just meet people on the street. 

And when somebody invited us in, accept that invitation and then go back the next day. Like it's not possible to go on foot in most of the places I'm working now. You have to travel in a vehicle. 

And it's not safe in-- by my risk assessment, it's not safe to stay in any hotel in Donbas right now. It's not safe to eat in any restaurant. It's really not safe to visit supermarkets, and even filling up at the gas station is a risk. 

So that means also that there's financial pressures, and there's-- and because of the risk involved, that your time is pressed, you know? So that means we have to work more closely. And when as a photographer-- sorry, more quickly. 

And as a photographer, when you work more quickly, your reporting becomes shallower and it's so much easier to fall into these stereotypes of what people in war zones look like. And as I mentioned yesterday, those stereotypes come from truth, because those things really do exist. 

But individual, and I think also the general journalistic reporting of people who are experiencing war in their hometowns and their own communities, we have a danger of othering them so much that we couldn't ever really imagine that it could happen to us. 

I mean, we talk about it a lot now, but like we're-- you're-- sorry to use you an example, but you're sitting here in this fancy room with all these fancy people and we're dressed in a very similar way. And my home is in London and there's no immediate threat to me or my family. 

And I feel very much that I can relate to you. But if I were to see a photograph of you in the immediate aftermath of a missile strike or something like that, I don't think I would in-- as per those rules of war photography, I would find it very hard to relate to you. That's probably not very articulate, but I hope you get the essence of what I'm trying to say, that all of those pressures actually lead to less in-depth reporting, and that some of that reporting can actually be harmful to the communities that we're reporting on. 


Just a quick point on this. I mean, just so people understand the risks. I mean, it's become quite clear that Russia is systematically targeting hotels that foreign journalists stay at. In the space of, I think, a couple of weeks, three of them were targeted a few months ago, one of which we had stayed in just two weeks before. 

And Anastasia, I don't want to speak for you, but I know people have situations where you can go to a restaurant-- and there aren't that many hotels and restaurants in the Donbas. And it's always dangerous. And this is often where soldiers want to meet, or if it's not right on the front lines, if you're actually seeing how they're fighting, or any of your contacts, so there's a constant calculation you have to make about that. And often, it's a case of just not staying at hotels anymore. So it's becoming more risky in a way, definitely. 


I would love to open this conversation up to the audience for some questions. 

Question from audience:

Thank you so much. Si-Yeon Kim. I'm class of '95 REECA program. Earlier this morning, Professor Sergei juxtaposed TV propaganda versus social media, with social media being the source of truth. 

And I kind of wanted to dig a little bit deeper. I didn't get to ask my question. However, later, I think in response to Craig's question, he did talk about-- you did talk about this being kind of the next battlefield. 

And I was wondering your perspectives on kind of the future of media, both social network and official print media, especially inside Russia. Not thinking of your audience just as the Western world and raising awareness, but thinking about the audience within Russia or these territories and how that may impact or shape the end or bringing the war to conclusion. 


So the question is, should I answer now, or it's about independent media in Russia?


Well, it's about the development and future of media independent within Russia or otherwise, or getting into Russia. … Being led by the Russian audience. 


Getting into Russia is incredibly difficult for journalists now. There's, as far as I know, there's one American journalist living permanently in Russia at the moment. I don't think-- there's may be a couple that travel in on an occasional basis now. 

So it's essentially no Western journalists in Russia anymore, partly because of the risks that you face, which has become quite clear. So I mean, I was never accredited to work in Russia for The Wall Street Journal, so I didn't even have the option. But there are some very, very courageous Russian journalists who are still working inside Russia, often without a byline, often without their names being mentioned in articles. 

And Russian independent media has also, I think, revolutionized the art of reporting on a country from the outside. There's outlets like Insider, Valli's story, right? Ice Stories. Another, Dorst TV, for example, they have really made it into an art, speaking to people inside Russia, trying to report on what's happening inside Russia from the outside in a way that sometimes is even more successful and impactful than what they were able to do from inside Russia with constant harassment, you know, raids to their homes and sometimes their relatives. 

So it's really a case-- and we report-- most of my reporting now, at least 50% of my reporting is on Russia. And we're constantly trying to find a way of talking to people inside the country. Your point about access and how you protect sources is even more sensitive when it comes to Russia. 

Maybe someone's willing to use their name but maybe they don't have much experience talking to journalists. So you have to make a judgment about can you use this person's name? How many times do you need to explain to that person on a phone call that you work for an American paper. Their name would be published in an American paper. 

And if you explain that to them three times, are they less likely to even allow you to use their name in the end? Are they just going to call the interview off and say, actually, you know what, I don't want to talk to you anymore. 

And then maybe you're left in a position where you can't really write about anything that's happening in Russia, because people are always afraid to talk to you, right? So the journalists working outside Russia who make this their full time job, and especially those who are investigating corruption and questions relating to the elite in Russia are incredibly, incredibly enterprising actually. They've become incredibly enterprising because they've been forced to. 


Hi, Tanya Youngberg, REECA master's 2005. Currently deputy general counsel at Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. I wanted to Thank you all for the work that you do. It's so hard. And Evan Gershkovich's situation shows one of the risks. Unfortunately, last week, Alsu Kurmasheva became the second American journalist detained in Russia. 


Also a former colleague of mine. 


Yes. So thank you for taking the risk that you do to tell us these stories. My question is sort of the flip side of the access point that you were talking about, how hard it is for journalists to get access to these spaces. How do you, as journalists, navigate the access that authorities want to your sources, to your information? 

Because while you're working in Ukraine and doing all this work, international war crimes investigators are doing work as well. Law enforcement's doing work. How do you deal with requests for maybe your raw footage, maybe your sources? How do you navigate that relationship? Because you're journalists, maybe not investigators, but you're also sort of on the same side, in a way, and what kind of challenges does that present in a war context? 


You guys want to take it? 


We haven't been asked by any war crimes investigators. I mean, it's a common-- it's common for photojournalists to be asked-- 


I kind of wish they asked more. I don't think-- 


But we haven't. 


Remember, there was a point when Anastasia and I had a different project of writing postcards about people who died in war, and for this project, we were collecting names of people who died in different sites. And then we kind of tried to collaborate with the UN mission in Donetsk at that point for doing that. 

And they were-- yeah, they just seemed very bureaucratic, and not very-- and the degree of their involvement was-- because we tried to like personalize the victims, and the degree of the information they were collecting was like a woman of like approximately 40 years old, this kind of thing, killed in that area. And it kind of never really got over. 

I think there is like-- I know for sure that there is a very, very big lack of cooperation between journalism and academia and social sciences, specifically, and I think there could be a much more productive. And I don't know, maybe just I wasn't lucky enough, but I feel like there could be more cooperation, because everybody's just like doing their own thing and not looking very much outside of there. That's my experience. What do you think? 


Well, journalists as a rule don't give up their sources. And I don't think they're routinely asked for that by investigators. And I mean, the people-- the people who, if I'm-- a big part of Russian reporting is talking to dissidents and people who have left Russia and deserter soldiers who fought in the war, fled to Istanbul, and other capitals, and are seeking asylum there. 

It's people scattered around Europe, really, and sometimes further afield. And I'm not walking along the streets of Istanbul stumbling into soldiers. I mean, there are people who will put me in contact with that soldier, people often who help that soldier get out of the country. 

And those would be the same kinds of people who would be speaking to investigators often. So I probably wouldn't be the person that the investigators would turn to, even if I was willing to give up my sources. 


But I wonder. I know among photographers, like some of my friends have been approached. Like oh, you entered this village or town. 




No. Well, it doesn't matter, like Ukrainian or British or American photographers or anything. But the point is that incidents that happened in Ukraine. I mean, I think it is pretty common. It's just that I wasn't the first person anywhere or I don't have any pictures that are particularly considered evidence for a specific war crime. But have you ever been approached? 


Well, no. I mean no. 


Like for a testimony. I mean photographers usually are asked for their raw takes, but journalists are often asked, will you give a statement saying this is where you were and that's what you saw on that day. 


No, but I guess what I'm saying is even if you go into a liberated village where you find, I don't know, the diary of a Russian soldier who talks about stealing washing machines from homes, and maybe far worse things that he did in that village, right? 

Almost certainly-- in fact, certainly, that diary would have already been found by Ukrainian soldiers who entered that village first, right? So they would be the ones who would most likely then pass that on to investigators. 

Firstly, they'd pass it on to probably the SBU. And then that whole process would begin. So I don't think you're like the first. 


I don't think we can be very helpful to answering your questions. But I do know that colleagues of ours working in Ukraine have been approached by investigators and have-- some have cooperated and some haven't. But it seems we don't have any examples among us. 


No, I don't have an example, actually, of that. Perhaps it happens, but I just don't know about it. 


But the consolation is that you have been massively helpful to all of us. And we are at the end of our time. So I'm sure there are lots of other questions that are left unasked. 

And so it is now your job to go and track them down and press them for more information. And thank you. 




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