On September 21, an exhibition of the famous Israeli photojournalist and winner of numerous awards, Ziv Koren, opened in the Tel Aviv port. It is dedicated to the war in Ukraine, which many Israelis have already begun to forget.
In an interview with NEWSru.co.il, Ziv Koren spoke about a trip to a warring country – and not only about it.
Interviewed by Pavel Vigdorchik.
The very title of the exhibition “The War is Not Over” is perceived as a reminder.
For me, this is not a reminder, but a statement of fact. The fact that the war continues, that people continue to die every day is a reality. It is estimated that about 200 Ukrainian soldiers die every day. I am not a publicist, I deal with facts.
You went to Ukraine almost immediately after the beginning of the war. How was this decision made? I know that as a war journalist you usually cover Israeli wars. And then there’s something that’s going on far away.
It is both so and not so. I also filmed such disasters as the earthquake in Haiti, I was in Nepal, I had a project dedicated to AIDS in Africa. These may not be wars, but they are important events that take place far from Israel and that need to be documented. What is happening in Ukraine is one of the most significant events since the Second World War. This war is fundamentally different from those in which Israel has participated in the past 10-20 years. It was necessary for me to tell this story.
Where have you been?
Together with my friend and colleague Ronen Bergman, we started from Lviv and from there we went to Kyiv. We spent a month in Ukraine. We lived in Kyiv, but every day we went somewhere: to Chernigov, to cities located near Kyiv – primarily to Bucha and Irpen, where traces of Russian war crimes were found. After all, the agressors tried to go to Kyiv from this direction and when they retreated, everyone saw the atrocities committed by them.
Your voice trembles a little. Even you, an experienced person, were shocked by these atrocities.
What I saw in Ukraine reminded me of pictures of the Second World War. Starting with farewells at the railway stations, when families board the trains at night… Streams of refugees rushing to Poland. You are standing in the very center of Europe in 2022 and it doesn’t fit in your head that you are documenting crimes against humanity.
Did you have a chance to visit the battle zone or could you only get to the territories already liberated by the Ukrainian army?
We were at the front, accompanied by a unit of Ukrainian commandos. But the thing is, you don’t know where that front is. Now the situation has changed: the war has moved to the east, the Russians have prepared defensive positions – leaving aside the fact that their defenses have collapsed. But in the first weeks they tried to capture Kyiv, encircle it. There were fierce battles, the front line changed all the time, and it was difficult to understand how far you were from the enemy.
It must also be remembered that in this war the dominant role is played by artillery, operating at fairly close distances. There are no opposing trench lines. There were cases when we were 200 meters from the Russians, but it did not matter, since it was possible to die even a kilometer or two from their positions.
How did you communicate with the locals?
Of course, Ronen and I had a translator. A team is needed there: a “fixer” who solves problems, a translator and a driver. We need people who are familiar with the area and who can overcome the language barrier. But we met a lot of people who speak English and even Hebrew. Somehow we joined the unit and the officer of the Ukrainian army who commanded it turned out to be a former soldier of the Golani brigade. He spoke Hebrew no worse than you and me.
Have you experienced something that you weren’t prepared for?
When we arrived in Kyiv, which was also not an easy decision… Now we know that Kyiv survived but then it was in a position close to what Mariupol later found itself in. The decision to board the train going there was not easy, we could not help but think that the Russians could surround Kyiv, that we would be stuck there, you never know how long. An hour after we got off the train in Kyiv, rocket fire began. And I remember telling Ronen that I had been preparing for this for 30 years, that I need to mobilize all my experience, all my abilities, in order to fulfill my task in the way that is required.
Can you explain?
There are both objective and subjective factors. If you’re walking around Kyiv and want to take a picture of a checkpoint and there were thousands of them, you can’t just take a picture. You need to make connections to be allowed to make photos. Nothing is taken for granted. You need information, you need to know what’s going on where. You hear a deafening explosion and you need to find out where it happened and how to get there. This is objective. And subjective – it all happens at a temperature of -10. No food, everything is closed. It is very difficult to move around an to cross the checkpoints.
It’s like you’re describing a post-apocalyptic world…
Exactly. The state is paralyzed. And you need to find a driver who has the necessary documents and find a “fixer”. And in this chaos, you need to make a story, get to the right place at the right time and understand what is happening around. This is hard work around the clock.
Is being in the right place an instinct, luck or acquired skill?
It is all of that. Luck is needed. As Ben-Gurion said, a Jew who does not believe in miracles cannot be considered a realist. But this is both experience and proper preparation, the ability to make the necessary connections in the shortest possible time, to create a real network. Some of these connections you establish on the spot. But on a previous trip to Kyiv, I met a local photographer, we kept in touch and when I had to go, he helped me a lot.
It is believed that a journalist should distance himself from the events he describes. But there are always stories that break through the defense mechanisms …
I don’t believe in this distancing. In my opinion, those who think so do not understand the profession of a journalist. The most important thing is to ensure that the photo conveys feelings. Despite the importance of technical skills. The photographer must stop the moment in such a way as to convey feelings. This is the most difficult task. And when I try to convey this feeling to the viewer, it must pass through me. Not to mention the fact that you use all five senses, hear sounds and feel the smells. And you have to convey this in a two-dimensional image that captures a fraction of a second – after all, the viewer will use only vision. And if you do not convey the feeling, you will not be able to convey the depth of the event.
But such an experience is traumatic.
Both in Israel and abroad, I have been in very difficult situations that required me to reorganize in terms of their perception. It’s okay and legal. I am fully aware that this is how it should be done. I believe that I am doing important and necessary work. It is necessary to document, it is necessary that people are aware of what is happening. And you’re there so the world can know what’s going on. And not through aggressive propaganda machines that are interested in one point of view. We need hands and eyes that will present an objective picture, without regard to anyone’s interests. To convey this story through photography is my mission.
What draws you to military photography?
This topic has always interested me. I started my professional career as a photographer for the IDF press service. I have covered the intifada, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, other conflicts… Photographs have great power, they can tell a story, help people form an opinion on a particular issue. And I consider it my duty to help them in their perception. Photography is the best language for telling a story. That is why I chose a career as a photojournalist, and not, say, an advertising photographer. I want to tell a story and maybe influence perception.
Were there times on this trip when you were scared?
Weird question. Of course! If you do not feel fear in a dangerous situation, it means that either you have excessive self-confidence or you are not aware of what is happening. There were moments when it was terribly scary. I am not a coward, but you need to understand the seriousness of the decision to go with soldiers to Irpin, when this city is under artillery fire and the Russians are trying to take it. Or when you go to Chernihiv and the soldiers are always checking whether it is possible to go further or the Russians have already taken the road. This is a real and tangible danger. But it is important that fear does not paralyze, but makes you vigilant, so that you understand what dangers you are dealing with.
Can you feel hope in this situation?
I am an optimist by nature. But here I must say with regret … The more time passes, the more despair you feel. Neither side is ready to make concessions and I must admit that even now, in the seventh month of the war, I do not understand the logic of the decision to start it. And the fact is that no matter how this war ends, the situation in Ukraine is terrible. More than 10 million refugees, six million have left the country. And many of them have nowhere to return, their cities have been wiped off the face of the Earth. Bucha, Irpin… I can’t even imagine how to restore them – like the east of Ukraine, where the main military operations take place. This is a country that is simply being destroyed.
What do you think the State of Israel should do in this situation?
If it depended on me, the help to Ukraine would be many times greater. With all due respect to humanitarian aid and to the supply of military equipment. We must help the country in trouble. But even more important is the moral and ethical side of the matter. It is important that we, the State of Israel, fully support the country that has become a victim of aggression. This is our historical debt. We must be on the right side of history, but we have taken a wait-and-see attitude, we cannot squeeze out two words. We want to be “nice” for both sides. I am aware that we have interests, including military ones and that we have a delicate system of relations with Russia. But we should have expressed support for Ukraine long time ago, to provide it with more significant assistance.
This is what I try to do on a personal level. That’s why I went there, that’s why Ronen and I organized an exhibition at the Peres Center, where we collected more than 1.2 million shekels in donations to create refugee centers in Ukraine itself. Therefore, today, on the International Day of Peace declared by the European Union – and the EU is on the side of Ukraine, we are opening this exhibition.
Will you return to Ukraine?
Yes I want to do it very much.