Photographing Hell

The following images depict graphic violence.

A couple of weeks ago I came across the graphic images of bodies littering the landscape in Bucha, Ukraine, a suburb a few miles west of Kyiv. Bucha was the latest example of Russia’s barbarity in this war, but one of the first things I thought of was Jonestown.

In November 1978, Time magazine sent me to that remote settlement in Guyana to check reports that Representative Leo Ryan, a California Democrat, had been killed there while investigating allegations that a group, a cult really, called the People’s Temple was holding people against their will.

I was one of the first photographers on the scene. Mr. Ryan had indeed been killed, as had three of my colleagues: Greg Robinson, a photographer for The San Francisco Examiner; Bob Brown, an NBC cameraman; and Don Harris, an NBC correspondent. But that was only the beginning. The bodies of more than 900 other people were strewn around a compound of one-story buildings in a jungle clearing, victims and perpetrators of a mass murder-suicide under the instruction of their maniacal leader, Jim Jones. Children and babies had been murdered by their parents. I photographed a nightmare.

A vat of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid among the dead in Jonestown.Credit…David Hume Kennerly/Center for Creative Photography — University of Arizona

Photos of Jonestown show the depths of the violence that people can visit on themselves and one another: When susceptible minds fall under the sway of a powerful leader, disaster is sure to follow.

Which brings me back to Bucha.

As the advance on Kyiv stalled, Russian forces began to torture, rape and kill civilians in Bucha, survivors and investigators say. More than 300 civilians have reportedly been killed; some were left in mass graves, others in the street or in their yards. Many had their hands tied behind them. They were executed.

Documenting the dead in Bucha. Credit…Carol Guzy/ZUMA Press

This image of a man with both eyes open is one of the most compelling and disquieting photos to come out of Bucha. It’s an intimate and puzzling image of death, and I’ve never seen anything like it. What did this man see at the moment of his death? Whatever it was, his resolve remained.

The images of these atrocities were taken by trusted photojournalists. They are the truth, and a record of the mendacity and brutality of the Russian military. As accusations of war crimes mount, these photos are the documentation the world needs to finally understand what is really happening in Ukraine.

In the usual manner of history’s aggressors, the Russian Defense Ministry insists that any photographs and videos that suggest war crimes by Russians in Bucha are fake news and a ‘‘provocation’’ and that “not a single local resident has suffered from any violent action.”

That message may succeed in Vladimir Putin’s Russia — because he has ensured there is no counterpoint — but it will not be believed in places where people are free to see these images: Photographs are a direct line to people, over the heads of officials, pundits and disinformation.

The body of a Russian soldier near Kharkiv, in late February.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
A dead soldier near the Smolensk front in 1941.Credit…Dmitri Baltermants /The collection of David Hume Kennerly –Center for Creative Photography — University of Arizona

When I saw Tyler Hicks’s photo of a dead Russian soldier in the snow outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, it immediately reminded me of an image by the great Soviet photographer Dmitri Baltermants, on the Smolensk Front 250 miles from Moscow in 1941. The irony, of course, is that Baltermants’s soldier was fighting real Nazis, and the soldier in Mr. Hicks’s photo only thought he was. Mr. Hicks took this photo the day after Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. His picture was among the first of many dead Russian soldiers to follow.

Mr. Putin understands the power of photography. That’s why when, for 20 days, The Associated Press photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and his colleague Mstyslav Chernov, a videojournalist, were likely the last international journalists documenting the siege of Mariupol, a port city in southern Ukraine, they were hunted by Russian forces and had to be rescued by the Ukrainian military.

The aftermath of the shelling of a maternity hospital in Mariupol in early March.Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

In the face of ceaseless conflicts, it can sometimes seem as if audiences have become inured to reports or images of suffering. But in my experience, some photographs will always have the power to make us confront horror. As the journalist Nicholas Kristof once told me, “Photos move people the way prose never does.” Evocative images can affect policy, spur action, and every now and then alter the course of history.

The author in Vietnam in 1971.Credit…Center for Creative Photography/University of Arizona

Vietnam was my generation’s war. I was 24 when I flew to Saigon, in 1971, as a staff photographer for United Press International, determined to see what was killing my high school classmates. If I hadn’t gone, I don’t think I would have ever forgiven myself. I learned about life and death. I learned that soldiers often welcomed photographers because we take the same risks as they do. I learned to trust my instincts. And I learned firsthand about the power of photography.

Easter Sunday in South Vietnam in 1971, photographed by the author.Credit…David Hume Kennerly/Center for Creative Photography — University of Arizona
“Saigon Execution”Credit…Eddie Adams/Associated Press

In 1968, “Saigon Execution,” by Eddie Adams, captured the split-second moment a South Vietnamese general fired a bullet into the head of a Vietcong prisoner in the streets of Saigon. And in 1972, Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl” immortalized the suffering of a naked 9-year-old, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, who was burned in a napalm attack. Both photos were published on the front pages of newspapers across the United States, and in those vivid images Americans saw the cruelty of the war. Public opinion started to shift. They are still among the greatest photos ever made.

Soldiers tried to help a woman, her two children and a family friend after they were hit by Russian shelling in Kyiv, but all died.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Many of the photographs of the war in Ukraine deserve to live as indelibly on the public record as those photos of Vietnam. We can only see the extent of the Russian-made horror because of these photos and the photographers who have risked, or given, their lives to get them: Lynsey Addario narrowly escaped death in the same mortar attack that killed the subjects of her photo; the body of the Ukrainian photographer and videojournalist Maksim Levin, a frequent contributor to Reuters, was discovered on April 1 in a village north of Kyiv. Mr. Levin was the sixth journalist killed in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict.

I’m getting tired of those endless disclaimers — like the one at the top of this essay — that say, “Warning: Graphic Material.” The best photographs of war might make us want to look away. It’s imperative that we do not.

David Hume Kennerly won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1972 for his pictures of the Vietnam War taken the prior year. He was also President Gerald R. Ford’s chief White House photographer. He is on the board of advisers of the Fallen Journalists Memorial Foundation.

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