You may, unwittingly, be familiar with the images of Russian photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev. His work has regularly been featured in the New York Times, with searing visual reportages from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Gaza—the latter of which won him a World Press Photo Award. Now, for the first time, he has shed his newsprint platform for a gallery setting in Paris.
Ponomarev started working in media during the 1990s in Moscow—an era during which Russian "freedom of speech and media freedoms weren't just words, but real," as he puts it. While studying photojournalism at the state university in Moscow, he worked for several local Russian papers before being hired by Associated Press, where he was a staff photographer for eight years. Today, he's a freelance point man for many international media outlets.
I spoke to Pomonarev via Skype from a loud canteen in Chechnya, where he was reporting on a 17-year-old girl who was married off to a police chief 30 years her senior. We discussed everything from having empathy with his subjects to shooting with discretion and how to cope with seeing unimaginable violence.
VICE: Hi, Sergey. Did you know from the get-go that you wanted to cover war zones?
Sergey Ponomarev: Well, I never was like, "I want to go straight for wars." I was like a kid thrown into the pool, and I had to work hard to get floating, to keep my head above water. If editors asked me if I wanted to go to war zones, I never said no.
In an interview with [New York Times editor] Jim Estrin, you described creating a "war routine" when you were in Gaza. Is routine important to what you do?
I can't say that it's common to every conflict I was witnessing. In Gaza every day was almost the same, and I think that was mostly based on the very traditional and conservative society. Even in a war environment they have to still obey their traditions, and do funerals on the same day [people] are killed. Since there were nearly a hundred people killed every day, they had to bury them on the day, and it turned into a routine. It wasn't like that in other places.
How do you build trust on site?
This is something unconscious. I am trying to be unnoticeable when I'm on the scene. But I also understand that, when people see photographers, they act differently than they would act without an alien observer. I am trying to be as low-profile as I can, but on the other hand I still understand that people are aware that there is somebody not from their community. I don't make many clicks; I just wait for this decisive moment that I need to make. If I feel I have the picture that I want to make, I leave immediately to leave people alone. But sometimes it takes me a while, sometimes hours or a day. I have to stay and let them get used to me before I can make a photo. There is no exact rule.
It also depends whether I have a fixer or translator, and whether he tries to ease the situation or provoke it. Last time in Gaza, I was alone. I had no translator. I was following local photographers, but they didn't speak English. Our conversation was like: "Yalla, man, hospital" or "Yalla, man, bomb," and I stayed with them for ten days or so. They were my key to the situation.
How do you keep going after being within these situations? Do you hit a saturation point for how much you can take?
People who live in Gaza, they had a war in their homeland and they still live there. They still live among those rubbles. I can leave. I went back to Moscow, to my undestroyed family. I try to forget that, or keep it in the distance. That sounds quite egotistical, but I'm always thinking about those trapped in Gaza and how they cannot leave that chaos. My solution to survive that is to speak to a psychologist or friends. At some point it's very hard because friends are happy to listen to your stories for, I don't know, a day or two, but if I keep speaking about Gaza for several months, they don't want to meet because I'm the guy who's talking about war again. For me, the best way is to shoot another story and bring new images into my head that I will think about. And definitely talk to a psychologist.
Do you navigate things differently if you're working in your own language, in territories closer to home?
Well yeah, there are some nuances. When you go to Ukraine, all the young Russian males are stopped at the border control and are asked questions for three or four hours. It literally looks like Ben Gurion airport, but only for Russians. Inside the country, I don't see any problems. I have both accreditations, from the rebel side and the Ukrainian side. There's overwhelming propaganda from both sides, like an apple sliced in two pieces. That's what we try to fight. But articles in the New York Times or in French media are written in French and in English, and most people can't read that. They just listen to local news and local news is brainwashing them. This is what causes epic problems and misunderstandings between nations.
What do you see for the future in Russia, then?
I think the conflict will deepen. I don't see any solution, and both sides are willing to continue to fight. I have a completely different point of view than many of my friends, because I was a witness to the Euromaidan protests, Crimean annexation, war in Donbass—so I see something different with my naked eyes compared to what people saw on TV. I have lost several friends battling about Ukraine, but I'm quitting those conversations because it's impossible to tell them something. They say, "I saw it with my own eyes." I say, "you haven't been there," but they say, "Yeah, I saw it on YouTube." So I don't speak with Ukrainians about the war in Ukraine, and I don't speak with Russians about the war in Ukraine. I can only speak with foreigners who can listen.
It's possible to quit a conversation when it escalates, but how do you manage fear in situations when there's the risk of mortal danger?
Curiosity. That's the best solution. You want to see what's going on behind the corner. That overwhelms everything else.
How does presenting your work in a gallery make you think differently about it?
When I was going to Gaza, I bought a book by Susan Sontag the day before I left, translated into Russian. It was called Regarding the Pain of Others. I found it very interesting, very unique, and very fresh, and I wanted to test that in the gallery. We've lived in a humanitarian era only for some 200 years and before that we had these cruel fights, beheadings, and crucifixions. The main amusement for crowds was watching someone dying or being killed and we have changed that slightly, but we still keep that interest unconsciously. And when people see images of war and of suffering, they possibly try to interpret that by putting themselves in their places. This is how we feel sorry. It's banned to slaughter people publicly now, but with modern technology we have journalists who go to dangerous zones and bring back images of this very kind of slaughter. So this is a kind of experiment, to see how people feel about that.
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