A Photographer Forced to Flee a War at Home
A conversation with Brendan Hoffman in Ukraine
Brendan Hoffman is an American photojournalist who has been living and working in Ukraine for the last eight years. I’ve watched Brendan’s work since the Maidan protests in 2014 and am always struck by his subtle observations of breaking news events. When international news interest faded, Hoffman stayed and committed to the story of Ukraine. After Russia invaded Ukraine, I reached out to Brendan to ask what he was experiencing on the ground. We connected on zoom; it was morning in Ukraine and Brendan was in a hotel with his wife in Lviv.
Adam Ferguson: Brendan, thank you for making time. How are you going?
Brendan Hoffman: It always leaves you feeling a little weird when you're supposed to be making pictures and you don't really know of what.
Adam: I know that feeling. I always feel incredibly anxious working on a big breaking news story, you're like, the world should be falling apart around me. Tell me about that for a minute.
Brendan: Well I'm in Lviv right now, which is in Western Ukraine, a fairly long way from the center of the action. This is one of the more normal cities in Ukraine. It still feels like the war is pretty distant, cafes and restaurants and stuff are open, albeit only until seven or eight o'clock in the evening. But there are people on the streets, there aren't barricades at every intersection. The main impact here is that this has been a transit point or destination for people fleeing other parts of Ukraine. But we're over three weeks into this war now, a lot of the people that were passing through here have moved on. It's not the chaotic scene it was a few weeks ago.
Adam: So you've been in Lviv since we started emailing last week and you're on assignment for the New York Times. You've also been covering Ukraine since the Maidan Uprising in 2014. Can you tell me about what you've witnessed in Ukraine over the last eight years? Did you see the Russian invasion coming?
Brendan: God, I wish I had seen it coming. No, I've kind of been in this post Soviet space. I've lived in Ukraine for eight years and I was in Moscow before that and had worked in the Caucasus even earlier than that. And there are all these different frozen conflicts that Russia has had a hand in on the periphery of the former Soviet Union - Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria. And for nearly eight years, we had a similar situation here. Since 2015, there hasn't been a major movement in Donbas. So I anticipated that that situation in Donbas would persist until Germany or some European country got sick of the impact of sanctions on its own business opportunities and led the drive for some bargain that would ease the tension. I bought an apartment in Kyiv a year and a half ago, thinking it’s a city that's really on the up.
Adam: What drew you to Ukraine in the first place?
Brendan: I first struck out for Moscow as a place that, to me, seemed not that well covered, both in terms of the extent of the coverage and tone. A lot of the coverage was still framed in this Cold War set up, which is a lot more appropriate now than it was in 2013 when I moved there. So I moved to Moscow in the summer of 2013, and that was only a few months before the Maidan protests in Kyiv kicked off. When that happened, I was in the region and it was a pretty easy choice to come to Kyiv.
I'd been working on this grant project in Russia immediately before I came to Kyiv and finding that really frustrating and isolating. I spent Thanksgiving sitting alone in my hotel room in Yekaterinburg, kind of miserable and not sure what I was doing. Living in Washington DC I’d covered a lot of protests, so what was happening in Kyiv looked like something I was familiar with and could be successful photographing. I needed, if nothing else, that morale boost. That was actually one of the driving factors in deciding to come to Kyiv. And of course it became this huge story that took on a life of its own.
Adam: The Maidan protests were hectic. So that was your first time covering conflict?
Brendan: Yeah, I'd never covered Iraq or Afghanistan, or anywhere else. And it shifted, while I was there, from a protest to a revolution, and really to a war, all under my feet. I'd taken a hostile environments training course and been in post-conflict situations, but that was my first experience of being in a conflict situation.
Adam: Did you thrive in that environment or feel intimidated by it? I remember the first time I got into an environment like that I really started questioning my life choices.
Brendan: Yeah, I'm not an adrenaline junkie so there was a combination of being totally naive and just wandering around in the streets and in places where people were being shot by snipers. And I wasn't thinking, maybe this isn't a good place for me to be. But subsequently, both there and in Eastern Ukraine, whenever I find myself in a situation where there are bullets flying over my head, it's hard to imagine a picture that's worth taking, that's worth your life.
Adam: I feel the same. When stuff really starts going sideways it's hard to justify being there.
Brendan: And honestly, I don't think the best pictures are made in those moments, partly logistically and partly because that bang bang stuff, it's so limited in what it can say. I just don't see the value in taking those risks very often.
Adam: It’s important to see conflict and violence and war crimes in real time, but I agree, it's the quieter pictures that sometimes offer more nuance. And that's what I've really enjoyed about your work.
FROM KYIV TO LVIV
Adam: How did you end up in Lviv right now?
Brendan: I was in Kyiv when the war started. The previous month, I'd been on assignment with the Times and spent about half of that in Eastern Ukraine running around trenches with soldiers, most of whom were pretty bored– there was a long lead-up to this on the ground when there wasn't really anything happening. The other two weeks were spent on a road trip in Southern Ukraine, and I got back to Kyiv a couple of days before things kicked off. My wife and I got married two months ago. She has family near Kyiv and we were especially concerned about her parents. She's also six months pregnant.
Adam: I didn't realize you were pregnant. This war is really personal. You've adopted Ukraine as your home, you've married a woman from Ukraine, you're pregnant there, and you bought an apartment, and now you’re being pushed out of Kyiv. What decisions have you guys made?
Brendan: It wasn't clear how quickly things were going to move, although the expectation at the beginning was that things were going to move fairly quickly. We really had no desire to get stuck in Kyiv. You've seen what's happening in Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine. That's exactly the situation where I was like, this is not the time to take that chance. So we left Kyiv on day two and slowly worked our way west. We first went to Vinnytsia, a couple hours away. It was so overwhelming and stressful trying to sort out family stuff. I took five days off work. I needed to focus either on taking pictures or on sorting my life, basically turning into an IDP. So I was able to take some time off, go back to Kyiv, get a few more things out of our apartment, and help get some family out of there.
Adam: When you guys left Kyiv, did you pack up your house or leave everything? What did that look like for you guys?
Brendan: We had packed a go bag a month before because it seemed like the wise thing to do. So we had our documents and stuff in order, but honestly, you can't plan for this kind of thing. It's impossible to think through because it seems so unbelievable when you're trying to plan for it. Are we going to be camping on the side of the road? Or are we going to be in a posh hotel in Lviv? I have my camping stove and a sleeping bag when I would rather have an extra hard drive. We grabbed a few changes of clothes but we have a small car and there were three of us so we took what we could. Having the chance to go back and redo it with a more realistic perspective was pretty valuable.
Adam: That must have been really difficult for you, the uncertainty.
Brendan: I don't even know what word you would use to describe it. It's just like, I bought this apartment where I can finally have nice things, buy nice dishes and get a good knife or a place to put my photo books and hang art on the wall and all that stuff. I can't take any of that stuff. You take the stuff you need for basic comfort and hygiene and that's pretty much it.
Adam: Unbelievably disruptive, I can't even imagine.
Brendan: So we eventually made our way here to Lviv and I reached back out to the Times and was like, "I'm in Lviv. If you want me back on assignment, I can do it now." And they were immediately like, "Can you start today?" It was pretty easy. And they were pretty great about it, which is why we're here now.
Adam: So what's the day to day looking like for you now?
Brendan: It's a huge challenge, honestly. I've never been the kind of photographer to carry a camera with me to the supermarket, or step out my front door and just work on my street. I need separation where I can be like, I'm here, I'm working, or I'm home, I'm not working. And so to suddenly have work surround you and be your life is difficult. It’s difficult too, that this has been the story I've worked on for eight years, and it's reached this extremely critical moment, and I have bigger things to sort out– my family. We have a couple of weeks maybe, but at some point pretty soon we need to figure out where we're going to live and have this kid and have some form of stability.
And at the same time - is taking pictures even the best way for me to be involved right now? I was at the train station the other day and I was trying to have conversations with people, and whether I made pictures or not wasn't really the point. People were confused about when they could get a train to wherever they needed to go. I was running around getting them cups of tea and trying to find information on train schedules. And that felt a lot more fulfilling than taking pictures. And I think it actually made my pictures better. So it was a good reminder of the need to engage on a really human level and that to just stand there and be a fly on the wall is not always the right way.
Adam: It's fascinating to hear you say that because I know I have parachuted into stories at times, and felt so paralyzed by the immensity of what's happening. At times I've made compositions out of people's lives when they’re in dire circumstances, with not enough time to engage. But I guess you're so invested in Ukraine that it's a different process. Is it a different way of conceptualizing imagery and story when it's your life and your home as well?
Brendan: My drive is to help people in some way. And if I can take pictures at the same time, great. But that can't be the main thing.
Adam: Given Ukraine is a story you've been covering for the last eight years, do you have an itch to be over covering the Russian air-strikes and shelling? How do you process putting family over the work?
Brendan: I don't relish the idea of sitting in Kyiv and just waiting for the air raid siren to go off or having to sleep in a parking garage underground, and being on edge for days and weeks at a time. On a professional level, of course I feel like I'm supposed to be running toward the action right now, and there's tension around that.
I try to remind myself of all of the things I thought in the previous eight years watching journalists who've hesitated to get out of harm's way, for whatever reason seemed important at the time, and ended up in some tragic situation. I have to maintain the level headed, detached, rational perspective I had before it became so acute and personal. And for me, that means I'm probably better off where I am at the moment.
Adam: There are a lot of journalists covering the daily news, and perhaps that doesn't need to be you. You can serve the story by photographing in other ways. I’ve always felt like there are times to take risks and times to step back and let that work be undertaken by others.
Brendan: Exactly. To find a way to add value and not just repeat what everybody else is doing. And that doesn't mean I have to go to a different place, but I just have to look for different things and think about a moment differently. One of the few things that everybody has found to do here is photograph funerals. I went to one the other day, there had to be 25 photographers there. And I could barely bring myself to make a picture because I felt like, what is the point? Why add one more camera to this situation?
Adam: I saw your Instagram post of a funeral of Vadim and Ivan, two servicemen that were killed in Lutsk airfield. Are Ukrainian people open to you being there? I've been in situations before where I've arrived at funerals and been timid about intruding, but people have shepherded me up to the front because they want their loss and story to be shared. Are you experiencing that kind of thing or the opposite?
Brendan: I've had that experience too. These have all been military funerals. It might be different if it was a civilian funeral, but so far no one has really objected to my presence, they kind of studiously ignored me, which is largely my preference. I am always a little cautious at first, just to feel it out and see if everybody is looking at me, wondering what I'm doing there. But no, I think everyone does want to share this story.
Adam: It’s really off-putting in situations like the one you describe where there's a press pack. Do you want to unpack that situation for me?
Brendan: There's always some people who seem to be on the same wavelength, like let's work together to make sure that our presence isn't a huge disruption and disrespectful. And then there are other people who kind of miss the memo entirely and … it was a triple funeral, three soldiers who'd been killed. And there are people standing between the coffins as families are grieving and crying on the coffins. And at that point I have to just turn around and walk away because I don't even want to be associated with those photographers. And that's what I did, and I found a picture that everyone else was completely ignoring, which is normally the way it goes.
Adam: What was the scene you found?
Brendan: In this church, in one of the wings, there's a display of pieces of shrapnel and rockets and pictures of all these soldiers who have been killed in the war since 2014. And there was a guy just standing there looking at the photos of these soldiers who'd been killed, all by himself, lost in the moment with these golden rays of light streaming over his head. I’m not claiming it's the most amazing photo in the world, but it was a different picture, a quieter picture.
Adam: So there's still some violence and attacks happening in western Ukraine, because these two servicemen were killed nearby. Correct?
Brendan: Yeah, so the funeral was in Lutsk, there were missiles that hit a military airfield just outside of Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine. Aside from day one, when they hit a lot of airports all over the country as a tactic for making it unclear where their main advance would be, there wasn't any action out there. And then they hit this airfield, near the Polish border in a city further south. So they reopened the Western front in a way. But it’s still a long way from many Russian ground troops.
Adam: What's the most surprising thing you've seen in the last few weeks, or the most surprising thing you've realized?
Brendan: The paranoia was almost immediate and really unexpected. People got suspicious of anyone with cameras. All these rumors are flying, and it's not just rumors, Russian saboteurs have been prepositioned all over Ukraine. Just to be seen on the street with a camera, someone's going to call the police and the police are going to come.
I was photographing a group of people in Vinnytsia who were getting on buses and evacuating to Moldova. And I'm just hanging around and the police come up to me and are like "come with us," and took me over to their car and spent a good 15 minutes looking through my backpack at all the documents in there and looking through messages and pictures on my phone. It wasn't suspicious, but people are really, really nervous. 75% of the time is spent requesting access, waiting for someone to answer your call and agree to allow pictures. I've had that experience previously, but I assumed in a country that's already been at war for eight years it wouldn't switch to that so quickly.
Adam: Is there anything that you have wanted to photograph that you haven't been able to?
Brendan: Yeah, a lot of stuff is off limits here. We have martial law throughout the whole country. For example, there's a military base nearby that was hit two days ago, 35 people were killed, 134 wounded, and we're not allowed to photograph in hospitals or on the base. We've been trying for two full days to get the permissions and it's just a blanket no.
Adam: Why do you think the government or the military is censoring that?
Brendan: It's a combination of things. I think on some level they just feel like this is bad messaging so they would rather not have these images out, either to demoralize Ukrainians or to be used as Russian propaganda. And I understand that, but you can also argue the opposite– that showing the realities of what Russia is doing can intensify the support that Ukraine is getting from the international community.
I think they're also worried about specific soldiers being recognized or identified and becoming targets in future stages of this conflict as a result. And I think they're also worried about giving away any information that can be used for targeting positions and other infrastructure. They don't want Russia to know precisely where soldiers are sleeping or whatever.
CALL TO ARMS
Adam: Since the very start of the invasion there's been a call to arms for all able men to rally and fight from the Ukrainian president. The people you are directly in contact with, the men in your extended family, how's everybody responding to that?
Brendan: I haven't seen any pushback. There are anecdotal reports of people hiding out in their country houses to avoid being conscripted. But by and large, men right now, Ukrainian citizens between 18 and 60, aren't allowed to leave the country. And no one I've spoken to has expressed any opposition to that idea.
I think everybody realized the existential nature of this. And it's a pack mentality too, everyone is affected in the same way and no one wants to be the guy who runs away. I don't get a sense that anyone has a different view than this official policy.
Adam: It's hard to imagine this winding back anytime soon … What's your forecast? Do you have one?
Brendan: Now that it's happened, I have no idea. It depends on what happens with the Russian domestic political situation. And it depends on the extent to which one believes the rumors about Russia's military reaching the limits of its capacity, on how effective Ukraine's resistance continues to be. I think this is a fundamentally irrational move by Putin. And when you have a leader acting irrationally, there's just no way to make predictions on what he might do.
Adam: How long do you think it will take until fighting reaches Lviv?
Brendan: I think it depends on whether Belarus gets involved. For weeks they've been talking about Belarus mobilizing and pouring across the border with the idea being to try to cut off the border of Ukraine, first with Poland, and then probably the rest of NATO countries, which of course is the main supply route, particularly for all the weapons that the West has been sending Ukraine. So there's a lot of logic in the idea of trying to take this part of the country and cut that supply route. There's also been a lot of information about the Belarusian military being really hesitant to get involved. If that happens, and that could happen at any time, I would be worried about Lviv pretty quickly.
Adam: Brendan, if you don't mind me asking, if the war catches up to you in Lviv, do you think you'll stay and photograph it, or move your family again?
Brendan: It's the same thing as Kyiv, I suppose. If it looks like things here are getting dicey, our first priority has got to be making sure our family is safe, and that would probably mean moving across the border in some direction. And we have a few weeks before we're going to have to do that, to make sure we're in a place where we can get access to medical services. We need a place to live so that in June when this baby is born, we’re settled and ready for it.
Adam: Brendan, thank you so much for your time. I wish you, your wife, and your unborn child all the best.
Shortly after this interview, Brendan and his wife, whose name has been withheld for privacy, made the decision to leave Lviv, Ukraine and are now in Poland. The first Russian airstrikes hit Lviv on Saturday.