‘Staged shots are as powerful as any gun’ We asked Russian photojournalists to tell the stories behind the World War II photos that are most important to them
On May 9, a number of post-Soviet countries commemorate the Soviet victory in the Second World War. Contemporary Russian photographers Sergey Maximishin, Yury Kozyrev, and Nigina Beroyeva chose three photographs from the war and told us what it is about those images that continues to amaze them. They also reflected on the difficulties today’s war photographers can face.
On Dmitri Baltermants’s “Grief”
I’m from Kerch — I lived there and graduated from high school there. The place you see in the photo is the village of Bagerovo, which is near Kerch. The photograph is of an antitank trench that was built to keep the Germans from crossing. But they crossed, and they captured the Crimea.
In Kerch, the Germans posted orders for Jews of all ages to gather on Sennaya Square and bring three days’ worth of food and clothes. They announced that Jews would be resettled. Several thousand people came, and they were all registered. When they were registered, the Germans demanded their keys and a detailed home address. Then, they were thrown into cells at the city jail. They were fed salted gobies (gobies are this type of fish you can find in Kerch — the cheapest one), and three days later, they were loaded onto trucks, forced onto their knees, and taken to Bagerovo. There, they were shot — and people thought until the last minute that they were being taken somewhere to work. When they asked where they were being taken, they were told they were going to a collective farm.
They just shot them in the back of the head, threw them into that trench, and didn’t even bury them. They shot, according to our numbers, around 7,000 people — according to the German numbers, 2,500. Some people managed to escape. Some people who were wounded ran away that night and found places to stay with some of the locals.
It also has to be said that the people the Germans shot there weren’t all Jews. There was an attack on one of the German officers [who was killed by a Soviet reconnaissance group]; Crimean Tatars were blamed for it, and so were Russians. So it wasn’t only Jews who were lying there. Also, apart from [Ashkenazi] Jews, and this is very important, there were also Krymchaks. Krymchaks are a Crimean people, and they’re Jewish, but they speak a Turkic language. Ethnically, these aren’t the same Jews who came to the Crimea when Poland and Russia were unified; they’re the Jews who were already living there under the Crimean Tatars. And they annihilated practically all of the Krymchaks. It’s a really sad story.
And then this is what happened: Kerch turned out to be the very first piece of Soviet land that was [recaptured and] occupied for a while. That is, for a few days at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, there was the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula, and the peninsula was recaptured. And then, that very same Bagerovo trench became the first piece of evidence of the Germans’ barbarity that was documented [by the Allies]. Two photographers went there — [Yevgeny] Khaldei and Baltermants, and there was a journalist with them. They saw that, and those were the first photographs to show the world what fascism is and how it looks visually.
Why is this important to me? Because my grandmother and grandfather are Jews, and they were living in Kerch at the time. The only thing that saved my father and his parents from death was the fact that my grandpa was an officer, and he managed to evacuate his wife and their children to Omsk before the war started. And if they hadn’t left for Omsk, they would have been lying in that trench. So it’s almost my history, almost my family’s history.
It was the Italian photographer Caio Garrubba who noticed the photograph when he was visiting Baltermants in 1968. He was in Moscow looking at Baltermants’s archive, came across this photograph, and realized it was an absolute masterpiece. He asked Baltermants to print it, but Baltermants thought the photo wasn’t dramatic enough, and he printed it with a sky from another shot. The original just had your average gray sky. So Baltermants added a dramatic touch. Nowadays, of course, that’s entirely unacceptable. This photograph was only displayed in the Soviet Union on the 30th anniversary of the Victory, when the photo was already famous, when it had won contests and a lot of awards abroad.
Contemporary war photography has changed. There’s less propaganda in it because, of course, the journalists who documented the [Second World] War from our side or from the other side had been officers. And when you’re an officer, there’s no place for freedom of speech whatsoever. Aside from that, all the journalists used to carry weapons, and now they don’t.
Take Baltermants’s story, which is just fantastical. In 1942, he came back from a business trip, hung up his prints to dry, and left for the editorial office. In the office, they saw that he had some new materials, took the photographs without his permission, and printed them. They wrote that the photos were of burning German tanks, but in actuality, the tanks were British. There was a terrible scandal. The privates reported on Baltermants, who was an officer, and he was sent to a penal battalion, which, in practice, meant certain death. It was only at the end of the War that they restored his rank and his former post. But in the penal battalion, they injured his legs, and he had a limp for the rest of his life. So can you see the sword that always hung over those journalists’ heads?
There were also a lot of staged shots made during that war. War photography, wartime photography, is mostly staged. Well, at the very least because it was difficult to use that film and those cameras to take live shots. Try giving a photographer today those cameras and that film and telling them, “Go shoot a war.” I don’t think they would be able to get very many clear images. So a lot of photographers got out of that situation by staging photographs. The same goes for collages: a lot of war shots are edited. A gigantic amount, I think.
There’s even a funny story about Yevgeny Khaldei [see below]: he has a shot from the end of the war where soldiers are moving toward the fascists’ standard, and they’re going to march right over it. And in the background, a castle is burning. It’s a bit doubtful that the standard would by lying in the mud because they were trophies, really. So people asked him, “Khaldei, tell us, did you put in the standard?” And Khaldei listened and said, “No, I lit the castle on fire.”
That said, I would never, God forbid, throw a stone at those guys. Those guys did everything they could; it’s just that the times were different.
I want to say this: I am not a war photographer. I’ve been near wars several times, but I made an oath to myself that I would never go to war because there are no more just wars in the world. I also regret very much that the press has turned from a witness into a part of the action. There’s a joke that the war starts when CNN gets there and ends when CNN leaves. In, say, the Beslan school massacre, it became really obvious: every terrorist wants weapons, drugs, and journalists. Because mass terror began when mass communication began. Before there was mass communication, there was individual terror, and when mass communication appeared, the possibility of scaring billions of people simultaneously appeared. The press often ends up working the same rig as the terrorists. That is, without the press, terrorism is impossible, and the press needs terrorism to shock people. So I don’t want to go.
On Yevgeny Khaldei’s “The Standard of Victory over the Reichstag”
It would not be true to say that this is my favorite photograph or that it inspires me. But it’s really a great piece, and I was lucky to be able to meet the person who made it. Khaldei often visited the workshop where I studied. He was an incredible storyteller; he loved to tell tales and anecdotes. I like Khaldei as a person, as an entirely unbelievable person whose work made history.
Khaldei has a lot of photographs that became symbols of some event or other. Apart from “The Reichstag,” there’s the Nuremberg trials, among other pieces. He has at least 10 photographs that definitely made history. That kind of thing is extremely rare. For example, in the war in Iraq, there were a ton of reporters, but there’s no one photograph that you could call a symbol of that war. There really isn’t one apart from the photos from Abu Ghraib, but those were taken by American soldiers.
The thing is that Khaldei wasn’t just a photographer; he was an amazing director. He knew how to put together a shot where all the tiniest details worked in concert. He didn’t take photos; he created them. For example, Khaldei had this trick where he would stack several negatives to create a more memorable image.
There was just one negative for the photo with the Reichstag, but he “created” that one too. With the conditions on the ground the way they were, Khaldei was free to organize the whole thing: find people, drag them onto the roof, and make everything very precise.
There are a lot of legends and fables and stories surrounding that photograph, but there is one question that nobody has answered to this day for sure. If you look at the photo, you can see that the photographer was positioned higher than the soldiers — how did Khaldei do it? I’ve been on that roof, and there’s just no higher ground up there. There were no drones either, so it’s likely that somebody lifted him up or something like that, but at this point, we will never know.
There are a lot of other strange tidbits about that picture as well: how Khaldei got to Berlin, how he brought that standard with him, what it was made of. But there’s an even more important point: the photograph we know is different from the original. It’s well known that the photo was retouched to remove a second watch from the wrist of one of the soldiers… Khaldei was ashamed for the soldiers — for the fact that they took that watch. He was a Soviet person. He couldn’t ignore the way a shot like that could be used in American propaganda. And you have to understand that there just weren’t any spaces back then where you could tell that kind of story. There was no Afisha or Meduza. Just Pravda.
People found out about the watch much later, after Khaldei had already left TASS, stopped being Stalin’s private photographer, and lost all his privileges. And that bit only came to light when [the French photography scholar] Mark Grosse published his big monograph on Khaldei. That’s where he figured out all these manipulations, but it wasn’t some kind of masterful exposé. It was an attempt to understand why a brilliant artist decided to do these things. To understand why something like that was possible in Soviet photojournalism. After all, that kind of approach — editing the content of a shot — was acceptable back then. Now, people are more scrupulous about it, and photographers have to prove they’re not trying to fool anyone. But things like this still happen all the time. If a reporter is taking pictures of soldiers on the ruins of a city, for example, they can’t tell the soldiers not to pose. That’s they’re right; it’s their moment. But, of course, when the photograph is captioned, the photographer is supposed to note that the soldiers are posing instead of pretending it’s all by chance.
Yes, this piece is a staged photograph. And the standard Khaldei shot was not the first one on the Reichstag. Photos like this were made before Khaldei, and they were made after Khaldei, but it was Khaldei who managed to take a shot that became a symbol. That’s his genius. I think the whole story surrounding the photograph doesn’t impinge at all on the image he made. It’s not just a symbol of the Victory; it’s one of the most powerful images of victory in the history of photography. Khaldei did exactly what was necessary on that day, in that moment. That image will always be a part of history.
On a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White
No, what you see in this photograph is not a military salute for Victory Day. Although it does explain why photographers hate military salutes: the noise sounds exactly like a shell exploding. This shot shows one of the first air raids on Moscow: Margaret Bourke-White captured it in 1941. Margaret was the only foreign photographer in the USSR when the war started (and, by the way, the first female war photographer in history). Landing in the Soviet Union, especially just before a war, was an incredible stroke of journalistic luck. She brought almost 300 kilograms of equipment with her to Moscow and refused to leave the city even when the American government insisted on evacuating all of its citizens form the USSR.
The photographs Margaret took in Moscow were published in the book Shooting the Russian War. In the book, there are no people shedding blood, no trenches, no ruins, and no heroic soldiers throwing themselves under tanks. It’s a photographic history of people, of the city, of a country that has four years of the cruelest war in history ahead of it. But that would only become clear a few months later. At the time, the photographs only showed an anticipation of catastrophe. The faces of the people hiding from the air raids in the Mayakovsky metro station are focused, frightened, but still not horrified — their homes are still whole, and their loved ones are still alive. There’s no panic yet, no stampedes. Moscow was masked: houses were painted on the asphalt, there were roofs built on the canals, and the buildings were painted over.
Margaret had strict limits for her photoshoots. She was always escorted by NKVD agents, and she was still able to capture the life of the city. She was fascinated by the women there who had started working “for themselves, for their men, and for their Homeland”; she captured how quickly they mastered their new professions. In her book, she describes an all-female fire brigade, how almost every Muscovite knew how to put out incendiary bombs. Margaret photographed first aid courses: girls and women practiced dressing bandages on one another and on mannequins.
A few days, or weeks, or months later, they would be dragging wounded soldiers out of battle as bullets and shells shot past. But just then, in the summer of 1941, womenswear stores and restaurants were still open, and people were still selling books off of sandbags on the streets. “The Russians passionately love to read,” Margaret wrote, “You can find all kinds of books, from a instructions on leading partisan warfare and aviation field guides to children’s fairy tales.” She was allowed into a factory where people were designing and drawing propaganda posters 24/7. She later remembered feeling as though she was in Walt Disney’s studio.
Margaret took a lot of photos from the balcony of the Hotel National, where she was living with her husband Erskine Caldwell, who was a writer and journalist himself. She also took photos from the roof of the American embassy. She preferred to photograph nighttime air raids from on high.
“When dusk fell, children would patrol the streets and knock on the doors of apartments to warn their owners if a poorly covered window was letting through light,” Bourke-White wrote in Shooting the Russian War. “The children would also make sure the boxes of sand and buckets of water that were prepared to extinguish incendiary bombs were always full.”
That’s the story Westerners heard about the early days of the War in Moscow. And it’s not a story about Stalin (though she photographed him too); it’s not a story about communism or totalitarianism — it’s a story about people. Unfortunately, Margaret Bourke-White had to leave the USSR in September of 1941. And we don’t have the option of seeing another point of view on how the Soviet Union lived in those years.
In journalism, there’s this concept of “my war” and “not my war.” It’s unbearable to photograph “your own war”; it’s unbearable to be a witness and not a participant. It’s unbearable to hold a camera and a notebook in your hands instead of a rifle. It’s unbearable to be objective. And all of that unbearability comes out in your shots, between the lines and between the frames. And if there’s incredibly brutal censorship in your country on top of that, then photographing “your own war” is practically impossible. The most powerful documentary photographs of war come precisely from photographers who come in to photograph a war that “isn’t theirs.”
We grew up on shots of heroic Soviet soldiers in battle, and some of those photos turned out to be staged. Though all of those military feats really did happen; it’s just that, unfortunately, they went practically undocumented. And now the humanization of that war is being received as a desecration of sacred ground.
Wars have changed. They’ve become long-distance wars. Soldiers no longer see the faces of their enemies; they don’t see the faces of the civilians that are dying dozens or hundreds of kilometers away from them. I would have loved to say that similarly fundamental changes have taken place in journalism, only for the better. That there’s no more staging, censorship, and retouching. But it turns out that staged shots are as powerful as any gun, and you can stage not only heroic feats that really happened but crimes that never did.
The value of simple human stories about war has only grown because of all this. I remember a man who planted flowers in his bombed-out house in Homs [in Western Syria]. And the thousands of refugees who walked to Europe. The people in Damascus who sat in cafés and restaurants holding crystal glasses that were shaking from the explosions on the next street over: war was an everyday matter by then. I remember the furniture maker who made coffins instead of cabinets and couches; the seamstresses who had to make bandages for soldiers instead of dresses for graduation dances. People who lived in basements for months. Because only the pain, life, and death of people on all sides of the front lines has any meaning.
Translation by Hilah Kohen