Tragedy and Normalcy: Documenting Russia’s War on Ukraine – An Interview with Photographer Brendan Hoffman
Interview with Brendan Hoffman by Sophie Schmäing
Brendan Hoffman is a documentary photographer currently based in Kyiv, Ukraine and a Fulbright alumnus. His work was presented at Hotel Continental – Art Space in Berlin as part of the exhibition “Ukraine: War and Resistance”, presenting a collection of 40 images by Fulbright Alumni from Ukraine, or American Fulbrighters who have lived and worked for several years or longer in Ukraine. In the interview, Brendan reflects on accurately representing people’s everyday life during war in Ukraine and the challenges of communicating these experiences to his readership in the United States and Europe. He also describes his efforts to reach out to a Ukrainian audience through his Instagram account and with a self-published newspaper. Moreover, the interview touches upon the importance of engaging not only with most salient issues but also long-term consequences of the war. On September 21, the exhibition will be opened at the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin, accompanied by an academic event on “Narrating Everyday Life During War Time in Ukraine” in cooperation with the Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe based at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.
Sophie Schmäing: Your work was recently shown in the “Ukraine: War and Resistance” exhibition curated by Fulbright Ukraine. The curators describe the photographer’s knowledge and camera as “weapons of defence”. How do you see your role as a photographer in Russia’s war against Ukraine?
Brendan Hoffman: As a photographer working in the journalism space, my primary role is to show what is happening in Ukraine in a compelling and honest way. That sounds simple and straightforward, but it’s not that easy to continually make pictures that feel fresh and that accurately reflect the odd mix of tragedy and normalcy that define this and most other wars. It’s nearly impossible to fully convey, for those who have never been in a war zone or lived through armed conflict, the experience of spending an evening with friends celebrating a birthday and then going home and hiding from missiles with your family. Of not knowing if you should buy something for your home because you don’t know if it will still exist next week. Of continuing to sit at a cafe and drink your coffee while the air raid siren sounds because you are tired of letting Russia control your life. But explaining that to readers sitting in the United States or Europe, in a way that doesn’t feel repetitive or simply depressing, is my job.
A secondary but perhaps equally important role is to make images for history. There are the pressing requirements of any particular story or assignment, and then there are pictures that will be important to have as a record in fifty or a hundred years. They are not always the same pictures.
Sophie: Your photos document the different facets of everyday life during the war. How do you choose which moments you cover? How can you describe your relation to the people of whom you take a photograph, such as the little girl who lost her leg due to Russian shelling?
Brendan: Ultimately my best images are of situations and moments that I personally find intriguing or poignant or intense or some other adjective. There has to be something in it for me, something that resonates that I can reflect back. Making those choices is instinctive and the result of many years of experience. On a more macro level, I try to focus on stories that feel important to fix in time or that are maybe counterintuitive but point in some way to a deeper truth.
As for my relationship with the people I photograph, I generally try to make sure that my interests and theirs are for the most part aligned, and that we all agree on that. My pictures don’t usually help people directly (though it’s nice if they do), but I try to strike a balance between doing my job as best I can and not asking too much of people who are already giving me a lot of their time and emotional energy. I generally think that my intentions come through and people understand my ultimate desire is to tell their story in a powerful way, because otherwise the whole endeavor is a waste of time.
Sophie: Which audiences do you aim to reach with your work?
Brendan: I’ve been working mainly for The New York Times over the past year and a half, which has a wide and fairly sophisticated readership, so I try to gear my work toward that audience. I also put some effort into my Instagram account because that reaches a different audience and I believe people view photographs differently when they think about them being made by a specific person (me). My name is printed under the pictures in the newspaper but the average reader doesn’t pay attention to that or think about how a picture came about.
One thing I have thought quite a lot about over the years I’ve been working in Ukraine is the fact that relatively few Ukrainians actually see my work. Instagram is available to many, of course, but it’s nowhere near the same number of people as will see my pictures in the newspaper. I’ve tried various ways to ensure my pictures are seen in Ukraine, from exhibitions to lectures to a self-published newspaper that I delivered to more than 20 public libraries all over Ukraine for free.
Sophie: You have been working in Ukraine since 2013. What sparked your interest in the country?
Brendan: The honest truth is that I came initially just because I needed the assignment and I felt like I could contribute to the coverage during the Maidan revolution. My experience covering Maidan was a major turning point in my life and career. It was revolutionary, literally, and it was obvious to me that it represented the start of something big and new. I don’t like spreading myself too thin so it was logical that I should continue working in Ukraine. Obviously when I first arrived I had no idea where it would take me.
Sophie: What long-term developments in Ukraine have you documented in the previous years?
Brendan: I think the main thing I’ve been witness to is the consolidation and solidification of Ukrainian nationhood. Many people have told me that it was Maidan that made them first feel like Ukrainians, despite having lived in independent Ukraine for more than twenty years. The war has deepened that immeasurably. People now have a clear sense of what they are fighting for, meaning the opposite of everything Russia stands for to them: democracy, rule of law, human rights, and justice. They are not abstract concepts anymore, but something almost everyone feels viscerally.
Sophie: Your bio mentions several themes reflected in your work, ranging from identity to environment. Did the full-scale invasion impact the relevance of some of these themes, or has it raised new ones?
Brendan: The impact of the war on the environment is a severe and undercovered aspect, so that is one example of the war increasing the relevance of a topic. From Chernobyl to Zaporizhzhia, the destruction of the dam at Nova Kakhovka, and the uncountable tons of artillery contaminating soil across thousands of square miles, the long-term environmental consequences are massive and potentially catastrophic. As so often happens, there are more pressing humanitarian needs so long-term consequences never quite get the space they deserve.
It almost goes without saying that the war itself is a war over identity, in that the Russian narrative negates the validity of Ukraine and Ukrainians. Ukrainians are literally fighting for the right to exist.
History, too, is important, in that it both gives insight into the roots of the war and has been weaponized by Russia to mobilize its population in support of the invasion. It seems that Putin is obsessed with history and his place in it, and that for him this war is a way to leave his mark.
Brendan Hoffman is a documentary photographer based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where his work reflects his interest in themes of identity, history, politics, conflict, and the environment. Since 2013 he has primarily covered revolution and war in Ukraine. His work has been published widely, shown at festivals including Visa Pour l’Image, the Zoom Photo Festival in Canada, and the Singapore International Photography Festival, and exhibited across Ukraine, in a major solo show at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago, Illinois, and in various galleries and educational institutions across Europe and the United States. Brendan is a regular contributor to major media including The New York Times and National Geographic, a 2018-19 Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine, and the 2018 Philip Jones Griffiths Award winner. He has received grants from TheDocumentaryProjectFund, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the National Press Photographers Association, among others. In 2017 he was named a Reporting Fellow by the South Asian Journalists Association to produce a body of work about the challenges faced by India and Pakistan in sharing water resources in the Indus River basin while confronting climate change and population growth. The project formed the basis for his first feature story for National Geographic Magazine, published in July 2020, and was awarded by Pictures of the Year International. Brendan has worked on assignment in more than twenty countries and is a co-founder of the photography collective Prime.
Sophie Schmäing is Science Communication and Networks Coordinator at the Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe at Forum Transregionale Studien and part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team. She is also an interdisciplinary trained sociologist who recently completed her PhD on urban democracy in post-Maidan Ukraine at Justus-Liebig-University Giessen.
Citation: Tragedy and Normalcy: Documenting Russia’s War on Ukraine – An Interview with Photographer Brendan Hoffman, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.08.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48208