Lensmen covering conflict zones talk about their experiences - GulfToday

Lensmen covering conflict zones talk about their experiences


Visitors view the striking photographs at the Xposure festival in Sharjah. Kamal Kassim/Gulf Today

Celebrated Russian photojournalists Sergey Ponomarev and Dmitry Beliakov shared their experiences of covering the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and what made them give up working in their own toxic backyard in a session titled ‘Where Do You Draw the Line’, moderated by Ray Wells, Picture Editor of The Sunday Times, yesterday, at the fifth annual edition of Xposure International Photography Festival taking place at Expo Centre Sharjah.

Sergey Ponomarev is a freelance photographer based in Moscow and is best known for his work covering wars and conflict in the Middle East and the migrant crisis in Europe. Ponomarev was part of The New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the exodus of one million refugees from the Middle East and Africa to Western and Northern Europe in 2016. His images of the migrant crisis also won the first place in the World Press Photo contest in the General News category.

Winner of multiple awards, Russian photographer Dmitry Beliakov is one of the only two photojournalists to document the 2nd Chechen War from all sides. His images of the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004 shook the world out of its complacency. He also covered the conflict in Ukraine from 2014-19, a brilliant body of work that is being showcased at the festival.

Hazards of the job: The emotional toll the job can take on photojournalists was expressed by Ponomarev, who said he had been treated like a traitor, beaten up by the Ukrainian forces while crossing checkposts and had suffered many injuries, including several broken ribs. “I just strapped a belt across my ribs and went back to work. Photojournalists are visual historians; their work is keeping civil society informed of events that have the capacity to affect all of us. It is hazardous work, in the extreme,” he said.

Beliakov has faced life-threatening situations throughout his time in Ukraine. “It is all a part of the job,” he said. “In 2014, while covering the conflict in Ukraine with a team, I was stopped by a group of separatists. One of them started threatening me and shoved a gun in my stomach. At that moment, I was just glad he did not put it to my chest. I was lucky that he was pacified when I apologised, but I could have very well been shot that day,” he said.

Enemy of the state: Working for the New York Times marks Ponomarev as an enemy in his own country. “People are brainwashed by propaganda. They judge you by the media you work for. It is difficult to convince them that you are impartial and report the truth,” he said. “Even my own friends point out propaganda videos on YouTube and turn on me, blaming me for being partial to the ‘enemy’.”

Beliakov has lost many friends due to the fact that he does not side with the Russian position on Ukraine. However, what pains him the most is that his work has alienated his own father who has refused to speak to him since 2015.

Ponomarev is positive that it is impossible to be 100 per cent neutral while covering a war in which one’s country is involved. “I decided to stop covering the conflict in Ukraine because I could not do it impartially towards the end. All the opposition I faced from my friends, family and countrymen forced me to seek therapy to cope with the emotional and psychological impact. I find it much easier to work in [conflict zones] in Libya and Syria,” he said.

“It truly is very challenging. Even though to my mind I was impartial in my coverage I was banned by both sides. Wars are nasty business, because the victims are usually the civilians who are trying to avoid conflict,” concluded Beliakov.

In a related development, apart from bringing together the world’s best photographers, Xposure International Photography Festival (Xposure 2021), a four-day celebration of photography, is also acting as a learning ground for amateur photographers.

With a total of 14 workshops by seven experts, it presents a unique opportunity to the photography enthusiasts visiting Xposure 2021 to learn the nitty-gritty of the profession, directly from the experts.

Led by industry experts, the first day of the festival hosted workshops on a variety of topics covering both technical and aesthetic elements of the craft. Commercial photographer Mike Browne delivered one titled ‘Focal Length Explained’, highlighting the importance of mastering the technique of adjusting focal length and applying it correctly to capture good images.


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