Two weeks into the crisis in Ukraine, tension between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers continues to build. Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted in a televised address Tuesday that his decision to send 16,000 Russian troops to the Crimean region of Ukraine would not result in an international war. Russia and Crimea, he said, were brothers in arms.
But the situation on the ground is more complicated, especially as the conflict spreads east into other parts of Ukraine.
Photojournalist Ed Ou, a photographer for Reportage by Getty Images and currently on assignment for the New York Times, has been in Ukraine since last month covering the unfolding events. Working in the midst of an international standoff can be both fierce and tranquil, with episodes of sharp clashes followed by hours of standing around.
Earlier this week, Ou watched as Ukrainian soldiers attempted to retake their military base in Crimea and were rebuffed by Russian special forces. The confrontation de-escalated into discussions between the commanders for both sides, while the rank and file of the two armies-and Ou-watched and waited for three hours.
While TV screens around the world show images of marching troops and military hardware, Ou has tried to capture what's unfolding as people talk, soldiers argue, and opinions are expressed. The photos he has posted on Instagram (@edouphoto) reveal an international conflict playing out in tones that are sometimes more subtle, far from the politicians and their harsh words.
Ou spoke about his work to National Geographic News by phone from Ukraine:
How is the situation unfolding on the ground? Can you describe the tension?
It's weird saying this as a journalist. From the outside world, it probably seems like what's happening in Crimea is absolutely insane. But the truth is that life is still going on. People are adapting and doing their thing. The story most of the world is hearing is a political one. Here's it's easy to see life as normal. A lot of the tension is in people's minds.
Do you feel threatened photographing Russian troops?
It's an interesting dynamic. Every experience for a photographer is painted by his or her past experience. As someone who has worked in the Middle East, my experience is attuned to conflict. There are periods when it seems that things are clearly created for the media. A few days ago, several soldiers near the airport wanted to be photographed. That felt orchestrated, allowing Russia to project its dominance. Sometimes it feels like everything is just political theater, and we're being used for that.
How do people react to your cameras?
People here are very supportive of the media. They've been open to telling us what their thoughts and opinions are. But people on the Russian side have their biases against Westerners. I've had people come up to me and accuse me of being a provocateur or a spy. In any kind of time like this, tensions can sometimes run high.
With isolated pockets of activity and tension, how do you know where to go?
Well, Crimea is huge. Keep in mind that there are a lot of photographers and journalists who have come to tell this very intangible story. Every day you have to call other reporters and journalists to see what's happening. There's this demand for pictures and video. We're always kind of tense, on call, to find the flash points. Every day there's a rumor that a military installation is being taken over. We just have to gauge where we need to be.
You've chosen to share your photos on Facebook and Instagram for free. Why?
With Instagram, sometimes it's a personal space just to show life as it is. A photograph doesn't have to be front-page news. I'm working on assignment now shooting video. That footage will be published in the mainstream media. I purposely post photos on Instagram that probably won't be published anywhere else. What's cool about Instagram is that you can show things that you know won't be used otherwise and might never be seen. With Instagram I get to have my own way in publishing. I get to be my own editor.
How long do you plan to stay?
I think it'd be nice to stay for a bit. I'm finding great feature stories left, right, and center every day. Every time I want to photograph a culture story, I get a call that there's escalating tension somewhere else.
What kinds of things have soldiers told you?
Soldiers from both sides feel very resigned to what the politicians are doing. Many say they're just trying to follow orders. They recognize that they're pawns in the game that the politicians are playing. They recognize that if they have to fight each other, it will be brothers fighting brothers.