National Geographic News

Dan Stone

National Geographic

Published March 6, 2014

A dog serves as a diversion for Ukrainian soldiers during a three-hour standoff with Russian troops at a military base in Crimea.


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:

Ukrainian soldiers tend a fire while defending an air force base in Crimea.



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.

Despite demands from Russian troops that Ukrainian soldiers surrender, some groups like these men at an air force base in Lubimovka have chosen to dig in, and to stay and fight if necessary.



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.

Tartar women gather to protest Russian intervention in Crimea.



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.

Ukranians hold a cross as a symbol of protest in front of Russian soldiers occupying a Ukrainian military base.



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.

A woman walks past a synagogue in Crimea vandalized in the midst of political tensions.



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.

Ethnically Russian Crimeans wave a Russian flag near the Russian consulate in the city of Simferopol, the capital of Crimea.



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.

A speech by former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko upon her release from prison brings tears to anti-government protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square.



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.

In a solemn procession, Ukrainians carry the coffin of a man killed in the recent violence in Kiev’s Independence Square.



During a prayer service in Kiev, a group of anti-government protesters use their cell phones as candles to create points of light.
marco antonio vazquez
marco antonio vazquez

it´s necesary that all the world know´s what´s happened there,to avoid what happened in 1935 in all Europe 

rut brea
rut brea

It is very sad to see brothers fighting brothers... I hope all things settle in a peaceful way instead of war.

Robert Devrome
Robert Devrome

This adds another dimension to the information being transmitted via the Canadian and American news media.  A welcome addition.

C Brown
C Brown

In 1972-73, I spent 12 month in the Republic of Korea. As an Air Force General Medical Officer I was invited to accompany some of our Corpsmen My point: These children laughed and cried, played and hurt just like "back home". Their adults, who often invited us to lunch, were good cooks, and most gracious hosts. Again, my point: As reflected in this article, and in the ROK, people left to themselves are remarkably alike the world over. As Alice might have said, "Curiouser, and curiouser." Just a thought

Dan Stone
Dan Stone

Great point Peter. What reporters and photographers see on the ground can sometimes be very different from what editors see on TV in newsrooms.

peter dobbins
peter dobbins

A photojournalist's motivation is apt to be unbiased relative to those of the publishers, et al.  Nice work.

Iryna Troshyna
Iryna Troshyna

@Nicolette Gallant  So what does it prove? Not only tartars suffered during Stalin's paranoiaс governing, most of them were Russians. About 10-15 million people perished. Do you suggest that tartars will have the same destiny nowadays, in case if Crimea joins Russia? Think about what you are talking  please.


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