Trust is Essential: An Interview with War Correspondent Till Mayer
I spoke with the war photographer and journalist Till Mayer the evening before his return to Ukraine, a country he has reported on since 2006. He travels there from Germany by bus, continuing on to different locations across the country in a car, in search of people – their stories and images.
Patrick Holzapfel: You work as a photographer and journalist in Ukraine. Can you tell me about your equipment? What do you carry with you?
Till Mayer: I have a Leica camera and my backup is my smartphone. I have limited equipment because I often have to be fast. That’s also why I only have one lens that I use for reports, a wide-angle lens with zoom. My Leica is a solid, resilient camera and it’s good to work with. I prefer a low-key approach.
Did your equipment and your way of working change when digital tools became available?
I began in the 1990s, when we still worked with slide film. Back then, I used to do commissions for the Red Cross and I gave them my undeveloped material on the spot in lead bags. From there it was sent in diplomatic bags to their headquarters in Geneva, and sometimes you only knew two weeks afterwards whether you did a good job or not. Today, a photographer gets immediate results – it’s a completely different world now. Many colleagues regret the disappearance of analogue. However, I also remember that it was much more expensive.
The main issue with digital is that images tend to get manipulated too much afterwards. I try to avoid that as much as I can – my approach is rather puritanical. The only thing I might do is lighten up a face, but that’s it. And sometimes, for exhibitions or social media and book projects, I switch from colour to black and white.
You do not work alone in Ukraine. I understand that you have a partner who helps you and who is Ukrainian?
For some years I have been working with Oles Kromplias, who is an excellent photographer from Kyiv. We’ve become good friends. He prepares many things and translates for me and he also does his own projects, of course. Many people use the term ‘fixer’ for colleagues on the ground, but I find this term to be derogatory. With Oles it’s more than that – we are friends as well as colleagues.
How did you find him? When and where did your collaboration take root?
Whenever I have to report from a country or region I don’t know a lot about I try to get in contact with local colleagues and ask what topics and stories they think are worth covering for my audience, which is mainly German. That was the case when I was reporting on the Donbas in 2017 for the first time and I met Oles. Unfortunately, some journalists travel to countries they’ve never been before with a complete report already scripted in their minds. It seems to me that they only meet people in order to have them confirm preconceived ideas. That’s bad journalism.
Can you describe your work routine in Ukraine?
I’m mainly commissioned to write larger features, including images, for daily newspapers in Germany. I try to show all the facets of war, covering places far away from the trenches as well as on the front line and in combat zones. We should not forget: Everybody all over Ukraine suffers under the war. In order to bring back stories from the frontline, I once accompanied the International Legion with my camera on a combat mission. In mid-January, I reported from Bakhmut. The Russians were approximately 300 metres from where I was on the Ukrainian camp. There was not much more than a residential block separating the fighters on either side. While we were there, three Ukrainian soldiers were killed by an explosion, and six were wounded.
My way of working may differ drastically [depending on the requirements]. In Western Ukraine, I reported on a Russian-born woman who married and moved to a village in Ukraine during Soviet times. Now she has basically lost contact with her family back in Russia because they refuse to acknowledge the truth about this war. This began in 2014 with war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea – back then, it was still possible for her to just change the topic of conversation. But when more and more people she knows were displaced or even killed, and more and more cities were destroyed by Russian forces, it became impossible. So she cut all ties. This is a story recurring all over Ukraine: Russian relatives and friends denying what’s going on: the bombing and killing of civilians, the invasion, the torturing in occupied territories… it’s very painful for millions of Ukrainians.
In Bakhmut, I portrayed some of the few remaining civilians and also a drone pilot at the very front in a story about the co-existence of the military and civilians. The pilot complained about the civilians because they were making his work more difficult. The military wants all civilians to be evacuated – for their sake, as Bakhmut is under permanent shelling. But on the Ukrainian side, nobody is forced to leave their home. I can understand why some elderly people don’t want to leave: I met an 81-year-old man who has always lived in Bakhmut and even took part in the construction of houses there. He doesn’t want to leave. So he stays in his apartment without electricity, or water, his windows boarded up. But when I met a younger woman with two children, seven and 10 years of age, it was difficult for me to understand why she refused to leave. So I reported on this conflict between military and civilians. It’s a huge honour to walk alongside people surviving in a war – people who suffer so much and still take the time to tell me their story, stories that are very often painful for them. But they want them to be told, because, due to the brutal Russian aggression, they face unbearable injustice.
In cinema, whenever a filmmaker chooses to make a film about war, it’s very much about their moral position. In journalism, however, there is an idea of objectivity or neutrality. How do you deal with that and how does your own moral compass affect your work?
I have a clear position for myself but when I announce it as a journalist, I don’t try to disguise my position as neutral fact. As a journalist, I feel committed to International Humanitarian Law, democracy and freedom of speech. It is a journalist’s job to protect these things. If we don’t, then one day we’ll no longer have any chance of reporting freely. I do not to mix my reports with my personal opinions. Since I’ve been reporting from Ukraine for many years, it’s a country that’s very close to me. The people I portray are very often people I’ve known for quite some time. It’s difficult to keep myself distanced. It’s something else when I report from Central Africa, for example. Of course, stories from people there get to me as well and I feel empathetic towards them. But it’s different when it’s good friends I’m reporting on. Nevertheless, it’s my duty as a journalist and photographer to show the facts. I document with words and pictures what I see and hear. I also don’t search for specific people – for example, I don’t try to find patriotic Ukrainians in order to tell a certain story. Of course I have my personal point of view, but I would never take propagandistic photographs.
You’ve spoken about how you try to avoid manipulating your images but I’m still interested in how you shoot on location. It’s perhaps a stupid question, but do you turn on the light if it’s needed?
If there’s electricity, you mean? At the front I have to be fast. It’s also dangerous. I might turn on the light and get targeted by a sniper. When I’m with the Armed Forces, it’s all about becoming invisible and keeping a low profile. You have to understand yourself as an extra burden to those who are fighting. You have to be grateful to them for ‘babysitting’ you.
Oles and I have been doing this for years now and he has military experience, so I feel a certain trust from the soldiers. If you take photos at the front, for example, you communicate with the commander about these photos and their time of release – because if I publish just one image and the Russians can use it to deduce where the Ukrainian soldiers are, this could mean their deaths. I’m really afraid of this, it’s my nightmare. There is no censorship – it’s about the safety of the soldiers. So, no photos with landmarks. Sometimes you have to wait to publish certain images until positions have changed. If you don’t play by these rules, they will – rightfully – never let you photograph at the front again. It’s about trust. They don’t expect to be glorified or anything like that. Of course, they wouldn’t let a journalist from Russia Today into their positions; they expect respect and fairness. But one of the reasons I’ve been working in Ukraine for so long is the possibility of reporting freely.
Are there situations in which you decide against taking a particular photograph or do you try to capture everything?
I think the most important is to keep the dignity of a human being. I’ve been in situations in which I could have photographed corpses. But it’s not my style to show corpses just to feed some hunger for sensationalism. Furthermore, it would be disrespectful towards the soldiers, who just lost their comrades. I think there are other ways to document the horror of war. I have photographed the hands of burn victims injured by explosions. Those were harsh images but not sensationalistic images. Of course, not every soldier wants to get photographed. There are a number of potential reasons for this: for instance, a soldier might have relatives in occupied territories and be afraid that they could encounter problems because of the image.
How many photos do you shoot approximately and how many get deleted?
I’d say from 250 photos I keep about 15. I try to avoid too much wasted data. I don’t like photographers who shoot non-stop, and I think their subjects are put off by it. It’s disturbing and I honestly doubt the images get any better this way.
Are there any artistic criteria you want to or can follow in this work? I ask because you also make photography books and I’m wondering if such a thing as an artist’s gaze can exist in times of war.
I think each professional photographer has their own style. It was some time before I got there. I ultimately managed after beginning to take photographs for a local newspaper at 16 years of age. I’d say I needed about 15 years to develop my own style. I try to create more than a mere document. I try to catch emotions; to tell a story maybe with only one picture. The connection you build up with the people you’re photographing is fundamental in that regard. You can sense this in the images. It’s an advantage I have now in Ukraine because I know many people and they trust me – I think trust is essential. People ask themselves, ‘Is this a guy who only wants to take fast photos for the media or is this somebody who is actually interested in me, and not just a headline?’ They can tell.
I find it very interesting to observe the different effects my photos have on viewers. In 2019, a book of mine called Donbas – Europe’s Forgotten War was published. The war in East Ukraine was unfortunately a largely ignored one at this time. On the cover, there is a young soldier in combat gear. He is marked by the war and exhausted. People from pacifistic milieus who have seen this image tend to view him just as a traumatised soldier. However, many soldiers follow me on social media and, even if they also see that this is a man marked by war, they add that he is fighting nevertheless. They give the image a different spin. I like this ambivalence because I don’t want to impose my point of view.
You can find out more about Till Mayer’s work on his website: https://www.tillmayer.de/en/
Patrick Holzapfel works as a writer, film critic and curator. His articles and stories are regularly published in numerous publications in German and English language. Currently he is working on his debut novel and a translation of stories told to him by a stone.