John Stanmeyer was in Ukraine in March 2022 covering the war, focusing on the civilians displaced by Russia’s invasion.
In this event, John discusses his experience working in Ukraine, present a selection of the photographs he has made, and show his film “War, Through Train Windows” — a story about loss, displacement, being a refugee, from the perspective of portraits through train windows.
David Campbell: Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this VII Insider event with John Stanmeyer. We’re going to be talking about the work that he’s done recently in Ukraine and near Ukraine covering the refugee crisis caused by the Russian invasion. John, let’s begin with when you went to Ukraine, when did you decide to go and why did you decide to go? What was what was the purpose of the trip?
John Stanmeyer: Whoa, well, I was here, probably sitting on the sofa, editing for an upcoming book. And this insanity began on, I think it was February 24. And I had been to Ukraine many times, hosted a workshop there, travelled there, I know the country pretty well, did a story for National Geographic there. It was a sort of global piece, but there was a significant part of it from Ukraine. And knowing just the realities of our human insanity, I would have gone insane probably just sitting here and not trying to play whatever insignificant role that I could give to. And the next day, I made the decision to go. I just sent myself. And by the 26th of February, I guess, somewhere around there, I was in Warsaw, and I could not as a human being, not as a photographer, maybe I guess, as a photographer too. But I couldn’t. Maybe in the act of being a photographer I could not give to that act of being a photographer, to try in any means possible to share the calamities of these events that many of us, I’m sure you too, David, with your history at World Press, and just your knowledge of photography, we witnessed too many times before, just to play some role in it. So I, that’s why I went.
David Campbell: Did you have a commission before you went? Or did you, it was, were you on, were you financing yourself? You were going there by yourself to pursue a particular story and then seeking ways to publish it later?
John Stanmeyer: No, I had no commission at all. Completely self-funded. I was, again, editing for a book, actually doing research with the very kind one here—Anasia at the Isha Institute, we were talking about a project that I just submitted a grant to today. And I, we were going to try to have an online meeting together a few days later and then I had to politely delay because I said I had to go and no, I didn’t really, I mean, I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t part of the equation. I just knew I needed to be there in some capacity. And I didn’t even think about it. No. It never really crossed my mind.
David Campbell: Did you ever sense when you are traveling there, when you were traveling to Poland, and then thinking about how to get to the border into Ukraine? Did you have a sense of the kind of story that you wanted to do or that particular part of the story that you wanted to cover?
John Stanmeyer: David, I sort of function in this space of knowing while not knowing anything and embracing this incredible maybe beauty in some ways of the I don’t know. Because of witnessing way too many refugee crises everywhere. That was sort of the the known and being in the theater of war more times than I prefer to be also, that was sort of also the known. But I didn’t know in what capacity that I could wrap my mind and spirit around until being there, so to have come up with a with an idea of this is what I’m going to do well before breathing the air in the space—Sorry, I need to let the girls out. They are clawing at the door. Without me knowing, having a preconceived notion would blind me. I just can only speak for myself. But I would imagine this connects to, I hope it can connect to others, that you sort of put your head into a box, and you’re not opening yourself up to the really, the vast universe of why you’re there. But what what role are you what are you there for, and I’m not there about myself, and you remove yourself, you put yourself way behind yourself. And that can only come giving you some sense of why in your purpose by being in that space. And so yes, as I mentioned, you know, the refugee issues that were immediately playing out. I could have gone to the frontline rapidly if I wanted to, and that actually, I felt I had too many colleagues, many, many colleagues were already there. And not just from VII, Ron Haviv and Eric Bouvet, but many other friends of mine were already there for quite a long time. And that to me felt like I was just building on top of the narrative that was that was needing to be told has to be told. There’s been a bit of discussion I see moving on this beautiful thing called social media of are we becoming desensitized by how many bodies that we see? And you know, the repetition of it? It needs to be seen. But already in the beginning of this insanity, I realized that I needed to go within myself to find the lateral meaning of hopefully giving to this incredibly important issue that affects all of us around the planet.
David Campbell: So you arrived in Warsaw, in Poland as the way to get there, tell us about the decisions you made then about where to go from Warsaw. And logistically, how did you make the trip? And how did you organize the trip from Warsaw towards the border and beyond?
John Stanmeyer: I have friends in Warsaw, the kindest one, Yatsik. You don’t know him, but actually you maybe you do. He’s done a few things, taken a few VII workshops, he’s taken a few of my workshops. Of course, I knew Maciek at VII. But for whatever reason, I reached out to Yatsik and he’s so kind. He’s a business person, but he’s an incredibly talented photographer. And he met me and a friend of mine, two friends of mine, that that we ended up all sorts of meeting up, ironically with some scheduling in Warsaw, and he kindly drove us all the way to the border for five hours, straight from upon arriving to the border in Medyka and then I had organized— very, very hard to find hotels already, even two days into the conflict, into the war, because there were so many people fleeing. At that point, there were still a lot of us, I guess, already there. But it wasn’t at the capacity that that it became a week or two later. And so it was really important to not occupy space that people who really need hotels needed. So I found a complete beautiful dive of a place in a little periphery village and a very kind owner that put us all in this room. And just went to the border to sort of understand what was going on. I think all of us should assess why we’re jumping into something in order to again understand why we’re there. And, and so yes, you couldn’t help but miss humanity pouring across the border, like vastly too many other places that this takes, that this occurs. And but I was there during the really beginning of it when there was definitely underlying issues of disparity depending upon what country or race you were from. There was no question, a huge difference of treatment of people of color. Because there are 1000s and 1000s of people studying in Ukraine at universities from the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and and that was a very horrific and depressing reality where people were kept in no person, a no person land with both borders, these invisible evil lines that we create to divide each other. And they were stuck there for four to six days, you know, in freezing temperatures. And when I crossed and filmed a bit along the border before finally guards telling me to get out of there, I spent about an hour and a half on the Ukrainian side. And when I came back, it took me an hour and a half to cross over not six days, and I was greeted with hot tea and sweets. And it’s not a disparaging comment to any one or any group, it’s just the the dramatic reality and unfortunate reality that needs to change of how we treat each other by the surface of our of our skins. And so that was really the first few days. VII, which collaborates with UNICEF, quite a bit, I worked for about three or four days, and also with Ali, another member of VII, on a story related to children who had been crossing. And that was sort of a very important, but a bit pragmatic and I gave to it relentlessly. And I did find it quite interesting because then I would learn the narratives, more of really firsthand what was going on in country and not just when I was reading in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, and what have you. And it was in that sort of three or four days that I started to have a bit of a meditation of possibly how to give to the story once entering the realities of Ukraine.
David Campbell: And you, you’ve covered humanitarian crises, refugee situations in other locations. What were the similarities and what were the differences between previous experiences and what you’re encountering on the border?
John Stanmeyer: Really, David, exactly the same as you’d see anywhere. There’s definitely a socio economic difference where—and also the border crossing was on land, versus let’s say, the Rohingya in crisis out of Myanmar, that was going by rafts, you know, that human made rafts, or the Syrian Exodus into Turkey. I don’t know what year that was, when ISIS was ready to take over the cities in Syria along the Turkish border. It reminded me of every conceivable one and you know, whereas let’s say the Haitian Exodus, you know, a few decades ago, again, was on boats. This was just humanity having to flow for the dire need of safety. And maybe, thankfully, if you can find some goodness in any of this, that there was a border, land border crossing, and there was a process to move what is now over 4 million fellow human beings across various borders, whether it was it’s Moldova, Romania, or into Poland. And but no, it was the same dire desperate, enormously depressing— that it could be any one of us. All I kept sort of mantra-ing in my head because I couldn’t help but see it was that’s me, that’s me. It can happen anywhere. I don’t care what part of the world we live in. Everybody thinks in, you know, parts of Europe or United States, everything is so stable. These kinds of things can happen to any of us. And so, it was like, tragically everywhere else.
David Campbell: Yes. And how was access on the border and across—you talked about crossing the border into Ukraine and coming back and so on. How easy was that to do? And did the authorities, whatever authorities there were either on the Polish and Ukrainian side, were they controlling access for journalists and photographers, or where they are allowing pretty free access.
John Stanmeyer: No, you had to be, and thankfully so, you had to be treated as just another person holding this piece of paper we call a passport that allows us to cross these lines. And it was just a noticeable difference if you were a person of color that for whatever reason, you were put into another line. And you were held there or kept there or screened significantly, if not astronomically much longer than anyone else. And this also may have to do with moving Ukrainians out. It was mostly women and children. And it was incredibly cold, it’s still quite cold there, I believe. I’ve been back only barely two weeks. But the evenings are very, very cold and even part of the days. But no, other than the fact that we moved through seemingly very efficiently and greeted again with tea and sweets, but everybody at least, even when the area where those who were not Ukrainians were crossing, within a few days there was an infrastructure set up sort of a welcoming, we call it a welcoming center. It was under a tree. And where, you know, crows sit on in the early morning hours. And fires to keep everybody warm. No, it was like crossing any border is just instead of doing it in airplane, boat or car, you’re doing it on foot and with a massive amount of human beings doing the exact same thing.
David Campbell: And did you feel welcome amongst people crossing the border as a photographer? How did they react to you as a photographer working in in that area?
John Stanmeyer: Very kind. The Polish authorities were very kind. The Ukrainians were incredibly kind. Those fleeing were obviously, to some extent, and I talked to many, understanding why we were there. I don’t recall anybody, you know, not wanting to speak openly about the realities that they were facing. It’s almost as if, in many ways they wanted to express the horrific situations that they were going through. And it really was, like any of these kinds of crises are. No, it was just how do you move so many people across these lines that we call borders in some state of officialdom. Whereas let’s say, using an example that that is more chaotic, the Rohingyan exodus out of Myanmar, or— there was no welcoming committee there at all. And I’m just trying to think of like 10 or 12 that I’ve been to— the Syrian one into Turkey, was finally there were 10,000 people at the border and there was a barbed wire fence. And finally, because ISIS was was moving closer to the border and it was chaotic as can be, the Turkish military cut the fence and in came humanity. I mean, similar but different. But everybody was very welcoming and kind.
David Campbell: So John, you’re gonna show us some photographs from a larger edit and then also show us a short film that you made. Why don’t you start sharing the photographs? A selection of those? Or if you want to start with the film, we can start with that?
John Stanmeyer: No. Well, you had suggested that we talk about the film that I made called War Through Train Windows. And it—well, I should probably unshare the screen as I share this for a second. It, it sort of connects to what you asked me in the beginning, what what are you, did you have a notion of what you’d do there. And again, I didn’t, because I don’t, I do research on every story that I do. But I keep open a vast amount of just fascination and openness to the absolute wonder of not knowing everything and I don’t mean— you want to know as much as you can, of course, but again, when you have preconceived notions or a set idea, you become locked on this track that I find to be for myself too debilitating to express, again, why I’m trying to tell the story. And so it sort of kind of came together, not really at all actually, at the border. And finally, at about five days, seven days, I went into Ukraine, and initially thinking I’m gonna go to the Lviv and be a couple of days there and go on to Kyiv. And pretty quickly, I, like so many other photographers that were there, the train station was sort of the epicenter because that was the the first, not the first, but like a baton, right? Humanity was in like this medley relay of trying to get out of Donbass region or Kyiv, or Oman or wherever in Ukraine. And inevitably the routes or the conduit that moved you was Lviv, the railroad station. And so maybe it’s, sure, the first day I go there, I’m like, Oh, this is, you know, is as insanely overwhelming as I was imagining and what I had been seeing, and but I still didn’t know what I wanted, what my purpose was there for yet. And so I would go every day to the railroad station, and I went, you know, there were always funerals at the church for soldiers that were killed. And they felt kind of not uncomfortable, but like, How many times do I need to keep tormenting a family that’s trying to, you know, bury their child, their son. And I went to one and I thought, you know, this is important, but not when there’s 20 photographers here, in all kindness, needing to be there, I just didn’t feel like that was my place after a while. And I kept going to the station, and it began to like, how do I, how do you understand the magnitude and the heaviness of war, right? Well, you can show the destruction, which is incredibly important to bear witness to the enormous amount of lives lost. But what can I express that humanizes and connects us as human beings on this planet, no matter where you’re from, and I started to notice this stare that was in through these, I’m looking out a window here right now. So I, you know, place myself although I’m here in the comfort of a home and not being invaded or bombed, but the windows of the train of the train carriages, became this, this tome of a stare that I would see repeatedly of losing everything, leaving everything and having not an idea where you’re going. And that was, it took about four or five days to really understand it. And then I spent probably another 10 days, every day going to the railroad station to try to feel and speak to as many people as I could of what it was like to leave everything behind and not knowing where you’re going. Because again, this can connect to all of us, and that I had hoped. And it’s seems to be resonating. The film’s been viewed about 10,000 times, and which is not huge, but I’m very thankful if one person watches it. And you’re very kind to have me here and I have another meeting on zoom over the weekend, Voice of America about the film and another one after that next week. So obviously, there’s some resonation, resonating energy to it. And so the narrative came from this, the stare of where is my life going? Not a clue. You’re you’re beyond walking on the moon, you’re entering a whole other universe that is beyond your control. And again, that can happen to any one of us. So it was patiently, kindly, every train that came in sitting for hours at a time at the station, and then creating some vignettes of the life in the train station. And so anyway, so my apologies if I’m rambling here, but so if you haven’t seen the film, or if you have hope it’s okay that I show it to you again. What am I doing? Frida is here. Okay, so where am I? Oh, so if— Oh, did I do the sharing thing with the voice? Hold on a second. I’m going to stop sharing and apologies, everyone if I’m goofing with your time. Yes. Okay. There may be, there was a little bit of a lag earlier when David and I were trying this. So apologies if there’s a bit of a lag. Let me make this full screen.How do you do that? Like that. Okay, it’s a nine minute film. I won’t trouble you to read all the credits at the end, but a bit of them I hope you can take a moment to watch or read.
John Stanmeyer: I’ll leave this up because it shows how enormous this problem is occurring across our planet.
Anyway hope that was interesting and there’s more to share if— How do I get out of the full window here? There we go. Any questions on this before we jump into— I mean I brought up the Lightroom catalog just to show you sort of the main— Everything was done photographically on 35 millimeter, but I wanted to communicate to the sort of loudest mouthpiece possible which is this thing called social media. And so I created, knowingly, I would move across images. Choosing, there are many different options, especially this— couples having to say goodbye. She’s pregnant. There’s little stories in every aspect of the train window, whether it’s the two girls in this, and another boy here, to Alexandra, another woman here. The trains became this whole complete narrative of what war, I was feeling in the war, and sort of the lines of everything, everything is so firm that humans create, you know, the geometry everywhere was just— I just kept getting pulled into these windows and trying to understand for myself what it all meant in this heavy act of leaving everything behind. And then there’s countless video files to put together. Not that— I had to sort of expand on Premiere, you know, putting it all together in the timeline was a fascinating experience to go through. I did find it oddly dementedly interesting. So anyway, I’m gonna stop sharing. I do have another video if we want to talk about it later. This video, Alex, the piano player, outside of the lobby station. But in case we have questions here, I—
David Campbell: Just a reminder to people in the audience, if you want to pose a question, please do so. Drop them in the q&a box. So a question from Ted, although he thinks that you might have answered this as he was typing, it says, a very powerful and poetic piece of filmmaking. Some of the images suggest that this was initially shot in landscape format, but edited in portrait for social media. Was that the initial intention to reach a particular audience? Was that— and that’s, I think that also for me is the big question. Is the choice of actually making a short film out of the photographs, was it driven by the desire to use social media to get it to a particular audience?
John Stanmeyer: Absolutely. Ted, and David, and Ted, thank you for your for your question. I’m absolutely— that was completely my intent. I don’t see Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, it’s publishing, and it reaches a significant group of our humanity. We are publishers, and it becomes social when we interact with each other. And I knew right away because I love the complexities of the nine by 16 format, how to fill the frame, how to talk within this seemingly narrow landscape, or portrait, or I don’t know the words, it really doesn’t even matter. It’s a canvas of how we’re communicating. Right? And, and we, we talk on these and read and digest on these things that we all are ubiquitous in our hands and our bags and pockets and what have you. And I wanted to talk as loudly as possible to humanity. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t move the story through traditional publishing methods. VII is moving it, but just to already have— I’m so so grateful that already 10,000 eyeballs have seen this film and every day, more and more people are watching it. I want to reach you reach people. And so yes, the vertical format, landscape portrait, I don’t know I mean, it’s all like Woody, Woody Woody, I all I care about is communication and the power that we all have to be able to speak on issues that unite and belong to all of us. I don’t care the format. You could carve it on rocks and do petroglyph art, so long as you’re expressing. That’s what I want us all to do.
David Campbell: Tell us a little bit about the, I mean, when you were making the film, it’s obviously partly photographs, partly you’ve got moving footage, video footage and so on. How is that different to actually just making photographs? I mean, what, as a creative person producing a short film like that versus producing a photograph. So what different processes are you going through what different things are you thinking about? Are you thinking are you thinking about different things?
John Stanmeyer: Oh, yeah, no, no, I have. I have uh uh known to myself a well known, I won’t call it a problem, but I guess it could be. But it’s just how I am. Any story I’m working on, I am constantly creating with this camera that makes phone calls. And so much to the point when I’m working on a story for, let’s say National Geographic, that I’m there to produce a narrative that is going to be ink on paper, I’m 80% of the time making short films, vertical videos, and completely lost in it. I can get, oh my gosh, drops of water coming off of a rain gutter or something like material blowing in the wind, I could be gone for an hour or so. And then I have to go, oh, wait a second, I’m not really here for that. But those narratives, David, that are the periphery have everything to do with why I’m there because they open up this excitement and fascination with everything. So then when I reenter, almost out of a trance in some ways, into where the theater of humanity that I’m in for the story, and let’s say in the train station, it happened to me in the train station all the time, I would get completely engrossed in the waviness of a glass on the train of the car, which actually I think is about three or four seconds or so of that is in the film, of the reflection of the ceiling above and the railroad station. Oh, I probably spent an hour or two completely lost in the reflection of that, and all doing film. So to me, they have a symbiosis together, a deep relationship, that again, I guess could be viewed as a legend problem. But I— the only problem that ever becomes is if I’m working on a story that I’m you know, commissioned and have to be dancing and performing with, let’s say a violin. As much as I want to play the cello or I want to play percussions I need to remember that I’m here to play the violin too. And but I like to play all these different instruments and they expand each one that we’re using, because they’re just tools. And so, and then of course, I get into a rhythm that maybe has a semi pragmatic element to it. I don’t really think so probably. But I don’t like storyboard like, I guess a lot of you know, feature films are storyboarded, even certain documentaries are storyboarded. Everything is elastic and dimensional time and I just find that that’s where my comfort is and putting the film together then here in the Berkshires a week and a half ago, two weeks ago, right away when I came back home, thankfully, all the pieces of this elastic space that I was feeling within was there to tell a nine minute short film that I hope makes you think.
David Campbell: Yeah, I certainly think that what to me what is really effective and affective in terms of emotional about that film is its relationship to time because it does force you as a viewer to stop and go slow, the deliberate use of slow motion, the deliberate use of pausing on images, and so on. Of course, by now, we all have seen a lot of images of people on trains, in Lviv of leaving Ukraine and so on. But this is completely different to that experience of passing quickly through a number of still images when you as a viewer choose to watch and then are taken slowly through this to see how that stare is the same in all those windows. I think it was extremely powerful. And both, as I say, effective and affective.
John Stanmeyer: I was affected by it. And of course immediately, but like writing a composition or I don’t write symphonies but actually a story is like a symphony or a musical score, you’re writing the notes to see and then you pick up whatever instruments that you’re going to perform it on and to see how it sounds or how it moves. Does it move me? Because you really are only talking within your own head. And again, I think it connects back to something that I hope I can give to all of us is to be again in the space of not knowing, so that you’re open to the endlessness of picking up that guitar and playing, you know, lyrics and sounds that you’ve never produced before or felt before. And it’s the same thing with with photography is how to go—and it’s something I’m really working on even more so, David, is how to see beyond the obvious, how to feel first, of course, and then see. And I had a fascinating, beautiful discussion with a mystic earlier this week online, asking those exact same questions for a story that I’m working on for a grant project on on sort of the yeah, because I feel this way and I get this incredible ability to speak with a guru of how do we see beyond what is even just before us to go even beyond what’s within us so that we’re not telling or seeing the universe of our humanity in the same way over and over, because I’m photographing the same madness. I’ve been photographing for decades. And I sometimes feel like I’m not doing my job. Like, if I’m doing my job then I don’t have to see this anymore, but I’m seeing it all the time. So I’m obviously not doing my job. And I can do, I need to do more. And it really is, how do I, we, all of us, but I’ll only speak for myself—how do I go into a deep almost trance of seeing a narrative, a story, a situation, a rock, a tree, a human being in a portrait, doesn’t matter, beyond what I was expecting, or that I’ve already known and or what I’ve felt by other visual communicators. And I don’t know if I did that with this. I’m always a perpetual failure. Because I want to pick myself back up to find a way to even go and express further and it’s I think it’s a spiritual, not a religious spiritual, it’s an internal energy that we, I hope all of us can embrace in the act of photography, let’s say, that we go well beyond the expected of seeing destruction, let’s say in war, or climate change issues, or racial inequality, gender inequality, how do we go and say, I’ve never seen this before, even though I see it all the time in front of me. And I think photography and visual storytelling, it’s always the phrase that we use, but it’s a good one. Are we really telling the stories to the greatest potential that we have within us and within our humanity to actually make change within humanity so that we don’t witness these things over and over? And that’s our role. And it has to come from within us otherwise, we’re just making pictures for ourselves.
David Campbell: Obviously, and you were talking about symphony music and so on. Laszlo is asking and observing that the sound obviously plays an important part in this video and making the video powerful. How did you decide what music to use in this video?
John Stanmeyer: That’s a good point. Laszlo. The interesting thing that— I won’t divert because I’d have to show you the video if you haven’t seen it of the piano player outside of the railroad station playing Hans Zimmer’s song, Time, because I’d only filmed that in order to sort of pick up some ambiance, some ambiant sound and then amazingly, as soon as I press the record button, air raid sirens go off. And it actually, I started actually to communicate with Hans Zimmer’s daughter’s, Zoey Zimmer. But I didn’t want to ask her to ask her father if I could use one of his pieces in the film. But there was a little moment, Laszlo, I will tell you, I felt comfortable enough to do it. But I thought, there’s incredibly gifted musicians in royalty free music. So ethically, you’re not stepping on copyright. And really, it was sort of randomly going through to not be too operatic and not too editorializing, the audio, to make it more emotionally arresting than you know than it needed to be if the visuals didn’t sustain that and I tried various ones, even wrote to the website hoster. First of all, making sure, is this really true, we can use this and you know, you have to give name credit. And in that I donate a little bit to it as well like like the individual source funding, whatever the wording is called. Anyway. There are three songs in that nine and a half minute film. About 20 some seconds of the introduction, and then a longer piece and then the closing credits and I just experimented in Premiere on how to, I know how to edit audio learning video editing was a lot of YouTube videos and a dear friend of mine, Camila Ferrari in Italy, helping me through many zoom calls. But it seemed to flow, Lazlo. I hope that it did. I hope it wasn’t overly melodramatic, but I think the images were of a melodramatic sombering reality. And I think overall, sure, I would love to go and present the film with no music to some incredible talent like Hans Zimmer and say, How would you create a musical score to this? And maybe one day, I’ll do that.
David Campbell: So a question, well comment from Susan. But she’s drawing attention to the fact that the individual portraits in isolation were both very effective and, and affective. And that you mentioned vast numbers of people at the border. But even though you mentioned vast numbers of people, our border, the photographs are all focused on individuals in almost empty spaces. That’s a choice? Talk us through that choice. And why the choice of focusing on individuals when in describing the situation you’re talking about a large number of people?
John Stanmeyer: That’s a very good question. So I, as I think I mentioned in the beginning of this, I did spend nearly a week at the border on the Poland side of the border, and I’m just on another computer, so not in the studio computer. I’m here on a laptop. So the archive is over there. There’s a significant number of images of this mass flow of humanity across the border, which I did for UNICEF and I created as well, on my own right, the first few days, I was there on my own, three days with UNICEF, and then another three days or whatever still on my own. That was to understand. I knew what was going on, of course, but to feel for the only way I can kind of put it is to understand why I’m there and then arriving into in Lviv, thinking I’m going to go to Kyiv. And being so drawn repeatedly to the railroad station, at that point for no understandable reason. The solitude of the individual allowed me to distill the complexities of chaos. And when humanity is in chaos, I can show you countless images of exodus of our sisters and brothers on this planet through these crazy things we call borders. And that’s important too. But I wanted you to, I wanted you to sit with this, I wanted you to realize that you’re sitting in that railway car, maybe one day too. And so that was intentional. And then I did have in some of the video pieces sort of in the tunnels of the of the railway station, the lines and lines of people. This was 24 hours a day. You have to remember the height of the beginning of the war for the first three weeks, some 60,000 people moved, left Ukraine every day. Now it’s still enormous, 10,000 a day. But of the 60,000, leaving various border crossings around Ukraine, a good you know, 10,000 or more, were leaving through this one railway station. And then I had a reflection of the marble facade of the staircases of people moving. So I wanted to show the numbers. But I wanted you to sit with the fact that you or I can be sitting in that same train compartment. And so that was the intentional reason to sit with it, to become, not taken into it, but to to have the solitude of the magnitude of that stare that all of us will one day possibly— I hope it doesn’t happen— of when you leave everything behind.
David Campbell: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of interesting research actually on this question of focusing on individuals versus focusing on a mass of people in images and the sort of effect it has on the audience. And so for people in the audience, I’d actually say that we just published an article on the VII Insider blog on the impact of images, part two, which talks about the social psychological concept of the identifiable victim effect that if photographs focus on individuals, so that they are identifiable victims, they tend to have more powerful effects on audiences. So if you want to delve into that issue, and kind of the research behind that, have a look at that article on the VII Insider blog. It explores that. So that’s fascinating. A related point to exactly what what you’re saying there, John. A technical question from Anthony, did you ever consider shooting this story on film, as opposed to digital?
John Stanmeyer: I respect the question, Anthony. But if I could illustrate it with finger painting, if I could illustrate it with a chisel on wood, if I could illustrate it with film, digital. None of the actual material used to create has any meaningful meaning to me in regards to how we should communicate. Is an image of a starving child more interesting because it’s made on film and it has some grain? I’m not trying to be rude or anything or mean like that. But these are the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves. And it occurred when we you know, now is almost 15 or more years of, you know, when we moved from the film cameras or film, movie cameras, to digital, I never understood or wanted to bother myself with, oh, I’m a purist with film. I could care less. Everything is about communication. So what I wanted to do was film, both my last book I did all with film, but I was using a Holga. And I wanted that giving that that tool, that light tight box gave to that film, if there was a digital Holga, I don’t know, I don’t care. So I respect it. But I hope we can at this point of creating, focus and give relentlessly to telling the story and not— or creating a carving, and not discuss the chisels and the hammers or the soup and not talk about the pot in the ladle that was used to cook the soup.
David Campbell: A couple of questions about the how you felt working there, and so on one from Kay, particularly working in the train station in Lviv, knowing the Lviv was attacked in a number of missile attacks. Did you ever feel in danger at any point? And if so, how did that affect you and the way you worked?
John Stanmeyer: Kay, good question. Yeah, there were air raid sirens repeatedly, not in the beginning. The first couple of days, I don’t recall air raid signs. I even have an air raid app on my phone that I keep on. I can’t seem to let go. I still feel so connected there. No, I mean, I’m not trying to say that I feel jaded by you know, being in enough conflicts or too many conflicts that I’m not affected by it. No. But no, no, I mean, this is a maybe a weird analogy to give. Maybe it has some context, I’ll be vulnerable and share it with you. Often, I used to have a gallery coffeehouse up the road, and just people in general that I meet, but there you’d meet a lot of people and when I was there, and if somebody would say, Oh, where are you off to? You know, and I’d be saying, I don’t know, I’m going to Indonesia or I’m going to Argentina or whatever. Or that I remember one time, Turkey or something like that, because the Syrian crisis was of course, beginning or occurring. And anyway, a common question that I’m asked is, Oh, be careful, you know, be safe. And my response and I still do it today, not to be rude. But I always say Well, thank you very much. You’re very kind. But be safe when you take a shower today. Because just in North America alone, some 30,000 people die slipping in a bathtub. So I put things into context of I can die and get injured slipping down the steps of this incredibly old strange home I live in. So it’s, I’m aware of my vulnerability in every dimension that I’m moving, whether I’m crossing the street, or I’m in Lviv, or I’m in, in the frontlines of Kyiv, or in Donbass, you, you make the decision to put yourself in that theater of humanity. But remember, every day, you have the ability to be in another theater of humanity that’s around us all the time, and anything can happen. I was more concerned on how so many people were affected having to leave for their safety, just to come to a relatively safe place like Lviv that was getting missile strikes, you know, one kilometer away two kilometers from the railroad station. And that’s my primary focus.
David Campbell: And from Patrick, what was that like sharing and listening to the story of those beautiful people you photographed on the train carriages? Did you work with or through an interpreter?
John Stanmeyer: Hey, Patrick, that’s good to see Patrick. I know, Patrick. No, because I was funding this myself. And so I would use Google Translate a lot. And it’s amazing what— Sure, it’d be great to have a translator. But I can’t print the economics to be able to employ a lot of people when I’m on my own narratives. And then I’d have beautiful in-depth conversations actually, through this strangely wonderful thing called Google Translate. And then amazingly, quite a few people did speak enough English. So, and those I did not get names from I would try quite often. Because they’re behind the window. I would even write on my phone in Ukrainian, you know, what is your name, and then they, they’d so politely tried to tell me and I couldn’t hear them. And then the train would leave, right. But I always humanize to the best of my ability, everyone that I meet, to try to get to know them. Because names mean something and connecting. But it is quite interesting that now, due to technology, we have the ability to actually communicate. Would I like to have a— there’s another part of me, Patrick, is that I’ve really enjoyed working alone. And not that I, I work with incredibly kind family friends that we call fixer translators, but they’re really family, they’re friends. And they’re, it’s beautiful. But I also have another part of me, especially when I’m working on a narrative like this, to again, maybe be a little more liquid, while still being in a connection with the others. And in this case, using technology, and so I had no problem communicating with people.
David Campbell: So we’re coming towards the end of our time, but I’ve got a couple more questions to finish off with one from from Bob, do you have plans to return? And if so, are you going to focus on the same sort of story or you’re going to focus on another story or different aspects of the story?
John Stanmeyer: No, yes, I plan to return I just submitted, I came back because I wanted to do this film, but also the could have done it there. But I needed to apply for a grant that I just submitted like an hour before joining you here. I need to do taxes, although I realize now I have to delay and apply for an extension because I’m way behind. And I need to edit a little more on a book that I was editing before leaving. I may go to Jordan on another project in early May. In fact, I will. So anyway, I needed to pull out, to think a little bit. And when I go back, what will I do? In all love and absolute humility, I don’t know. And, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that in talking to a friend of mine who was with me, a photographer named Haley. We spent a lot of time together in Ukraine. And we were just messaging, talking to each other yesterday, I guess it was, um, you know, going back and you know what, what to do and I said, I don’t know, I’m in a meditation of it. And I probably will have some notion of what I will do when I go back in two weeks, three weeks. But to be honest, I want to go in it before remotely saying that I know it.
David Campbell: A message from Stefan. Your perspective was to look at people gazing out of the window. Did you ever think about the perspective from the other side, that is photographing from the mostly the perspective of the women and children looking onto the platform?
John Stanmeyer: I did and I do have some pictures of it. But the narrative is— everything we do, you could say is editorializing, right? Anytime we position our camera, using the camera that’s always with me. I am— if I’m right here, I’m choosing to view what’s right in front of me. And there’s all sorts of stuff to the left and the right of me as well. Right? So I could say that I’m editorializing by going over here, I’m going over there. Editorializing isn’t really the right word, but there has some connection to it. When I brought in the perspective of from within the train it, it didn’t feel again, that sense of I wanted you to stick with it, and I wanted you to be in it. And then I thought about taking the train to leave Ukraine and, and maybe filming from that perspective. But I didn’t want to occupy a seat the needed to be with somebody who was really having to get out of there, who had come from a much further away place than Lviv. And so it’s a good question, but I wanted you to specifically sit with this, this touchable but untouchable reality that can touch all of us.
David Campbell: So for a final question from Mark, this is actually about media coverage in the US and similar countries. He says images and stories of the Russian invasion of Ukraine much more widely seen and told in US media than the massive bombing of civilian structures and infrastructures like hospitals, schools, power in Mosul, an Iraqi city of similar size as Kyiv. Why is the difference so stark? I mean, first of all, do you think the difference is stark? And if so, why do you think the difference is stark? How do we think about different types of coverage? Different levels of coverage from different situations?
John Stanmeyer: Incredibly important question, Mark. I thought about it, really, right at the beginning of even beginning of the war in the build up, right? There was so much information about the the early movement of this conflict for weeks from I’m going to use the New York Times and friends of mine, Brendan Hoffman, Tyler Hicks, I think Lynsey Addario came in early as well. And why was it? I don’t read the paper as printed paper because I just don’t want to waste all the paper. And I read it and subscribe electronically to a couple of different newspapers. And why was it always let’s say top of the fold, right or top of the top of the website, banner? And I do recall, you know, from the Iraq war, war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, it would be on the top, I guess, of the website. But not this sort of relentless way, in an important way, as well, of what was taking place, what has been taking place in Ukraine. My only way that I’ve been able to somehow wrap myself around it is because the aggressor in this case, Russia, is an aggressor that looks to be aggressive beyond Ukraine, which, and this doesn’t justify it, Mark, whatsoever. Because the intolerance that this place that I happen to live in and I happened to be born here, and I had no choice that I was born here, of what this government has done in other parts of the world is is quite egregious in many ways. But this invasion, this war that Russia is having against and in Ukraine, a sovereign nation. That it— because it’s Russia and the magnitude of it is existential and physical, not just existential, but the physical stress threat that it has into Europe and the domino effect that it is already creating without even much of a human involvement of other militaries involved is for whatever reason, and I’m not the editors of the newspaper, right? Maybe that question is something, it would be a great conversation that’ll be coming up in I’m sure the weeks and months and years ahead from editors who make these decisions of why is Ukraine on the top of my website of The New York Times, Washington Post every day. I don’t again—but there’s been a lot of full pages of the front page of The New York Times dedicated to it. I remember one seeing online and the Ukrainian flag the entire cover, I have a copy of the beginning days of COVID in the in the basement, because I thought it was quite historical of like, I don’t know, 20,000 names of people who died of COVID, across the whole cover. I remember seeing even recently as a week or so ago, after the Bucha became liberated, and the entire cover of a body bag. You know, why didn’t that happen for Mosul? Why didn’t that happen in countless other times? I’m not, I can’t give you an answer. My opinion is what I shared— this threat to Europe which, why didn’t Mosul in Iraq and Syria— it frustrates me just as well. I don’t have a good answer. I don’t have anything meaningful other than it bothers me and I don’t have those editorial decisions.
David Campbell: Well, we could go on for a long time. But time is actually up.
John Stanmeyer: Thank you to David here. I see David in Australia has kindly been here. And Ted, you have a question here. So John, you feel in the trance, do you intentionally— I don’t like the word shoot. Only guns shoot. Do I make video and stills with the intention or is it my inspiration in the moment? I would say it’s a bit of both. The intention is oh, I’m there. I’m here. And it’s so incredibly interesting, even if it’s horrific. I try not to be interested in horrific, but I can’t help being overwhelmed by it. And then it’s intentional with absolute fascination, as I mentioned, of, you know, getting interested in little tiny things that are moving or the sun, how it’s moving against a ripple piece of glass, that I have no idea what it’ll be or have any purpose for. But it has every purpose to give some sense of consciousness of why I’m there. And, again, maybe it connects to how I mentioned earlier on every story that I do, I get lost in the periphery of everything having to catch myself going, oh, wait a second, I’m not here for that. Right? Then I also remind myself, but I’m here for that, I have to be open to it, I have to be present to it, I have to give to it. Because in that space and dimension so much is given to us so that I can learn to see beyond what’s right in front of me.
David Campbell: Fantastic, John, as always, you know, you’ve really articulated the way you think, the way you work, and and what you do. And I know that looking at the comments coming in for people in the audience, they’re very, very appreciative of the way that you open yourself up to this and to them for this experience. This is the purpose of having these sorts of events to disclose this thinking and allow people to ask questions. So we really appreciate your time.
John Stanmeyer: Thank you to everyone who’s who’s given your time. Your time to me is even more precious. So thank you for, for being here with us. And thank you, David, for what you do and the VII Foundation, Photo Wings and the VII Photo Agency, the VII Academy. None of this can be done without the combined effort of just a bunch of human beings coming together here, trying to give love and awareness and expand humanity in some way I hope.
David Campbell: So thank you very much, everyone. Thanks again, John. Stay safe. And we’ll see you again soon.
John Stanmeyer: Thank you. Thank you so much, everyone. Thank you, David.
David Campbell: Bye
John Stanmeyer: Bye-bye.