War and Sexual Identity: Ilvy Njiokiktjien’s Report on the LGBTQI Community in Lviv, Ukraine

Ten million Ukrainians have been displaced by the Russian invasion – 6.5 million people are internally displaced, and 3.5 million have fled the country becoming refugees in the process. Amongst those displaced are members of Ukraine’s LGBTQI community, who are thought to be among the designated targets of a Russian campaign to oppress sectors of the community, and names of LGBTQI activists have apparently appeared on Russian kill lists.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien went to Lviv on 11 March to cover everyday life in the city (listen to her audio dispatch from Lviv for more details) and while there she started work on a personal project to document the LGBTQI community in Lviv as they cope with the consequences of the Russian invasion.

In this event, Ilvy presents the first images from her project and what she hopes to achieve with the story – one that documents both the love stories and the atrocities, as well as the community’s dreams for the future, and what that future might be if Russia succeeds in its brutal campaign.


David Campbell: I really appreciate the partnership with Photo Wings because it enables us to do a lot of things very quickly. We’ve been doing quite a lot on VII Insider related to Ukraine, obviously with audio dispatches from various people including Ilvy in Ukraine. We’ve heard from Ron Haviv in Kyiv, Eric Bouvet in Kyiv. One last week from Maciek Nabrdalik has been reporting the refugee story on the Poland-Ukraine border. And we’re going to have an upcoming event in two weeks time with John Stanmeyer looking at his work covering refugees as well. But today, we wanted to take the advantage of speaking with Ilvy about her trip to Lviv in Ukraine, the reason for going, the work you did there. And then the personal projects that you embarked upon there. Tell us, to start with, Ilvy, what made you go to Ukraine? What was the what was the driving force behind that? And how did you arrange it in the first instance?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it was, when the war broke out, it was for me a different feeling, though, compared to all the other major news events that I have seen happening in the last 15 years working as a photojournalist. The main reason being it was so outrageous, but also it was on our doorstep. It’s so close— Lviv to Amsterdam is the same distance as Amsterdam to Barcelona, which is a place I visit quite often. So it felt all of a sudden, like, Wow, this is here. So I knew instantly I wanted to go. But if you don’t have an assignment right away, what my general feeling in those first days of the war was that a lot of the images were already being made. So I waited about a week. And then I realized I want to make a more in-depth story, not necessarily all the hard news, but more kind of behind the news, which is has always been my way of storytelling. But I had to find astory. So yeah, I started researching and then found a few angles I could work on. And then I started planning my trip to Ukraine. So it took a while.

David Campbell: So when you were doing that research, that was when you decided to cover the LGBTQI community. What was it that attracted you to the story about that community as something in the midst of a conflict?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, I have always, as a photographer, when I used to still work for the Dutch Press Agency, which is about eight, maybe even 10 years ago now, I used to photograph the Eurovision Song Contest every year. And I’m not that much into the festival itself or into the music necessarily, although I think it’s an amazing, big, I mean, it’s so huge. But from working with the Eurovision Song Contest on a yearly basis in different parts of the world. I knew that LGBTQI rights— because the festival draws a lot of, especially gay men—and I knew from the different countries I visited, that the rights throughout the world, of course, are not similar to the Netherlands where I grew up where gay marriage is legal and people can have children together, and so on and so on. And I started reaching out to the community because I realized, Hey, I wonder how they are doing during this time. And also because I know that Putin and I mean, in Russia, the LGBTQI community also has a very difficult position. So I knew when the invasion started that this would be a story on the ground for sure. So when I started reaching out to organizations, yeah, they told me it actually is.

David Campbell: And were they interested in the fact that you were reaching out? Were they surprised that you were reaching out? Did they think it was a story that was going to be covered in the midst of of the conflict?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, that’s a good question, because when I first reached out, which was, I think, maybe the fifth day after the invasion, the organization— I had reached out to four different organizations and many of them were like, Oh, wow, you want to put the spotlight on us? No one has really reached out yet. And I was surprised because I was thinking, Putin has such a big thing against the LGBTQI’s, for me, the story was quite logical to think of right away. But no one had reached out yet in those early days, which of course, makes sense because everyone was focused on the news. But because I reached out so early, I think it really helped the storytelling later on, because by the time I arrived in Ukraine, I had already been in contact with people for two, two weeks, two and a half weeks. So you know, you, you gain trust, and you learn about different people, and you learn different stories. So by the time I arrived, it was easy to just find the people and then to be connected to new people. But they were surprised. And there was also one person who I reached out to who said, I don’t know what, how he put it exactly, but I asked, I would like to photograph you during this invasion, and someone else reached out to this person as well. And they said, We would like to see what the world looks like being LGBTQI in a country that is now being taken over by Russia, and the tone of voice of that other person/ journalist reaching out, didn’t really, they weren’t too happy about the way the wording was, like Russia is already taking over, Ukraine has lost already kind of email, kind of had that kind of tone of voice. And I reached out in a different way to say, I want to know what your life is currently, like, just your day-to-day life, what is it like? And apparently, that also helped to kind of win the trust a bit more and to be included into the community with my camera.

David Campbell: But that’s a good example of asking questions that are listening to what the community is thinking itself and so on, rather than coming up with a further conclusion saying, well, invasion, Russia is successful, now you guys are victims. What’s happening? You are asking about everyday life.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Exactly. And it made a big difference. I don’t actually think I would have been able to tell the story if I would have had my wording in a different way. Because, yeah, this person told me right away, they didn’t let the other journalist in because of that one sentence. And I was like, Oh, I’m lucky I used another one. Because it’s such a fragile line you’re kind of walking on and yeah, I was happy. I Yeah. And in the end, this was the person, Lenny Emson of KyivPride, who connected me to all the people in my final reportage. So that’s how you can see how important that can be to, yeah, to walk some lines.

David Campbell: Yeah. But it’s also a good example of the need to do two weeks, three weeks research before going somewhere. If you had just arrived and started to make connections, you would have perhaps struggled to have done the story, if you, compared to what the response you got doing the research. Do you think that’s—

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes. 100%. And also, I think, if I would have just arrived, and I would not have had the contact—I was just me, by myself, alone working on this story. No fixer, no journalist. I had a fixer for one day kind of connecting me. But yeah, I was pretty much by myself. So if you have to work on a story like that, you really want to be well prepared because when you’re on the ground, you want to be shooting and not want to be only organizing things.

David Campbell: Yeah, yeah. So tell us, I mean, you said that you were attracted, because Lviv is close, it’s European and sort of on the European horizon, imagination, etc. But how do you get that into into into a war zone as an individual wanting to cover a story? How do you arrange transport? How do you arrange insurance? What are the logistical things that you had to go through to make that trip possible?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, to be very honest, I struggled a bit, not because I didn’t know what to do. But because half of Europe was—half of the world was moving towards Ukraine to cover this— half of the journalism world. So for instance, in the Netherlands, we have an organization that all year round lends out flak jackets and helmets. But of course, by the time I reached out to them, let’s say a week into the war, all these jackets were already gone. And all the helmets were gone. And they said well, sorry, you are too late. So then I tried to buy them somewhere and you couldn’t anymore. Yeah, it was really difficult. So in the end, it was the Dutch army that helped out. They gave me a jacket and a helmet. But it was a green flak jacket, which is quite dangerous because you look like an army person—

David Campbell: Rather than the normal blue one that press would have.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: With press on it. Yeah. So what I did, I bought a blue shirt to wear over it. And I had like duct tape with press on it. In the end. To be honest, I didn’t wear the jacket at all, because in Lviv no one was really wearing the jacket. It wasn’t a conflict zone in that sense. It was, but not— yeah, we didn’t wear the jackets there. So. But that was the one part that kind of held me back, I would say two days, just trying to arrange this jacket because I didn’t want to leave without it. What happened on the first day of the war, of the invasion. sorry, is that my, what do you call it, insurance, which is specifically for journalists and also for conflict areas, when the invasion happened on the 24th of February, I got an email that said the insurance is cancelled. Even though I have been paying for 12 years. So here I was also without insurance for my equipment and my own—for me my, yeah. So I had to find a new insurance. And so there was a lot to organize. And then of course, the travel there. At one stage, I figured I would drive because it’s not far. But then to me, it was a bit too scary. Because I’m by myself, I’m a woman, I, you know, like, I just didn’t know if my car would really be be handy to have in Ukraine. And at the time of leaving, I also didn’t know if I would be going to Kyiv or go to Odessa or go to Lviv. I wasn’t sure exactly where I would go. So then I decided I will book a flight to Poland. And then from there on, I was gonna go by train. In the end, it all went differently. But because the train was too full, we couldn’t go in or I couldn’t go in. So I kind of hitchhiked from the Ukrainian border to Lviv with people that I met at the border that ended up being of the Foreign Legion and they took me to Lviv.

David Campbell: Right. So the trains were full of people going into Ukraine.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, it was actually— I went from Krakow to PrzemyÅ›l, I think it’s called. And yeah, it’s a border town, the Medyka border in Poland. And then yes, the train was full of people from that town to Lviv. There were people going in as well, which, after I moved out of Ukraine a couple of days ago, it keeps surprising me there were people moving in. I mean, of course. I mean, some people have to go get their parents or get, you know, there’s different reasons of going back. But yeah.

David Campbell: Yeah, if people haven’t listened to it yet the audio dispatch that that Maciek did with me on Friday, which we published yesterday. He also talks about that, because he’s obviously started from the very first moment covering people leaving Ukraine. But he talks about the moment when he suddenly saw movement going the other way, as well. And it’s Foreign Legion, but also females, individuals who just felt a compulsion to go back sometimes because of family sometimes because of other reasons. And that’s not been covered very much.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No. I only realized, because when I was going in, I was focused on my LGBTQI story. And I was on a general assignment for Der Spiegel as well for a couple of days. So I was focused on that. And I only realized when I was leaving, when I saw these people going into Ukraine, I thought, hey, this is a story but I was on my way out I was on my way to Krakow to catch a plane back. But I realized how there were people crying and hugging each other at the border crossing into Ukraine. It was really heartbreaking.

David Campbell: So tell us a little bit about Lviv and what you found in Lviv and perhaps you can share some of the images that you made just of everyday life and in Lviv itself because, as you said, it’s not specifically on a frontline quite like Kyiv and other towns but of course there have been missile strikes and it’s very much a target in that sense. But what did you find and what did it look like?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I’ll share. There we go. So these are some of the images are took. I would say what surprised— this is when I arrived. And the first thing that I noticed is how beautiful the city is. What I found very interesting about Lviv, which I couldn’t even get my, wrap my head around in the first days that I was there, was the fact that the air sirens were going off at least four or five times a day. They air raid sirens. So the first moment it went off was actually when I was in my first night in Lviv sleeping in a bed. At 3:30 it went off. And it was so loud. I think the alarm was attached to the building actually that I was in, it was unbelievably loud. But the people that I was staying with, I was sleeping at a refugees family’s house, they didn’t go into the shelter. The next day on the street, I also noticed many people don’t go into the shelter. And then I learned they don’t go into the shelter, because so many of them were used to the sirens happening already throughout the last days. But then there was a bombing in Yavoriv, the military base, which is just a little outside of Lviv city. And after that happened, the bomb shelters were much fuller the next day because people all of a sudden realized, and this was on my second or third day there when this happened, they realized, Oh, the sirens are not just there, you know, things can really happen. So there were more people underground by that time. Here you have, so this was below an office building. And also below the press center, because there are hundreds, maybe even like I’ve heard numbers of like 2000 people, journalists in Lviv registering at the accreditation center, the Lviv journalism accreditation center. And this is the shelter underneath this journalism center. So a lot of the people who work there would go to the shelter as well. And I think for me, that was the most surprising part that daily life was happening, just kind of, for instance, like this, a normal church that was still a church, there was a service in there when I took this picture, I went in as well to photograph the service. But at the same time you see the sandbags, there’s a wooden frame, or wood plywood right behind it, because there is a statue of Jesus underneath the church. And so daily life is on. But it’s not, you know, so you see there is things in this daily life that are— this is a quiet moment when the sirens were going off, for instance. So all of a sudden, on that third day, it was kind of clearing when the sirens would go off. And this is just a regular park with, again, a shelter where people would go in. But the thing that surprised me most was actually the people shopping. The people, there were refugees being put on, they were they were taken, they were offered city tours, in a little one of these that you have in like Disney World, one of these little trains that run through town, and they were doing city tours just also because the refugees were of course, after being there for two weeks, bored. What are you going to do if you have three children and you’re stuck and you have nothing to do? So you go shopping or walking in the streets or you go on a city tour of Lviv, and at the same time, there’s a war. So yeah, so it’s a very double feeling. And yeah, sorry, go ahead.

David Campbell: Just on the the number of journalists and so on. Do you have to be accredited to be working as a journalist in Lviv? And what sort of controls or checks are there once you get accredited, and then you’re moving around the town and photographing and interviewing people and so on?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, good question. I was really lucky someone sent me the accreditation form on the third day of war. And I filled it out and then I received this pass in my email and I would have not been able to properly work without it. Although there were many journalists without, but what happens there is a night curfew from, let me think, til 10 at night til six in the morning, and especially on the LGBTQI story, I was out late at night. And if you had the pass, you could actually walk freely at night. It will be very, quite scary to be honest. There was nothing, no one in the streets, except for a few policemen. And if you would be out all by yourself, they would check you. They would check me every 10 minutes someone would check my accreditation. So I was very lucky I had it because I was working a lot late at night with the LGBTQs. So but to be honest, during the day, no one would really check it. You’re not allowed to photograph any military structures, but the soldiers themselves walking the streets, they didn’t really mind that much. But for instance, the the what do you call it like the civil? Like the municipality house, like official buildings?

David Campbell: The town halls.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, exactly. Local council, city council. Yeah, that’s the word I was looking for. They would stop you, you couldn’t really take pictures of it properly, you could try but they didn’t want you to. Yeah, but for instance, these images at the train station, that was a place where you could freely photograph. The only official people, there were a few policemen and women, sometimes some military, but they would never ask you anything, you could walk freely.

David Campbell: And how did the people you are photographing at the, at the station, the people moving in and out of Lviv? How did they react to being photographed? Were you interacting with them? How did you approach the issue of consent with them and handle that?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I really struggled the first day, mainly because I had seen many images of the train station already. And I was, I arrived at the train station and it was full of people. And I don’t know, maybe I’m too shy to be a photojournalist sometimes, because I just felt bad to start pointing my camera at these people who are in total despair. At a certain stage, I was, I was just taking, like, overall kinds of pictures with many people on it. But to get these kinds of pictures, I was sitting down with people chatting to them. So sometimes these kinds of pictures look like they were like a snapshot, you know, like you take them easily, but I just couldn’t. So I sat down and asked people where are you going? Or where where did you come from? And I wrote down a lot of the names of people as well.

David Campbell: And how— and when you engage them in conversation, how did you feel that they responded to your presence? Were they—did they mind being the subject of images? Were they happy that people were covering those stories you have? What was their kind of—did you get a feeling from them about that?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it was very, like a double, like everywhere. When you work with people, you will find different people everywhere. So at a certain stage, I don’t think I have a picture of it here. Let me check. No, I don’t. It wasn’t the most important picture anyway. But at a certain stage at the train station, the air raid sirens went off. So everyone had to go into shelter, which at the train station meant they had to go into the like the corridors that lead up to the —what do you call it where these people are working on—

David Campbell: The platform.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: The platform. So before getting onto the platform, you were kind of in a tunnel. And that tunnel served as a shelter during the air raid. So when the air raid sirens went off, everyone was kind of crammed into this big tunnel. And the light was beautiful. And I just started shooting away and then a woman started screaming at me. Well, how dare you take pictures and I could so understand the feeling because even though I was taking an overview picture, she was standing there with all her bags with three children, and I felt so horrible, and at the same time, I felt like, yeah, I’m not singling you out. It’s, but I could understand her. So that was one of the first moments that are— the only actually—that I found someone that was very angry with me taking pictures, and I can totally understand. So it was after that, that I started just first kind of speaking to people and not just taking pictures. And besides me feeling much better about working this way, usually, and also here, it was a lot of the women with children saying thank you for portraying this. Thank you so much for being here. They were very surprised to see a female photographer going into the country, because for many of them, it wasn’t like there were so many photographers that they already encountered, 25 colleagues, you know, so for a lot of them I was the first or second photographer they bumped into. So they were really surprised, like asking me a lot of questions like what does your partner think of this? Your family? And why— are you sure you don’t want to come on the train to Poland with us? Do you really want to stay here? Yeah. So but they were happy that stories were being made and being told as well. Definitely.

David Campbell: Yeah, I think that you can see from, certainly these last two or three photos that you’re showing here, these would not be possible without a conversation and a relationship with people. There’s an intimacy to them and the people that they’ve stopped thinking about you being there. And, you know, they’re just focused on their own situation in that.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I’m still in contact with this girl actually, because a lot of the people I wrote down phone numbers because I figured maybe I can follow up where they are going. And so we are. She’s in Leipzig now in Germany. And she keeps sending me messages saying, I just want to go back. I want to it’s horrible here. And I know Germany and I love Germany. So—and but of course, it’s horrible. They want to go home. They’re like, it’s horrible here. I don’t want to be here any longer. And her baby is two months old. So of course you want to be home.

David Campbell: It’s not about Leipzig. It’s about the fact it’s not home.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. We hate it here.

David Campbell: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, let’s move to the LGBTQI story and show us some images from that and talk us through kind of, you know, what’s the what’s the most was the main theme and the main purpose of that story. And also, just to remind people in the audience, if you want to drop a question in for Ilvy, put it into the q&a box. I’ll bring that into the conversation at the end as we go along. So yeah, tell us tell us a bit about who you photographed, why and what the purpose of the story is.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So I knew two things before starting this story. So the one was that when I photographed people from all around the world, mainly gay men during the Eurovision Song Contest from all their stories, I knew that in countries like Ukraine and Azerbaijan, it was very difficult for them. So I already knew if I would reach out to the community in Ukraine, that they would probably have the stories because I knew that gay marriage in Ukraine is not legal. And, and now with the invasion, I feel they are a special group, because if Russia would take over for a long, much longer period than this, they would be, well, the way they put it is we will be put back in time, decades, you know, like, whatever rights we fought for within Ukraine, they would be lost. So when I started reaching out to them, one of the first people I bumped into through Lenny Emson, actually, of KyivPride was Anton, the guy that you see here with the kind of pink outfit. And he and his partner are from Kyiv. But I pictured them in Lviv in what is actually the locker room of a restaurant. And he became quite a key figure for me, because he introduced me to many other people. And he is running a shelter, as well, for LGBTQI’s in Lviv and this was kind of like an underground—it used to be a bar underground. And now it’s it’s hosting people, LGBTQI’s, but also non LGBTQI’s. And he himself is not staying there, but he’s staying around the corner in a restaurant, which also hosts many people from the community. And he told me in the first place when he said yes to being part of this, that in a way, he didn’t want the LGBTQI’s to look like they are a special group in this war. Because he’s like, we’re just normal people. But, he also said we are normal people. The war is now the big story. So it’s not necessarily that we want to be highlighted in that sense. But he also said I don’t want to be gay in this Ukraine anymore. Meaning that if Ukraine would be put back decades in time, if Russia would take over, he would basically leave, I want to go somewhere else. So when he said that, to me, I realized, okay, so yeah, you want to feel like any other people in this war or any other person, but you are definitely a different group. So then we started chatting with all of these LGBTQI people. I had long, long conversations. I think I spoke to them at length, longer than I took pictures actually. Long sit down conversations and their main fear is two things. The rights for LGBTQI’s in Ukraine are basically zero already. But in recent years, a lot of the community fought for better acceptance by having a gay pride parade— sorry, the parade in Kyiv. There’s always lots of police there. And it’s totally blocked off from the public. So there are gates around it with police and military. And then you have the parade, which kind of runs through that. But there’s no public, they are, it’s far from the public. But at least there is a parade. So the acceptance is growing, and they are afraid they will lose all of this. On the other hand, they’re also afraid of the assumed— the kill list that American media mostly wrote about in the early days of the invasion, is the fact that there are probably killed lists made by Putin or in the Kremlin, having, yeah, names of LGBTQI’s on it, especially the outspoken ones that are, for instance, the director of certain organizations or people that spoke out against Russia in earlier years. So yeah, that’s their main fears.

David Campbell: Yeah. Take us through some more images of this. And is this intended to be principally a portrait project? Is that the main sort of—?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, good question. Actually, the selection that I made now, as you can see, is all portraits, because that was, how—I’ll go through them. But that was my main idea. When I started, I wanted to make a portrait series. But then I realized there was also a lot to do in their day-to-day life, because a lot of them are now in these shelters. So what I did, I portrayed them mostly on their beds in their temporarily shelters. So this is in an LGBTQI shelter. And the person on the left is a trans woman. So born as a male, now trans transforming to female, and she wants to cross the border. But she can’t, because the her passport has an M in it stating that she was born a male, and males between the age of 18 and 65 are not allowed to leave the country. Yeah, so she is stuck. But she is going to try to cross this week probably. So yeah, I was really regretting that I couldn’t be there longer because I would love to photograph also when she’s trying to pass through the border. But yeah, well, while shooting the portraits—I mean, you don’t just walk in and take a portrait of someone. You spend a lot of time so I would spend a couple of days with everyone. Yes. Then of course, I also photographed day-to-day life, I think.

David Campbell: Just while you’re waiting, the Anastos was asking whether they can follow up with some specific questions regarding the LGBTQIA theme. Yes, absolutely.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Definitely.

David Campbell: Q&A box, ask anything, we will answer anything.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So the day-to-day life, of course for them looks similar or very much the same to other people now living in Lviv. I mean images like this I could have made with any other person passing by this church. But in the story, you will read the extra layer to it, why they feel so much more targeted because of these kill lists, because they’re so afraid to lose what they built up already. Let me see. So this is the, let me see, right here. This is the LGBTQI shelter that Anton, the guy in the red shirt, he works with an organization called Fulcrum. And they are an organization that fights for the rights of the LGBTQI in Ukraine, so when the invasion happened, they found the place instantly like an old bar on the ground that they are now trying to build into, yeah, into a shelter. But it was very difficult because the bar had been closed since COVID. So two years. So there was mold on the walls, minus two degrees, everything was wet, all the walls were wet, though it was not possible to live there. Because of the great influx of all refugees coming in, they just had to take the place and rent it because it was that or nothing. So they rented this place and on the picture here you see how they are trying to fix the kitchen. They were had to make showers.They just organized as days go by basically. And this was, this was quite an interesting meeting. A lesbian couple. The woman in blue is Tamara, and I met her actually working at another LGBTQI center. And when the war started, she and her girlfriend and the two sons, they went from Kyiv to Lviv. And they luckily already had an apartment there because Tamara’s grandmother had an apartment there, and she passed away and they kept the apartment basically. So they took their two sons and two cats, and they just went on the train, and, and arrived there. And then she realized, okay, I want to be doing something during the day. So she decided to work as a volunteer at an LGBTQI shelter. And that’s where I met her. And it was a really strange moment, if I can share I don’t know, that’s okay. I was interviewing them. And Gleik, the son with red pants, actually, both sons, they spoke a little bit of English. And I was interviewing Tamara and her wife about what it is like to be lesbian in Ukraine and to live together as a family. And if they could hold hands in the streets, well the answer was no, and, and while I was talking, I asked her, So who did you in your group of friends, who did you tell that you are lesbian? Like? Do you tell people? Do you tell your family? And they didn’t tell anyone. And then she said, we didn’t even tell our children. And they were standing right there. And they spoke a bit of English. So I turned red. I’m like, I’m so sorry. You know, like, they now find out because of us, like, because of me asking these questions. And then Tamara said, well, actually, I think the boys have figured it out by now. But we don’t want to tell them because we are afraid they will go to school and tell their friends. Exactly. And the friends will tell the parents and that the other parents will look at this family thinking, oh, there’s something wrong there. So that’s how hidden the community actually can be in Ukraine in some instances.

David Campbell: Yeah, that’s a very good example. Because it’s very good sense of kind of what the state of play of LGBTQI rights is in Ukraine, even before the invasion and how—

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s also what all of them said. They were like, can you imagine what it will be like after? And one of them also mentioned something interesting is that when this invasion is over, which is hopefully soon, the focus will be on rebuilding the country and definitely not on LGBTQI rights, something that was becoming a bit closer to them in recent years, it will now be on the bottom of the list, of course, because whole cities have to be rebuilt, the whole country would have to be rebuilt. So yeah. Not a priority.

David Campbell: Yeah. And when members of the community, you know, the people in the train station were surprised to see you as a female photographer going into Ukrain and doing these stories. Were members of the community, the LGBTQI community surprised to see you there doing this story and how did they react to you? I mean, you made contact with certain people so that will have helped smooth away and so on. But say, when you’re interviewing the previous couple, you know, were they asking you questions about the why you were there, and so on?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, they were. But I think the main topic became what is Amsterdam like for LGBTQI’s? Because a lot of people were, of course, looking for places to go to. Even though like during the invasion, but also after so first of all, of course, they were very surprised that photographers and journalists were moving in like this, so many of them. They weren’t surprised because of the story, but because of the danger. Everyone was fleeing Kyiv like this family, and they saw journalist going the other way. So they’re like, Oh, wow. So they did feel it was, to them, that just seemed crazy, in a way. But I think the most questions that people had towards me was, how difficult is it to go to the Netherlands? Can we walk hand in hand there in the bigger cities? And I was like, yes, you can get married, you can register your children. And you know, it’s all is quite arranged. So I think the most of the discussion was about that. And I was really surprised. For a community that that where certain people might be on a kill list—I will show you one guy that is thinking he is for sure on the kill list—that they were quite open about sharing their stories, some of them, all of them wanted their face shown because they feel pride as well. They’re like we are here we exist. You know, this is our face. Not all of them wanted their full names out there, but all of them were with their faces, so. I will show you one guy. Oh, yeah, this happened when I was with this family at the— Tamara and her family— the air raid siren went off again. And they don’t have a basement. So they heard somewhere, that it’s safer to have two walls between you and the outside. So when the siren would go off, they wouldn’t stay in the living room. But they would move to the hallway. So they would stand or sit in the hallway like this. And sometimes for like, three, four hours until the sirens would stop again. Yeah.

David Campbell: So the sirens would go for a very long period of time.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, what basically happens, and I only figured that out after a couple of days, is that it goes off for a few minutes and then it stops and you think, Oh, now it’s fine. But that’s not it, it goes off, then it stops. And then the next time when the alarm goes, that’s when it stops. But sometimes. So there’s a beginning and end are long. Sometimes there were three or four hours in between. It can be really long.

David Campbell: Yeah. So there’s a question from Andre. I mean, you touched on this point, just then about people on kill lists, but they’re asking, I’m curious, especially when showing people that may potentially be on kill lists, how do you navigate that, as it may represent a danger for them even if they want to have their faces shown?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well, that’s a really good question. And it was one of the main questions I had when I realized the community was quite open to me. I think as a photographer, I can have quite an— especially being a female photographer, it’s quite easy, usually to, for people to trust me. And sometimes they go over their own boundaries that like, their own line that they kind of made, for instance of not wanting to show their face. So I always have to ask eight times, like, Are you sure? Are you really sure. And then I am the one who’s usually saying, Okay, this will appear on the internet, it might not ever be deleted off the internet again, you know, like so. Anyways, to put a long story short, all the people that I pictured have already been, they have public Facebook accounts, public Instagram accounts, they are openly fighting for LGBTQI rights, so which is for about 90% of the people I photographed. And one of them is this guy that you see here with the blue shirt. This is Dennis and his boyfriend’s name is Dima. Dennis and Dima. Dennis and I, we didn’t know that beforehand, but we have a lot of common friends from Amsterdam because he is a drag queen as well. And Amsterdam is quite a big drag scene. So he would go to Amsterdam on a regular basis to perform there and be there during gay pride and he was quite a well known drag queen in the Netherlands actually. So we ended up having a lot of similar like Facebook friends, and we knew similar people. And he was the one that told me that he is on the kill list for sure. Mainly because when he was performing or not performing, when he was Sana, his drag queen persona, I would say, during the KyivPride a couple of years ago, he spoke negatively about the 2014 Crimea situation. And he said this part has to be, belongs to Ukraine and it has to come back to Ukraine. And if that happens, we will celebrate by having a gay pride right there. That’s what he said in the television interview at the pride day, that day. And it was broadcasted all over Ukraine but also all over Russia. And it became like an internet thing that would reappear and reappear constantly with his name and of course, in Russian media, very negative, it was all negative about him being a drag queen and about him saying these things. So he was— this news kind of followed him for several years. And he just knows that, yeah, he’s been so outspoken about the political situation and about LGBTQI rights, he’s like, I’m on this kill list, 100% sure. So he was one of the people I asked many times, Are you sure you want your face to be shown? But yeah, if you look up his name, you will see his face is all over the internet is because he believes that struggle they are having has to have a face, it has to be human, so they want to show this is us, you know, we are not hiding. We are here. We exist.

David Campbell: Yeah, at the same time, he knows he’s taking risks, but that’s his choice to take those risks. But I think it’s very interesting that point you make that you feel that sometimes you get into those conversations and people could become so relaxed that they go beyond what they would normally go beyond. So you have to ask that question again and again. Nichole Sobecki made a similar point in photographing and interviewing survivors of sexual violence in refugee camps. She and Jill Filipovic, she was the journalist, had a policy of asking at least three times in different ways, whether it was okay to show a face or not show her face and so on at different times in different ways, and so on to really triple check.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it’s so important. It’s like, and it was interesting, because this story got published last Saturday, two days ago, in the Netherlands, and then the newspaper, and the Dutch newspaper called me and they said, Are you sure all these people want to be shown by name? I mean, the paper was already made. It was already like ready to go into print. And then they called me at the last moment. Are you really sure? And even though I triple checked everyone, and I was 100% sure already. Then again, I started reaching out because I started doubting myself. So again, I’m on WhatsApp with everyone. And yes, yes, yes. They were like, stop asking us. We are sure, you know, but in this case, it’s such a sensitive subject. You just don’t want to make any mistakes.

David Campbell: Yeah, absolutely. We’re kind of approaching the end of our time, because I know that you’re busy in Jerusalem. But just a couple of final questions and give people a chance to drop another question into the q&a box. Andre, I see your latest question there and if you listen to the beginning of the talk when we put out the recording, Ilvy explains how she approached the community in Lviv and made contacts with that. So we won’t repeat that point right now. But Ilvy, you said that this was published in The Netherlands on the weekend? So what are your plans for the story? What do you hope to do with the story? And how do you hope to develop the story?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Hmm, good question. I reached out to several publications in Europe and outside of Europe. But for many of them, actually, they say—and the LGBTQI community didn’t like this that much—but a lot of them say this is not the story for now. I totally understand. I mean, that’s, I totally, I think this story is probably better told maybe in a month from now, or who knows when, but because now the main story is, of course, of the millions of people leaving the country, including LGBTQI. So I understand, I understand it. So what I would like to do, I would like to go back to Lviv, or actually, I would like to go to Kyiv within the next month and a half to follow up on my general reporting, but also on this story. And I, or it will publish probably today or tomorrow in a few major LGBTQI magazines and online on websites. So I didn’t know this. But apparently there’s like a network of different LGBTQI magazines that collaborate throughout Europe. And I pitched the story to the Dutch one and the English one. And then they were like, Oh, we actually have a network and it would be published in the — they named like six other countries. And I was like, that’s what I want, you know, this is great, then it will spread much quicker. So that’s gonna happen in the upcoming days. Everyone was quite— I am, of course thrilled about that, that the story is being seen. But also the people that you see in these images are happy that the story will be shared widely, and also amongst among their own community. And in the meantime, I hope that the pitches that I have sent out in the last week will find a spot in the upcoming, let’s say three weeks because the story, it’s not going to change soon. I can make an update in a couple of weeks and maybe then pitch it again. I’m hopeful it will get published, but I also feel like I was maybe a bit too early to find the story while the war is raging, you know like to work on a background story. I understand that newspapers are at the moment of course going for the more pressing stories.

David Campbell: But that is an interesting thing isn’t it? Uh, that, you know, our editors and our media organizations decide what the story is. But here, you are documenting the reality of this community in Lviv in the middle of an invasion, with the consequences of that invasion starting to wash towards them and so on. But we’re saying, or our photo editors are saying, now’s not the time. Well, it is the time because it’s happening. So that’s really interesting that there’s this sense in the media that there is one narrative, and that’s it.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah. Well, it’s really, I was also like, it is a story. But I’m just one freelancer. I can tell an editor it is a story now. But if they feel it’s not their story at this moment, I have to respect that. And I understand there are more pressing issues, but the community itself, they were horrified to hear it when I shared with them what some of the editors wrote. They were like, but it is a story. It’s our story. It’s happening, we are afraid we are like, this person does cannot leave the country, is stuck in the country, wants to leave so badly. Yeah, of course, for her, it is a story. So they are like, please publish it. But yeah, it’s not up to me. So but I know how to wait. You know, it’s, you know, it’ll happen, I do feel that it will.

David Campbell: But as the final point, I mean, this is a very good example of researching a story, going to do a story then finding different outlets at different times for it. So now you’ve got outlets in the network of LGBTQI media covering it. It’s been in the Dutch media. There’ll be other ones later, you know. You’ll develop the story over time. It’s not just a story, is not just something you do once, published once and that’s it. It’s going to have multiple outlets, different versions. A lot of flexibility in that sense.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I feel so too. And that’s usually my stories—I mean, for now, this is only a short story. I worked on it for a couple of weeks. But knowing myself, I will, this will continue, you know. If I go back to Ukraine, I won’t just be doing general news. I will, of course, follow up on these people and also work on new LGBTQI people from the community to see what their lives are like. So it’s— once I get into a story, I’m not gonna leave it, you know. Yeah.

David Campbell: And the final question from the audience is who covers your travel expenses for doing this story?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s a good question. I was really lucky. And to be honest, I, yeah, it really helped a lot. I was planning to go to Ukraine for this story, but I also felt I wasn’t safe enough, just my little me, myself and I to go into Ukraine by myself. It just didn’t feel right. Even though I was well prepared with the jacket and everything. But, so then, Der Spiegel heard that I was going to be on the ground. And they said, Okay, we have a story in Lviv. So we will, yeah, we will share expenses. And so it was perfect, because first of all, I would have been too scared to go by myself. It didn’t feel wise. And second, now, a larger part of my expenses were covered, which also helps. But of course, now, when selling this story, yeah, I also make the money that I invested back and I earn money that way of course.

David Campbell: We’re talking about covering expenses. We’re not talking about paying your salary.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, exactly. No, this is just covering. Yeah. Well, it all depends. The expenses itself were mostly covered now already. And then in the end, of course, as a freelancer, you hope to also be able to go on another trip like this again and then to— yeah.

David Campbell: And also a good example that you had to do enough work yourself to get into a position that you were ready to go before Der Spiegel was ready to come in and say, Okay, we’ll help. If you had just called up Der Speigel without anything, they would have said, hmm probably, huh?

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Probably there was no way. There’s so many people on the ground. I really had to tell them like, I’m gonna be there. I have a flak jacket. I did the safety training. I have HEAT training. I have insurance. Everything was already in place before, yeah, before I went there. And I was amazed to see how many people left without the flak jacket and without the helmet. I’m in a telegram group. There are 800 photographers and journalists in this group, only from Lviv, only in Lviv. And every day messages arrive. Can anyone borrow me a flak jacket, I want to go to Kyiv and of course, no one can lend their life jackets. So people left thinking, hey, there’s a war on my doorstep. I’m gonna go and just I went in and some of them very unprepared and it’s dangerous. It’s just dangerous.

David Campbell: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Please people, don’t go unprepared. Do not go without training, do not go without insurance. Do not go without equipment. We do not recommend this.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, not at all. It’s really, really dangerous. And even two days ago, there was a, two attacks in Lviv. And people I mean, you feel quite safe there because their lives are moving on, but it’s not safe. And so many people are there, unprepared journalists, and it’s now it’s a bit crazy, to be honest.

David Campbell: Okay, well, that brings us to the end of our time. Thank you so much for your time, Ilvy. That’s great. I mean, we’re going to check in on this story again. Andre was asking, is there a space to see wider edits of the story? I’ll get the references to where it was published in the Netherlands and on the network. And we’ll include that with the video on the website. But we’ll come back to this story on Insider as as it develops because I think it’s a really good, good one with lots of examples of kind of different perspectives that we should be covering. So thank you very much for your time.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you. Thanks, everyone, for watching. Thanks, David.

David Campbell: Okay, talk to you later, Ilvy. Bye.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you. Bye.

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