Editor’s Note: Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between the UK and Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Two days after Russia launched its all-out invasion, I got a call from a fellow Ukrainian friend who was leaving her film industry job in Paris, jumping into a car and returning to her home country. “A French radio crew is coming to Lviv,” she said. “Would you like to work with them as a fixer?”
“Sure!” I replied. “What is a fixer?”
According to my friend, a fixer was a translator for foreign journalists – with added organizational responsibilities. I quickly learned that those stretched from arranging interviews to fact-checking, paying parking fines, smoothing tensions at checkpoints and providing much needed contextual knowledge.
Due to such a breadth of functions, fixers are sometimes more gracefully called “local producers.” While clearly a less attractive job title, the term “fixer” suits me. It promises to fix what is broken – chains of communication, circuits of knowledge, patterns of understanding.
For the first generation of post-Soviet Ukrainians like me, many of whom have traveled and lived abroad, the job of a fixer – combining our cross-cultural experience and local expertise – has come naturally. In response to the war, most friends in their 30s have either taken up arms, turned into full-time volunteers or shifted from working in the sectors of the Ukrainian economy devastated by the war to “fixing” for global media.
For foreign journalists covering the war today, there are plenty of local problem solvers who facilitate every step of the journey. These fixers speak good English, find compelling stories and file miscellaneous requests with local authorities on behalf of the journalists who either do not speak Ukrainian, or would have struggled to name more than a handful of Ukrainian cities before Russian bombs started raining down on February 24.
The power imbalance between local fixers and foreign journalists came into focus early on when Ukrainian producer Oleksandra Kuvshynova was killed alongside Fox News’ Irish cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski after they came under fire in Kyiv. The channel was criticized for calling Kuvshynova a “consultant” rather than part of the team in their statement. (Later, Fox News said it held off on delivering the news of Kuvshynova’s death “out of respect for her family.”)
One can easily spot the patterns of exploitation in the western media’s collaboration with local fixers. But a less-discussed and more interesting pattern is the resistance and self-organization that has come to the surface, much like in other spheres of Ukrainian social life. When I joined the fixers’ community, I was struck by Ukrainians’ agency in redefining both their working conditions and their country’s international representation.
Having noted that the security protocols of international media often exclude them, Ukrainian fixers have united through social media and established security protocols of their own. In addition to safety tips, these involve banning outlets that have shown disrespect to Ukrainian colleagues, for instance by suggesting to purchase their own protective equipment or pressuring fixers to travel to high-risk zones.
With my first fixing experience in February this year, I was eight years late to the party. As it turned out, some of my friends first got a taste of this occupation during the winter months of 2014 when they assisted the international media in covering the Maidan revolution. This was when Ukrainians rose up against their Russian-backed government and eventually ousted the president of the country, paying a high price with more than 100 protesters killed by riot police.
Back then, I busied myself volunteering in Kyiv hospitals where hundreds of wounded protesters were taken. Now that I have gained a doctoral degree and cross-sectoral work experience in London, I feel better equipped to help the west, and western journalists in particular, meet us, Ukrainians, on our own terms.
That fixers could influence those terms has become an eye-opener. It is often local fixers who persuade western media to transliterate Ukrainian place names in accordance with their Ukrainian rather than Russian spellings. Repeatedly explaining the colonial history of Russian place names in Ukraine can sometimes shift editorial style guides in Paris or Berlin.
It is also local fixers who can find the most impactful stories thanks to their contacts on the ground. When my TV crew was barred from traveling to the front line, I organized interviews with Ukrainian soldiers fresh from ground zero who were on rotation in Kyiv. Those soldiers agreed to speak to us on their precious day off because they were friends of my friends.
Shielding our fellow citizens from what sometimes feels like insensitivity of the international news machine has been another responsibility many fixers have assumed on the job. Assisting the coverage of Russia’s war crimes in the Kyiv region, I was aware that the reporters’ questions could re-traumatize the survivors. Yet, amidst the calls from abroad for Ukraine to cede territories to the aggressor for the sake of an illusory break in the bloodshed, reporting on the bloody horrors that awaited Ukrainians under the Russian occupation was crucial.
For me, this meant accepting the unspoken responsibilities that came with the work, from consulting a psychologist beforehand and bringing information about available support to the survivors, to rephrasing or refusing to translate insensitive questions.
After the interview is over, keeping in touch with the interviewees so that they don’t feel exploited and abandoned is an optional part of the job that few international journalists would have resources to do. For fixers like myself, however, staying in touch with Ukrainians who survived weeks of artillery shelling in Bucha, were raped by the occupiers near Borodyanka or lost their beloved family homes to the invaders in Andriivka is more often not a burden but a privilege.
It is from them that I learn what strength, dignity and resilience truly mean. Meeting them and helping amplify their voices has been the chief reward for the 16-hour shifts I have pulled off since the full-scale invasion began.
“How do you feel about it?” is the question every reporter I have worked with has asked my compatriots. The expectation some may have is for the interviewee to break down in front of the camera, tapping into viewers’ empathy. “How do you feel about turning your research center into a shelter for the displaced?” “How do you feel about volunteering in a field kitchen while seven months pregnant?” “How do you feel about spending your youth in the trenches?”
My compatriots would blink, trying to comprehend the question. Then, unanimously, they would say something like “this is the least I can do for my country” – and get back to work. Sometimes, the reporter would burst into tears. Sometimes, me. Accompanying international crews to places that have lived through the impenetrable darkness of Russia’s invasion, I have found people whose light is unfading.
However resourceful one’s fixer is, the image of a helpless Ukrainian victim remains hard to source. Looking for victims, international journalists keep running into heroes. “Fixing” these encounters has been an honor.
One can only hope that audiences abroad are ready for a sustained solidarity with the people who refuse to be victimized.