The photos that have defined the war in Ukraine
By Kyle Almond and Brett Roegiers, CNN
May 13, 2022
Editor’s note: This gallery contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.
It was getting dark, and the temperature was dropping. As a train approached a crowded platform in Odesa, Ukraine, desperate refugees started running toward it, tripping over one another. There were only so many who could fit.
“Making it inside the train was high-stakes,” recalled Salwan Georges, a Washington Post photographer. “It meant an escape from the horror and devastation they were facing every day in eastern and southern Ukraine.”
This was 11 days after Russia had invaded Ukraine following months of military buildup and brinkmanship. Refugees were boarding trains and heading to the country’s west, where they would be able to cross into neighboring countries for safety.
The train station in Odesa had turned all of its lights off to protect people from being targeted by the Russians.
“Out of the darkness, I noticed only one train window had a dim light coming through it,” Georges said. “On the platform side of that window, a man stood with his hand on the glass. On the other side, a woman mirrored his gesture from inside the train. The train was getting ready to move.
“I approached the man, who I later came to know as Georgiy Keburia, with my camera down. He acknowledged me with a subtle nod, giving his approval for me to document him saying goodbye to his wife, Maya, and their children. I kept my distance as the scene unfolded. It was one of the most emotional situations I had to witness in my life — and it took me a while to process what I had seen.”
The train started to move slowly away from the platform, and Keburia walked alongside it, crying with his wife until it sped away. Georges walked next to Keburia in silence as he returned to the train station. After a few minutes, they communicated with the help of Google Translate. Keburia’s family was heading to Poland, and he, like many Ukrainian men, was staying back to defend Ukraine.
It reminded Georges of his own experience in the late 1990s, when he boarded a bus in Iraq and had to say goodbye to his father, a soldier who had to stay back as the country prepared for war.
“Being born in a war-torn country of Iraq and having to flee at the age of 8, I didn’t get the chance to document the toll the war took on my country,” he said. “Now, I’ve got the chance to do it in Ukraine.”
Here are some other powerful photos that we have seen out of Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24.
Lynsey Addario was in Irpin, Ukraine, a suburb of the capital of Kyiv, to cover civilians fleeing the violence. She didn’t expect to witness a family being killed in an apparent Russian mortar attack.
“I was photographing and I saw the people sort of dragging their children and dragging the elderly as the rounds got closer and closer,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “And I was looking through my lens thinking, ‘It’s not possible that the rounds are coming closer, because they know that there are civilians here.’ ”
She watched as a mortar killed Tetiana Perbyinis and her two children. In the photo above, taken on March 6, Ukrainian soldiers try to save another man nearby — the only one at that moment who still had a pulse.
“I’m thinking as horrific as this is, I have to document this because I just watched a mother and her two children get hit intentionally — because I knew it was intentional,” Addario said. “We watched it happen.”
“We all do this work in order to have an impact, in order to affect policy, in order to educate people — to show the reality on the ground,” she said. “It’s very seldom that I know that one of my photos actually has a direct impact. I’ve been doing this 20 years and people always ask me, ‘Have your photos changed the world?’ And I never have an answer to that. ... In this case the response has been overwhelming, sadly at the expense of that mother and her two children. But I think it was such an important moment — to witness the lead-up and the actual moment.”
A mother and son rest in Lviv, Ukraine, while waiting to board a train to Poland on March 12. There were hundreds of people at the train station that day.
To date, more than 5 million refugees have fled Ukraine.
“As a relatively new father, seeing that lady with her young son in that quiet moment struck a chord with me and left me wondering what their future might hold,” Kitwood said. “That could have been my wife, my son laying there on a cold floor in a train station with no idea what the future might hold.
“In this scene and many others, all I could do was to stand and admire the resolve, pride and stoicism on display and tell their story through my lens before returning to my family back in the UK and understanding, more than ever before, how lucky I am.”
A wounded woman, a teacher named Helena, stands outside a hospital after an attack on the eastern Ukrainian town of Chuhuiv on February 24. It was just after Russia invaded.
Aris Messinis, a photographer with Agence France-Presse, remembers how shocked many people were.
“You could see in their faces the surprise, because until that moment, they didn’t believe that the war would start,” he said.
This photo was taken two hours after the attack. “Thankfully, (Helena) survived and she was not heavily wounded,” Messinis said. “The fear in her face was still so obvious.”
In this photo taken by the Associated Press’ Emilio Morenatti, people crowd under a bridge as they try to flee across the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 5.
The bridge had been destroyed on purpose to prevent Russian forces from moving on to the capital, CNN’s Clarissa Ward reported.
Ward said at the time that she was “seeing a lot of people who are clearly, visibly shaken, petrified because they have been trapped in terrible bombardment for days on end and are just now starting to get out.”
The sound of constant artillery could be heard in the background.
“These people have been under bombardment for seven straight days and are only just leaving their homes,” Ward said. “And they're leaving them reluctantly, and they're leaving them with the knowledge that they might not be able to go back to them.”
As Kyiv braced for a major Russian attack, many residents hunkered down in bomb shelters, basements and subway stations.
“In the second World War, during the German bombing campaign against London, the British photographer Bill Brandt made photographs of London residents sheltering in the underground stations,” photographer Timothy Fadek said. “Brandt was always in the back of my mind, because I knew that as soon as the war began that I would need to venture into the Kyiv metro stations to make photographs for the historical record, as Brandt did.”
In this subway station that Fadek photographed on March 2, blankets and sleeping beds stretched down the corridor. Some people had tents or air mattresses. They used their phones or read books to pass the time.
“As I was leaving and about to ride the escalator up to ground level, I saw this woman reading to the children, all enchanted by illustrations in the book the story being read to them,” Fadek said. “I recognized the importance of recording this scene because the woman was not simply entertaining the children, but distracting and shielding them from the horrors of war happening above ground.”
A firefighter sprays water inside a house that was destroyed by Russian shelling in Kyiv on March 23.
“The smoke and steam were almost unbearable at times, but thankfully, no one was killed that day,” said Associated Press photographer Vadim Ghirda. “I thought the image of the lone firefighter was quite reflective of the situation in Ukraine: every person was trying to make a difference for the better, even in the face of horror.
“Moments like this showed me that any form of help can matter immensely. You don’t need to have a solution to the entire problem, but you can contribute in the best way that you can. I wish everyone could see things this way, not only in the face of atrocity.”
Emergency workers carry an injured pregnant woman outside of a bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9. The woman and her baby later died, a surgeon who was treating her confirmed.
“They rushed to take her to the ambulance while passing by the debris of buildings, smashed cars, fallen trees and destruction,” he said. “The next day this picture was everywhere, and the whole world knew about the maternity hospital.”
According to the AP, medics did not have time to get the woman’s name before her husband and father came to retrieve her body so she wouldn’t end up in one of the city’s mass graves.
“I had seen a lot of human suffering before Mariupol, but I had never seen so many children killed in one single place in such a short period of time,” Maloletka said.
Shocking images showing the bodies of civilians scattered across Bucha, Ukraine, sparked international outrage and raised the urgency of ongoing investigations into alleged Russian war crimes.
Photographer Carol Guzy remembers seeing the body bags piling up.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said. “The gravity and scale of suffering was immense as large numbers of bodies arrived daily, and (it was) difficult to convey in a still photograph. This image shows just one moment in time of so many lives lost.”
Fellow photojournalist David Hume Kennerly commented on the photo in an op-ed for The New York Times. “This image of a man with both eyes open is one of the most compelling and disquieting photos to come out of Bucha,” he wrote. “It’s an intimate and puzzling image of death, and I’ve never seen anything like it. What did this man see at the moment of his death? Whatever it was, his resolve remained.”
Guzy said it is vital that visual journalists document these scenes to “provide a window of truth amid misinformation and propaganda.”
“This one is particularly painful as the impact on non-combatants is so profound,” she said. “The photographs are hard to view, but essential. It’s much harder for the people living this nightmare every day than for anyone looking at a photo of it.”
Sviatoslav Fursin, left, and Yaryna Arieva had planned on getting married in May, but they rushed to tie the knot due to the invasion.
Their wedding ceremony was held at the St. Michael's Cathedral in Kyiv on February 24, the day Russia invaded.
"The situation is hard. We are going to fight for our land,” Arieva told CNN. “We maybe can die, and we just wanted to be together before all of that.”
CNN’s Christian Streib said the scene almost felt surreal.
“Here I was, witnessing love, happiness and togetherness in this beautiful, peaceful environment … while outside the monastery, Ukraine was about to enter one of the darkest chapters of its history,” he said.
After their wedding, the young couple prepared to go to the local Territorial Defense Center to join efforts to help defend the country.
"We have to protect it,” Arieva said. “We have to protect the people we love and the land we live on. I hope for the best, but I do what I can to protect my land.”
A series of photos, taken by Evgeniy Maloletka for the AP, show the scene when she arrived at the hospital on February 27. Her mother wept outside the ambulance. Her father was at her side, covered in blood.
A medical team placed the girl onto a gurney and wheeled her inside, where doctors and nurses fought to revive her.
But she could not be saved.
A doctor looked into the camera of an AP videojournalist in the room.
“Show this to Putin,” he said. “The eyes of this child, and crying doctors.”
A Ukrainian soldier carries a baby across a destroyed bridge in Irpin on March 3.
This was the bridge in Irpin that had been destroyed on purpose to prevent Russian forces from invading.
“At one moment during the evacuation, a couple was struggling to carry their belongings and their newborn baby,” said photographer Timothy Fadek, who was on assignment for CNN. “This soldier, Oleh, offered them help, so they handed him their baby.
“When I look at this photograph and think about that day, I am still in awe at the calm, kindness and bravery of the civilians and soldiers alike in the midst of this horrible and needless war.”
Ilona Koval, a woman who is the choreographer for Ukraine’s national figure skating team, weeps March 1 as she travels in Palanca, Moldova, with her daughter and a family friend. They were at a temporary refugee camp on the Ukrainian border.
“I remembered an immense rush and chaos at this time,” photographer Laetitia Vancon said. “People crossing the borders were in shock. The shock of the war, the shock of having to leave so suddenly everything behind, the shock of having no future perspectives but fears.”
Marcus Yam remembers seeing an airstrike hit a building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 25.
“A flash of light. A mushroom cloud. Then the flames,” he said. “There were local residents, like this gentleman, walking by unfazed, trying to get their aid supplies home. Gasoline was limited and not everyone had cars.”
The Los Angeles Times photographer said covering the war has been difficult and unpredictable.
“Access is difficult, verifying information is difficult, security and safety became tough to manage to maintain,” he said. “It becomes even more difficult when survival comes down to just plain dumb luck.”
Yam was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the US departure from Afghanistan.
“Events happen in a series of burst-moments, and oftentimes we don’t have time to think about much except follow our gut reaction and instincts when we are in the field,” he said. “Our moral compass is often tested when confronted with these tough scenes — and we often forget that we are human first, before we are journalists.”
People pay their respects during a funeral service for three Ukrainian soldiers in Lviv on March 11.
Senior Soldier Andrii Stefanyshyn, 39; Senior Lt. Taras Didukh, 25; and Sgt. Dmytro Kabakov, 58, were laid to rest at the Saints Peter and Paul Garrison Church.
Even in this sacred space, the sounds of war intruded: an air raid siren audible under the sound of prayer and weeping. Yet no one stirred, according to CNN’s Atika Shubert. Residents were inured to the near-daily warnings of an air attack.
“I remember the cold air and the frozen and pale faces of young soldiers,” photographer Valeria Ferraro said. “There was dignity on their faces while standing next to coffins, but some of them also communicated a sense of estrangement, so I was wondering how the death of their comrades affected them. On the other side, there were relatives of those who died. That was a side of pure pain and despair.”
Ukrainian soldiers take cover from incoming artillery fire in Irpin on March 13.
“As we were heading out of Irpin, things heated up and the sound of incoming shelling became closer and more frequent,” Associated Press photographer Felipe Dana said. “We saw a couple of soldiers running for shelter so we followed them. It looked like a safe place. We ended up spending the next hour there as the bombardment kept coming, until it felt like a safe moment to leave.”
Moments after taking this picture, Dana learned that American journalist Brent Renaud had been killed in Irpin that day.
“I returned weeks later, only after Russian troops withdrew from the region,” Dana said. “I saw a very different city — destroyed and with dozens of bodies left on the streets of Irpin and Bucha.”
Kiseleva Larisa Anatolyevna hadn't left her apartment in 13 years, according to photographer Laurel Chor. But with the sound of shelling constantly rattling her windows in Kharkiv, Ukraine, it was time to go somewhere safe where she could receive care.
Volunteers from a humanitarian aid center helped the 55-year-old, who has multiple sclerosis, evacuate her home on April 19.
“The friends and social workers who took care of her had either fled, or it was too dangerous for them to go to her flat,” Chor said.
Chor said countless humanitarian aid centers have sprung up all over the country to help those in need. These volunteers also packed up Anatolyevna’s belongings and her cat and carried her into a van, where she was taken to a train station.
“She said it was scary to live under constant shelling,” Chor said. “The night the war began, she said even her cat — who usually refuses to sleep in her bed — was afraid and crawled in with her that night.”
The body of a Russian soldier lies next to a Russian vehicle outside Kharkiv on February 25.
This photo was taken by Tyler Hicks of The New York Times just a day after the start of the invasion, which Russian President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation.”
Accurate reporting has been difficult to find on the Russian side of the war, as many independent media outlets have been shuttered by the Kremlin. A censorship law makes it a crime to disseminate what the Russian government considers to be “fake” information.
Most media outlets in Russia have followed state orders to toe Putin’s line — for example, by not calling the invasion an invasion.
Russia has also clamped down on social media inside the country.
Motria Oleksiienko, 99, is comforted by her daughter-in-law, Tetiana Oleksiienko, in the village of Andriivka, Ukraine, on April 6.
Andriivka was heavily affected by fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Several buildings in the village were reduced to mounds of bricks and corrugated metal, and residents were struggling without heat, electricity or cooking gas.
Motria Oleksiienko was immobilized in a bed in a very cold room in her home, according to Associated Press photographer Vadim Ghirda. She had to be carried out with help from neighbors when Russian troops commandeered their home.
“She was terrified by the sound of unfamiliar voices, especially men’s voices,” Ghirda said. “It was truly heartbreaking to see the horror in her eyes.”
Marina Yatsko runs behind her boyfriend, Fedor, as they arrive at the hospital with her 18-month-old son, Kirill, who was wounded by shelling in Mariupol on March 4.
“It was important for me to show to the country and to the world the suffering, fear and pain of the Ukrainians,” Maloletka said. “I often ask myself: ‘Why? Why? Why?’ — the same question Marina Yatsko asked with tears in her eyes while touching the fingers of her son.”
Ukrainian officials accused Russia of shelling the city and civilian corridors out of it, despite Russia's own agreement to hold fire. Western officials had started to notice a shift in Russian strategy with increasing attacks on civilians and residential areas.
People take shelter inside a subway car in Kharkiv as the Russian invasion began on February 24.
“The invasion kicked off with a series of airstrikes, and one of the things I quickly learned was that the subways can be used a bomb shelters,” photographer Marcus Yam said.
“I have never seen anything like it. People resting in subway cars, sleeping on floors, standing in the darkness. It felt like in any other day this could be rush hour in Manhattan on a poorly lit train. But then there were the echoes of explosions and a certain wave of anxiety on everyone’s faces.”
Yam said everyone seemed to be on edge and exhausted.
“But what struck me was how calm everyone was, and how much deference and comfort they offered each other,” he said. “In these times of crisis, what I found was humanity coming across.”
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, there was a national directive in Ukraine to complicate the efforts of the Russian army.
“I had heard that road signs were being removed, covered, or painted over in order to prevent invading Russian troops from easily orienting themselves, and as I was driving I saw a municipal worker in the process of removing this sign pointing the way to a nearby village,” photographer Brendan Hoffman said. “I simply pulled the car over and darted across the highway to photograph the process, which took only a minute. …
“For me, it goes a long way to showing the complete reorientation of society, which turned on a dime to resist the invasion in every way possible.”
The man was fine with Hoffman taking the picture. But he wasn’t in the mood to chat.
“He had a job to do, and as soon as he tossed the sign in the back of his van he sped off to the next one,” Hoffman said.
Paula Bronstein was photographing the destruction in Borodianka, Ukraine, on April 9 when it started to rain.
“I thought, wow, if the sun comes back there might be a rainbow,” she said. “I stayed after 7 p.m. even though it was problematic with the 8 p.m. curfew getting back to Kyiv, and the rainbow happened.”
She got back to her base in the Ukrainian capital well after curfew.
“It was tough to get past the checkpoints, but well worth it,” she said.