Since starting out 25 years ago, Russian photojournalist Yuri Kozyrev has documented wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Yuri talks to Tina Remiz about finding new ways of telling stories...
What’s the biggest challenge of working in a conflict zone?
There’s been a sudden shift in attitude toward journalists and photographers: media are targeted from every side – the rabbles, civilians and the local army. In many Arab countries, they really don’t like us, don’t understand our mission and treat us like spies.
What are the personal skills you need to be a photojournalist?
It’s about being a good human being, always honest and never cynical.
If I see that my involvement is needed, it’s never a problem to put the camera down and help. We are always missing something, and a picture is never worth someone’s life.
Personal censorship is equally important: there are some things that should never be photographed. We should respect death and find another way to tell the story.
Working in the chaotic environment of a conflict zone, how do you create narratives with your pictures?
I take a traditional approach, recording what I see in front of my camera. I try to stay on the ground for as long as possible, experiencing what the locals are going through. I often present my reportage in chronological order, not trying to make it more dramatic, but showing how the story develops naturally.
What are your thoughts on post-production and the beautification of tragedy?
There is a lot of discussion about it at NOOR [Yuri's agency], and I believe we should be careful. High competition means professional photographers need to create strong images that grab the viewers’ attention and make them think. To achieve this, we need to exaggerate a little.
I use a printing lab 10b, co-owned by another NOOR member, photojournalist Francesco Zizola. Their retouching style is very recognisable, and I don’t mind it. I often send images to the lab, who then forward them to the magazine, and I trust that they understand how I want to present my work.
What was your route into photography and to the frontline?
Both my mother and older brother were journalists, so I applied to study journalism at Moscow University. In the early 80s, I got in trouble for refusing to join the army because of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and I got kicked out of university.
Concerned about my future, my brother introduced me to a group of underground photographers – real, honest journalists, who refused to work for Soviet publications and chose to tell their own stories about the country instead. This was incredibly important for learning the craft and understanding photography as a profession.
I was never interested in news, but it was all around me, so it was only natural to go to my first conflict in Pridnestrovie. Since 2001, I have been on the road non-stop, covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other places. There is a very small circle of people working on those stories – they call us “the photographers of dust” because those countries are all pretty dusty.
In Focus: Working in reportage
Photojournalists need to be curious about every small detail of the story. Working in the highly competitive market, we need to be creative in finding new approaches to storytelling. The traditional model is gone, and photojournalism is becoming increasingly conceptual – a mixture of journalism and art.
Photographers are often assigned to show their personal view and artistic vision. It sometimes goes too far, when the photographer himself becomes the subject of the story, which, in my opinion, is wrong.
People living in war zones for decades are still trying to lead normal lives. They fall in love, get married, have children, and all of those stories remain largely unnoticed by the media.
Nowadays, reporters often have helpers on the ground – fixers, drivers, local people you trust. It’s important to find the right person, who is just as passionate about the story as you are.
When working in a foreign country, do your research and learn about its culture and traditions beforehand. If you show respect and a positive attitude, you will receive the same in return; people will open their doors to you.
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Portrait of Yuri Kozyrev © Sergei Art. All other images © Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR.