Blind Magazine : photography at first sight

The Exodus From Ukraine: A Visual Diary by Peter Turnley

The French American photographer, known for his documentation of the human condition over the past 40 years, shares his experience alongside Ukrainian refugees, from the day he left his home in Paris, and returned.
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 7, 2022

I flew today from Paris to Krakow, Poland, and then boarded a train to Przemyśl on the Polish / Ukrainian border. Already at the Krakow train station I encountered many Ukrainian refugees that had fled the war in their homeland.

On the train from the airport in Cracow to the train station, I sat next to Liuba, 42, who fled from Zaporozhe, near the site of the Nuclear plant that had been bombed. She explained to me that she felt very guilty to leave her parents there. She is very proud of her husband who has stayed to fight.

At the train station, Vicka, 22, stood with Lidia, her 9-year-old daughter. Liliana and Sofia, from Dniepr, stood together as well. 

On the train, Andre, 30, sat across from me. He has been working in Poland and has a wife and 5-year-old daughter. I asked him why he was returning to Ukraine, and he told me, “I am returning to throw Molotov cocktails to defend my country.”

On the train to the border, Julia, 5, held her pet hamster and rode with her mother Maria, 37. When I arrived in Przemyśl, as I descended from the train, I saw several thousand refugees that had just arrived from Ukraine, boarding a train that was going in the direction of Prague. I walked in the dark up and down the train track next to this departing train. I looked into the eyes of dozens of refugees looking out the train window, waiting to depart for a new world-leaving behind everything they have previously known in life. 

When I make photographs, I often look into the eyes of the people I am witnessing. Their eyes so often say all that I never could with words.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Przemyśl, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 8, 2022

Oxanna, turned 78 years old today as a newly arrived refugee from Irpin, Ukraine. She sat on a bench on the railroad tracks in Przemyśl, Poland, with no material possession from her 78 years of life except for her clothes, her hat, her cane, and her coat.

The brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia now made refugees out of almost 3,7 million people. This will eventually be the largest human exodus from a country in Europe since W.W.II. 

I sat with her tonight on the border, and will likely enter Ukraine tomorrow, on my way to Lviv, where the train station is the focal point of departure for thousands of Ukrainians squeezing into rail cars to flee all they have ever known as a life-jobs, family, brothers, fathers, sons.

Lubov, stood along the tracks in Przemyśl today holding Marguerita, 10 months old. They have no idea where they will end up. Marguerita is a child of war. It it almost unimaginable the magnitude of psychological scarring on the lives of millions that this war is creating.

I’m a little lonely tonight as I write this. I cry. I’ve seen a lot, too much, but I have never been a refugee. People always conveniently think that the camera is a shield, but I have always tried to look straight into the eye of reality, and reality is hard.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

I have nothing to complain about in life-but I realize at the age of 66 how much it is important and meaningful to me to witness and document love, which gives me hope, and joy.

Love is what ironically I see most in the movement and attitudes of refugees from war. People hold on to each other, hug each other, hold hands, and hold tight. Imagine a refugee that has no one to hold on to. There are certainly far too many.

No one needs to necessarily feel guilty for happiness while others suffer. But, we can all take a second and decide there might be some things more important than getting angry over a missed parking spot.

I have been incredibly touched by the gestures of kindness I have seen by the Polish population that has been receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine. There are very, very many good people in this world.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 9, 2022

I am now inside Ukraine.

Today, I boarded a train in the Polish border town Przemyśl, the border crossing town where now many of the more than 2 million Ukrainians have crossed through fleeing the brutal Russian invasion of the Ukrainian homeland.

In my 66 years, I have never made a train quite like this. The train was full of Ukrainian men going back to join the fight against the Russian military, women that had decided they could no longer stay away from their homes, and a handful of foreign journalists.

As the train passed through the Polish border into Ukraine, it came to a stop, and many soldiers of the Ukrainian army boarded the train, along with several Ukrainian border customs agents. 

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

Every passport was checked thoroughly, and one passenger was mysteriously removed from the train, not to board again. 

As the customs check took place, a train arrived in the station coming from Kyiv and pulled up right next to our train heading east into Ukraine. As I looked across the train tracks, I looked into the windows of a train overflowing with passengers, all people about to become forced exiles and refugees from their country – leaving everything they have known in their lives. Most of the people in the window of this train were mothers and children-and many very young babies pressed their heads against the window. A sight they will likely not remember in time, but a moment in their life they will never forget. 

Near the border, the train passed a cemetery and there were flowers on almost every grave-yellow flowers, and many people standing the graveyard.

When the train arrived at the Lviv train station, in Western Ukraine, every look, every light, every face, was different-tense, anxious, tired, and thousands of people pressed upon each other in a narrow railway aisle, waiting to board a train out of Ukraine. A young man stood holding his wife as she cried, and they looked each other in the eyes, and whispered to each other. This was an embrace I had almost never seen before. I didn’t make a photograph of this moment, and touched the shoulder of the young husband and told him I would think of him, and them. He spoke to me and said, “at this moment, we don’t have the right words”.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Medyka, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 10, 2022

I woke up this morning in Lviv in Western Ukraine. I went immediately to the train station and thousands of Ukrainian women and children were huddling in a small narrow hallway waiting and hoping to board a train for Poland.

When the train was ready to board-people hurried for any open door on the train hoping to get a seat on the train. An elder woman that could not walk was carried on to the train by several men. I imagine my own mother who passed 2 years ago at 92 and would only believe that such suffering in life could happen if saw this with my own eyes.

Vitali, 48, from Kharkiv, stood outside a boxcar staring into a window where his daughter Valeria, 8, and his wife, Lelena, were looking back at him from inside the train. They stared at each other quietly but intensely, for a long time. Suddenly without notice, the train began to move, and before the father and husband, or the daughter and wife, could be prepared-they were separated. I found myself wanting to stop the train, to give Vitali time to say goodbye-but it was gone, and so was any certitude of a families future. 

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Przemyśl, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 11, 2022

I venture to say that no one reading this has ever taken a train ride like the one that thousands of Ukrainians, women and children, made last night from Lviv, Ukraine to the border of Ukraine in Poland, and I hope to God that you never will.

Yesterday, I boarded a train at 4pm, and in the small train car I was in there were hundreds of Ukrainians, all seats taken with children sitting on laps of mothers, every inch of the car taken with people standing, sitting on the floor, and crowding into all empty space available between the train cars. I stood for most of the next 10 hours as our train went from Lviv, to Przemysl, Poland. 

As the train pulled slowly out of the station, tears began to flow in the eyes of most of the passengers, and people frantically made last minute phone calls to loved ones – with a sense this might be their last call. Eyes looked out of the window to see the last glimpses of a homeland for all, that many knew they might not ever see again.

A woman from Bucha, Marguerita, stood next to me. Bucha is from a city near Kyiv and has been badly bombed and shelled. She showed me a photograph of her destroyed home. Her husband has stayed behind, as all men up to the age of 60 must do in Ukraine at this time. I asked Marguerita where she was going and she lifted her hands up in the air and said “I don’t know, Europe”? 

An elder man on the train, Antoniusz, stood with a cane, appearing to have had polio, and he explained to the only other journalist in this train car – a wonderful man from Poland named Andrew, that he had neurological problems and could not keep one eye open all of the time. Often during this 10-hour train ride to nowhere, I spoke to Antoniusz with Andrew translating as they both spoke Polish. 

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

Often during this ride of exodus, I looked into the eyes of elder women. I could not bear to imagine the reality they were living-leaving behind decades of life, home, family, country, frail and weak, without any knowledge of how they would live even the following day. Many sat glassed-eyed, staring at the ceiling of the train, or with a 100 yard stare to darkness. It was not lost upon me, and I am sure them, that many realized they would eventually die-far from a home they love, and a place they know. 

As we arrived at the Polish border town-Antoniusz began to sing in Ukrainian – with a beautiful, soulful, penetrating and poetic voice and sound. He was constantly teetering on one foot, and after 10 hours he then began to cry.

The Polish border guards allowed each car of the train to unboard one at a time. Our car was last and we stood for two hours waiting. I wished everyone around me good luck in Ukrainian, but my words felt like they had no meaning. When the guards finally opened our door, I descended, and looked back to see Antoniusz being lifted into a wheelchair by the border guards.

Later, I received an email from the other journalist on the train, Andrew, telling me that he had found out that Marguerita was heading to Dresden in Germany, and that he had no news of Antoniusz. While on the train, when asked about the situation in the Ukraine, Antoniusz replied, “one thing is certain, if you are born, you will die”. When the train arrived in Poland – as I said goodbye to him, he looked at me and said, “victory always”. So many people in this world simply have no idea how lucky they are, and how difficult life can be for many others. 

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Przemyśl, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 13, 2022

Today, as I drove on the border of Poland and the Ukraine, I saw a message from someone that an American journalist, Brent Renaud, was killed today in Ukraine. I did not know him, but my heart is shaken and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends. 

This is extremely dangerous work. I have no advice for anyone as each person has to follow their own instincts. I was riding in a train car to Ukraine and sitting next to me were several younger photojournalists from the States, beginning their time in Ukraine.

As we rode on the train, little by little we got to know each other, and my heart was touched by each one, because they reminded me of when I was much younger. I could see in them a passion, and hunger to share the stories of the world they would experience. At one point, one asked me about my experience in Grozny, Chechnya. I told him I was terrified when I was there, by the intense shelling and bombing in Grozny.

I don’t like, even hate, the expression “a picture is not worth dying for”. I feel it is very disrespectful to those that do fall in the line of work and implies they may have done something wrong. I prefer to think that some photographs and stories are worth living for-and that is why so many of my wonderful and courageous friends and colleagues and those that preceded me, find it important to take conscious risks.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 14, 2022

I arrived back home in Paris after midnight. My compass is turned upside down. I have no reason to complain about anything, but my life is changed from all that I have seen.

I’m thinking about yesterday, when I visited a border checkpoint at Medyka, Poland, and a rescue center nearby. I witnessed people taking their first step out of their homeland, walking past Polish border guards, to a new reality. Valentina, from Kyiv, sat on a cot in the middle of a large warehouse called Tesco, near the border crossing between Ukraine and Poland.

The life of a refugee consists of many phases. There is the dramatic first phase of fleeing or being forced to flee one’s homeland, leaving all behind. At some point a new phase begins of establishing a new life, and in so many ways a new identity in a new place, country, with new language, culture, and history.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

War, in this case a brutally inhumane invasion, forces not only physical devastation, but psychological destruction. In this warehouse refugee camp sat thousands of Ukrainians, each with their own story, history, past, and now present and future, that will be different one from another, but all involving a profound degree of suffering.

We have spent 2 years emerging for what I thought was a form of World War III with a virus. Now, the world is at the brink of a true world war. Over 3.7 million people like Valentina are now sitting in disbelief and living with trauma that will now last for the rest of their lives.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Medyka, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 15, 2022

Even after all of these years of covering war, man-made and natural disasters, revolution and upheavals, I was not ready for this transition to what for most people is a normal day in their lives. But what really is normal? It all depends on one’s perspective, luck, good fortune, and unfortunately too often, privileges for some and lack of opportunity and oppression for others.

When I first began photography, I was incredibly inspired by photographers like Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, Dorothea Lange, W. Eugene Smith, and many others who saw photography not only as a form of expression, but as an engine of change.

The only way I know how to protest is to show the reality of life with photographs. And, as long as I am alive, I will let no one steal that right away from me.

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Przemyśl, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Przemyśl, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

March 16, 2022

I have returned to Paris, but my heart and mind are still every moment in Ukraine, or on the border with Poland. 

We are used to news cycles. An important story comes, and goes, and as a photojournalist, one does ones’ part, and contributes, and often life moves on to the next chapter.

The brutal invasion of Ukraine, does not go away, and it does not end. In fact, one wakes up each day to news of an escalation in attacks and bombings and shelling by Russians on Ukraine residential neighborhoods, food depots, airports, and cities, and the horror simply becomes greater and stronger. 

Paris has possibly never been more beautiful. Yesterday was an early spring day of delight. I walked in the city and saw an explosion of post covid joy with millions of young people sitting along the side of the Seine basking in early evening sprays of warm glowing light. 

Today, I say a prayer for Ukraine, and for the courageous Russians that stand up against these war crimes, and for the millions of Polish people and those of other bordering countries that have stepped up with unbelievable courage and compassion to help their brothers and sisters of our human family in distress.

With love. 

Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Medyka, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Medyka, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Ukraine, March 2022 © Peter Turnley
Przemyśl, Poland, March 2022 © Peter Turnley

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