Dispatch from Ukraine – Eric Bouvet

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An Orthodox priest watches over civilians fleeing the fighting in Irpin, Ukraine, on 12 March 2022. Photo by Eric Bouvet / VII

Eric Bouvet is in Kyiv, Ukraine reporting on the war for Polka Magazine, as well as producing multimedia stories for his Instagram followers.

On 15 March, Eric spoke with his VII Agency colleague Stefano de Luigi to discuss how he was working in Kyiv and what he was seeing. 

The conversation was conducted and recorded in French, and an English transcript is below.

Eric Bouvet est à Kiev, en Ukraine, pour faire des reportages sur la guerre pour Polka Magazine, ainsi que pour produire des contenus multimédias pour ses abonnés Instagram.

Le 15 mars, Eric s’est entretenu avec son collègue de l’Agence VII, Stefano do Luigi, à propos de la façon dont il travaille à Kiev, et ce qu’il y voit.

La conversation a été menée et enregistrée en français, avec sa transcription en anglais en sous-titres.

Macha, nine years old, her sister Dacha, and their parents and grandmother remain in their home in Irpin, Ukraine, near the front line, with nowhere to go, on March 12, 2022. Photo by Eric Bouvet / VII




Stefano: So we are in conversation with Eric Bouvet who tells us about Kyiv where he is currently. It’s March 15 and thank you Eric for joining us for this conversation for people who follow VII Insider. I am Stephano de Luigi, a colleague of Eric at the VII Agency. There you go, we start with a few questions Eric if you don’t mind. You arrived in Ukraine via Poland, I think. Can you tell us? Can you tell us when you arrived in Ukraine and why you are there? Why you decided to go?

Eric: So I arrived in Ukraine, will soon be almost three weeks and I actually went through Poland. At that time it was the fastest way in Krakow to cross the border on foot, then hitchhike to Lviv. Afterward, I took the easiest way that still works, which is the night train. And although Russian troops descended on the west and cut off this train line, the train still works. On the other hand, the road, we can no longer take it. You have to go down to the south and go around. So today, to leave the simplest by people who leave by the south, the southwest, by Moldova, Romania.

Stefano: Finally there you go. Agreed.

Eric: And why did I come? I came because I was lucky enough to live through the most important event of the second part of the 20th century, which was the fall of the Berlin Wall. And I think we don’t know what will happen until 2050. But I think right now we are living through the most important event of the first part of the 21st century. And so, I’m a fan of history, of geopolitics. I have been working for 40 years and international events like this have always fascinated me. To experience them live, to be able to be there and try to understand. And above all, it’s meeting people. Humanly, in these moments are certainly the strongest. Except of course my family and my children. And here I am materially close, but for a life as a reporter, photographer, meeting people. And as I was saying a little earlier, it’s because I think it’s in a war that humanity reveals itself, unfortunately.

Stefano: Unfortunately as you say. And from a professional point of view, you were organized before leaving, that is to say, you looked for commissions, you started discussions with press organizations, but you left to produce stories of your own all alone. Do you want to explain the background to us a bit about the decision to go?

Eric: So actually I have. Suddenly, I have a career that is no longer very classical since it has been four years since I had traveled. I reluctantly no longer have any relationship with the press for many reasons, because it’s a generational story that changes because it’s also that the press has no more money. So there are very few people working anymore [in the press]. Finally, there is a multitude of reasons. And so, suddenly, I find myself…I’ve had to change a bit in recent years and work with a large-format camera on more documentary work, a bit more long-term. And today, what makes me work is more than the press, even though for 30 years, I believe, 38 years, I have had a press card. Today, it is no longer the press, it is social networks that allow me to work. Because in fact, all these people with whom I maintain contact, that is to say, that it easily takes me three hours a day. They are the ones who buy my prints, they are the ones who buy my books, they are the ones who come to workshops. And so, suddenly, I am…I fought a little against the grain since I no longer had any connections to work with the press and I found a solution. But [for Ukraine] it’s actually Polka Magazine, which is a magazine in France, which moves heaven and earth to help me and thanks to them, it’s a documentary and film production company that said OK, we are interested in his case and we follow him because he will be the thread of the story. So I have a cameraman who directs, who is with me, who follows me, and who more or less tells the story so far and it is thanks to them that I have insurance because it would have been out of the question leaving without insurance. You can’t do that to your family and end up in trouble if an accident happens. So I have insurance and Polka gave me a freelance commission and that’s it. But it’s all over and that’s the big unknown.

Stefano: Okay, so that’s describing how you covered these three weeks, the times since you arrived in Ukraine with this, let’s say unorthodox, terms of reference. But what is there soon with this commission? It will finish?

Eric: Yes, this commission is going to be completed, so I’m going to have no choice but to go home, much to my chagrin. But really, I’m doing everything to stay. So, I’m even wondering if I’m not going to do crowdfunding since I have many, many, many people. Because what happened is that, in addition, I know someone who works very well in everything related to computer products and who created for this occasion a new little medium that he calls sound systems. And it’s Amaury Mestre of the ROC, who takes care of that. That is to say that every day, I send him my photos, there is an interview, and the same evening he sends back this little sound story, with my audio of what is happening in my photos and I broadcast it on social networks. It’s a monstrous success and I have lots of people texting me back. I really spend three hours a day replying to everyone and there are plenty of people who even want to send me money. It’s still amazing. And I haven’t asked yet. So if I ask why not somewhere, even if it’s very tricky, I admit that I don’t dare what, because it’s very tricky, but I’m being asked for money to do a book, so why not continue this report?

Stefano: So when it’s a…

Eric: …question…

Stefano: …actually.

Eric: Yes, there is a question. I’m not 100% sure yet, but it’s interesting. It’s incredible that the people have taken over from the press which no longer follows what.

Stefano: Yeah and the people? It is the readership that previously bought the newspapers, which precisely financed the work of the photographers, of the reporters to testify on the ground, which is what is exactly what is being done and how it happens on the ground. What do you do? You work alone, you have a fixer, you are one of the people who follow military convoys, military units, or international press groups. How? What is the setup? For now?

Eric: Me, I’m used to always working alone. I prefer to be the little mouse and the guy who has privileged contacts because he is on his own, because he is discreet because he is autonomous. I’m much luckier. If I am with a herd of journalists at the entrance, for example with a group or being able to stay with a local commander, it is a given. So no, in general, it often happens on its own, there for example. On the other hand, two days ago, I left for the East and I was very happy to leave with a TV crew, two cars, because it was not a place that I knew. These were campaign stops. You don’t know where it can come from? You don’t know if there could be a problem. So even if it’s measured, I’m careful. It’s good to be in two cars and not be alone. You should be careful. I am at an age where I have become cautious. So, here, from time to time, I go with other people, not with other photographers. Because what surprises me is that very often I see my American colleagues working together in the same car or even groups of photographers with two or two cars. They are six or seven, they always move together, so why not? But I myself, I don’t know how one can make images at this time. When I see the portraits that I make, if you want that of which really I am, I am…I’m happy to have made these images because they are very simple, very modest if you like because I’m there when these people come out of total misery and I pay attention to the dignity of these people. So I’m careful not to disturb them either, not to disturb them. So I know that I can do it because I’m all alone. I can’t see myself having one, four, five, six photographers to help with this person who is poor, an elderly lady who is collapsing, this kid who is completely worried, who doesn’t know where to go. So it’s a way of working that suits me much more.

Stefano: How much more? How much [does it suit you]? More surely.

Eric: Out of modesty, out of modesty, out of respect, I think. And then also, you see, it’s very, very important once again to keep people’s dignity. We know it, you see enough and you can’t come with a herd and jump on it like prey with me. It’s despicable, it doesn’t happen absolutely.

Stefano: And do you have the opportunity to work with local or Ukrainian journalists and photographers?

Eric: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, I know a few, of course.

Stefano: Alright. So now you are currently in Kyiv? We said that. But have you traveled before? Oh, do you plan to do it soon? Do you think that Kyiv is the place, the place where you have to be right now to be?

Eric: How am I going to decide? I’m not going to tell stories, I’m a little lost. My colleagues are a little lost, everyone is lost. We have trouble.

Stefano: To understand the perspectives of logistics?

Eric: Par.

Stefano: Events that go too fast?

Eric: It goes fast and not fast. In fact, we expected the Russians to go faster. In fact, it’s not as much as we imagined the great Russian armada that comes from everywhere. They don’t have the logistics, for example, as the Americans have, and we know very well for having worked several times on wars where the Americans were there. They have incredible logistics, relentless, very very well organized. And there you go. Whereas the Russians there, obviously, we saw it. A tank convoy is stuck because they are out of oil. And then also to them. In their defense, if I may use the word. They opened a lot of fronts. They have plenty of fronts, they are everywhere in Ukraine. So what do people imagine? Does that mean having sent hundreds of tanks, thousands and thousands of men who have to be fed? That you have to bring gasoline to all these vehicles, to a tank, it doesn’t consume like a normal car, it’s tens and tens of liters. So there is a huge infrastructure and I think they got screwed with that. They are certainly capable, but they were not ready for that. In fact, I think they miscalculated their move. They weren’t already expecting such a strong defense from the Ukrainian army, since it’s still an army that has been on the front lines for eight years. So they know what it is. There, we are more in the configuration if you want, like in Syria with bearded men who are going to shout Allah Akbar and who are going to go to heaven because they have been promised a lot of things and that there is a real army which is opposite, it is much more complicated.

Stefano: What I was going to say is these two armies clashing. In fact, there was independence, there was an excess of confidence on the part of the Russians, is that according to you?

Eric: Maybe? Yes, it’s possible. I don’t want to go into that. We can discuss it among ourselves, but to say a little bit and give our opinion is always a little pretentious. In any case, it is sure it bothers me…

Stefano: …to give an unqualified opinion.

Eric: In the worries. Little by little, they will be able to do certain things, but they will not be able to do them. And I throw myself in, but from the beginning, from the first day, I did not think that Putin was going to invade Ukraine. Quite simply because I know Ukraine a little bit. I know Kyiv. Kyiv is a city that is six times larger than Paris. I don’t know if that gives people an idea. That means it’s huge. It’s stuffed with buildings everywhere, it’s impossible. Who takes Kyiv like that? It will take them. But then? Or they carpet bomb for days and they create a second Stalingrad. But I don’t think that will happen. So it’s very, very complicated. So what they’re doing here is circling around town, but very far away because you can see clearly, they’ve been blocked. For more than a week, they have not been able to move forward. So did they send men who weren’t very seasoned first? Will they send a second wave that will be much stronger, which is also possible? But in this case, there, as soon as they are in urban areas, it gets a little stuck all the same. So they are going around Kyiv, but very far in the countryside. So do you imagine what that means? Same in logistics. It’s that they’re going to have to guard every road.

Stefano: Every avenue and…

Eric: At a huge circumference circle of hundreds of miles. So that’s a monstrous number of men and vehicle materials. So it’s going to be very, very complicated for them. It’s not near. There, I can move forward which does not come close to falling. So I can’t see enough.

Stefano: Imagine your typical day when you work on the ground. First, how are you doing it? You pay attention to your safety as a photo reporter, I hope there are reporters who can listen to that too because there are quite a few people and photographers who have left for Ukraine. I have had information and I have read quite a few young people who want to experiment in war, in war photography, and who take advantage somewhere “of the situation.” Can you describe your typical day to us? What’s your daily routine? As a professional, a reporter, a photographer on the ground?

Eric: That question, I’m going to kick in touch. Because, if you want, the days are not alike. It depends on what I’m doing. And if I work in Kyiv, if I do subjects, more magazine subjects, if I decide to actually go and try to go to the front or if I take care of something very specific in a very specific place. So no. On the other hand, what I can answer is we were all young, what, we all have. I can’t tell young people not to come. The only thing I can tell them is that they have to have one thing in mind, like that. They imagine that they have seen five [dead] at the cinema or in a documentary. I have plenty of friends who are dead, who are no longer there, or who have been injured. Others, like me, we’re still here because we were incredibly lucky. And what they have to understand is that there is no recipe. You don’t get a second chance. Finally, therefore, that is what they need that they understand, is above all. They have to be careful. All I can advise them is here to find an old veteran like me. And then ask if I can take them.

Stefano: How do you work? For example, are you free to go and choose the locality where you want to go to work? Or, are there are restrictions from the Ukrainian authorities? Are you free to actually move, despite the risks, I mean? But are you free to go everywhere or are there really forbidden areas?

Eric: So you have to…there are writings and credentials to see. But, in general there, just with a French press card, you pass very easily because they like us so much. But on the other hand, there is always the last checkpoint before the front line or before the Russians, and unfortunately, who are there. Because if we continue, we come face to face with the Russians, but we can’t go. It’s very, very rare that we manage to work with the military, to take pictures of the front. They block us before. It’s, I think that out of the tens of thousands of images that already exist of Ukraine, there must be maybe ten of soldiers at the front?

Stefano: Yes. I know very little about that. That’s why too, my question is based on very, very few images. Real fights in fact…are there photographers accredited with the Ukrainian army?

Eric: No, no, nobody is working on what has been done. It’s really in the moments when we found ourselves there. And panic attacks. So you take three photos and there were none. Like anyway, it’s a conventional army. So in general, they don’t like to take us too much. They always find the trick to say “but it’s dangerous.” Alright, like we don’t know. No, but it’s actually…it’s an artillery war too. There is a lot of bombardment.

Stefano: In a war actually.

Eric: Yeah, yeah, a lot, a lot, a lot. We hear all-day departures, whistles, arrivals. It’s every day, every day like that.

Stefano: And citizens of Ukraine, citizens of Kyiv, how do they respond to your presence, to the presence of the international press. What’s your perception? They are happy that you are here to testify? Or they distrust you, what is it?

Eric: No, unlike then, unlike in the South where there are fewer journalists and maybe another mentality, I don’t know.

Stefano: I know there are fewer journalists in the South East.

Eric: Ah, because Kyiv is the capital. And then because the Russian army is at the gates of the capital. Alright.

Eric: And so they [journalists in the South] have a much harder time working. People are much more suspicious, they are not. They don’t respond easily. Whereas here [in Kyiv], no, no, it’s easy. People are very very nice, they are. I don’t mean they’re happy we’re here….I came to ask for help or ask for information. Everyone, everyone agrees, everyone participates.

Stefano: There you go.

Eric: It is…It’s very…There’s nothing to worry about. No one except the army who doesn’t want us to film them. That’s it. At one point, I have a morning, I arrive early, I was all alone. I see nine…seven, seven…soldiers killed, dead. They are taken away on a stretcher by other soldiers. Of course, they didn’t want me to take pictures.

Stefano: But there is also a war of propaganda, of images, I imagine. Everything is a lot, that’s it. If you had to draw a parallel between your experience in Bosnia or Chechnya and that’s what’s going on there, do you feel there’s more control? On the images that emerge, there are fewer of them, it’s the same?

Eric: Well it’s true, although it is where there is an image war, if only between the presidents interposed between Putin and Zelenskyy. You just have to see. We know very well that the Ukrainian president has largely won it. Yes, but we don’t see it at all anymore. Putin, you saw and we don’t see anything anymore.

Stefano: No.

Eric: He must have understood that he is not good.

Stefano: Yeah.

Eric: Other than as many as there are, not as many as Ukrainian presidents, that’s for sure. So I think those communicators had to stop there. They had to stop the error. There is an image war? Yes of course. Anyway, whatever the country, the soldiers don’t want their dead to be shown in general. And it can be understandable, it can be understandable too, of course. But in this case, that’s what you need to know. We do our job very, very, very often. We work with civilians. It is very, very rare that we work with the military. So obviously, fights, we can do it when we are with guerrillas or…Revolutions, for example. For things like that, we have easier access to a front zone because they are civilians, partisans and they are not conventional armies. Afterward, you can be embedded, but it’s very rare that you manage to work well even when you’re in ‘the belly’. But it’s obvious that for example, if there were fighting in Kyiv, it would be easier to work. Of course, because we can navigate, we can follow a group. Then there will be plenty of partisans, there will be plenty of civilians. So there, it will be much easier for us to really work on it.

Stefano: From…

Eric: …the fight. There, direct war photography, if I can say.

Stefano: You mentioned earlier the different types of stories that you create on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s for a magazine, sometimes it’s news.

Eric: News.

Stefano: And you want to tell us a bit more. That is to say? You decide the same morning what type of stories you follow a bit in the news, I imagine too. But how does it go in the head of a reporter on the ground for the distribution of work really? Who, what? What is it to decide? To do a magazine story one day that you saw the day before or follow the news? Do you want to explain to us?

Eric: Fine, fine. Of course, it works in relation to what we learn, in relation to the pipes that we have separated. Here, in the evening, you seek a little. And then maybe in the morning, on another piece of news, you branch off. You can change your angle. I’ll answer something to give people an idea. It’s that in fact, we have an enormous ability to adapt and on which we have learned to bounce back because very, very often, what we have planned or what we want to do does not work. More often than not it goes well. So I would say for people to give themselves one and one idea, it’s that before I leave [here] for Paris, when I find out that I can leave, I say to myself ok, I’m within the time frame of the day, that is to say, that I say to myself, ok, what am I going to do tomorrow? Then when I arrive at the Polish border and there, I start to meet the flow of refugees. I say it, I spend half a day. Who is it? What will happen? What would I like to do this after 12 p.m.? Then when I arrive in an area that is still a little closer to the front, that is to say for example in Kyiv, there, I go on time. What am I going to be able to do with them next? Or what will happen next? Because we are getting closer. When I get to Irpin where I’m not far from the front line. We go to the minute. What will happen in the next minute? What will I be able to do? And when we are on the front line, we go to the second.

Stefano: It’s really very clear, it’s very clear, the time, distribution of times. Reasoning and choice too. And you are inclined to do, sometimes obliged to do, according to the situation which is indeed changing very very very quickly. You could, I already asked you, but I’m quite curious given your experience. Could you draw a parallel or give us a little perspective on the differences between your experience in Bosnia, for example, and the one you are living in Ukraine today?

Eric: However, there are not too many parallels because the only parallel is that it is practically Europe, Bosnia and Europe. It’s the only parallel I could make because it’s also a bad example for me, because I didn’t work very well in Bosnia and I had a lot of problems each time. And then I’m not very, very happy to work on places where there is the international press. I call it the ‘Barnum media circus’. And there, it seems that we are 2000 journalists because I want to believe it, because it was at the painted Pont des Arts. It was maddening. And you go to town, you carry around, you see almost only journalists. So I’m not very…me, I preferred to go to the depths of Chechnya or Afghanistan, where I went a dozen times each in each country. And there, I was a little quiet. There was less chance of just meeting people. Compared to what I said at the beginning, it is that I think that alone, it is much easier to adapt or to be taken by a group or that people accept us. That’s it, it’s done. I find it more interesting that I’m not too late. This story interests me enormously, so I ignore, as they say, everyone. But for example, I spent several days at the Pont des Arts Pile so, then going to Erquelinnes, there were fewer people. But at the Pont de Gerpinnes where it was very visual and impressive, the number of people there was overwhelming. With fewer journalists. I spent more of my time trying to frame, avoiding other journalists than making my own images. And two days ago, two days ago, I left for the east of Kyiv, so in the open countryside which was a little scary since nobody, no noise, just the bombardments to the right, to the left. There are small woods so you know very well that at the end of these small woods, people, soldiers can see you without any problem whereas you can’t see them. So there, I was very very calm. It was much more pleasant to work on but less visual. No info. And so. And potentially much more dangerous. So it’s job choices. 

Stefano: So Eric, I take this last answer to make you ask the question of questions… When you work like that, a bit apart from the media circus, what do you hope to achieve with these images? What are you hoping for? That these images can have as a force of testimony, as an impact too? What’s this? What is it for you to testify? And what do you expect from these images? They will pass on to us? Not maybe tomorrow, but ten years from now?

Eric: It’s…it’s just a question, it’s the difference. You have to be different. What do I want to go and stand next to the photographers from Reuters and then AFP, who are obviously very good photographers, with a great chance that we will take practically the same photos. I will give an example. That’s one of the days at the bridge [in Irpin]. In the morning, there are many refugees, a number of journalists and a kind of rush and after 12:00 a lot fewer refugees. So the whole press is fighting. And then I stay, I don’t know why I stay. And late after 12 o’clock, a pope arrives, an Orthodox priest. There is a very strange light, very very soft, but very dark at the same time, bright but very dark, a bit dark. But there is a light that is there. And in the background, there is the smoke of a bombardment. All black to the dark sky. And they arrive in the middle of the river with the overturned car…The bombing of the bridge, in short. And everything is black. And he arrives with his son, his golden scarf, his, his red dress. He is there in the middle and he waits in the middle of the rubble for refugees to pass so that he can become a [?]. And I’m all alone. Well, there are two photographers. Karim running, we find ourselves at three, but that’s fine. Here it is. So here I am different. I have a picture of that. I know that the difference is made like that. You want to give another example that is completely off-topic? It was the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988.

Stefano: And yes, we are changing. You have loved? Yes, yes, the logic is. The same, I imagine.

Eric: The example is interesting, it is that as an accredited photographer at the Olympic Games, there are hundreds. Ok, what am I going to put them on the finish line of the 100 meters, the queen event with all the photographers from the telegraph agencies, the sports agencies. Sports Illustrated, they do it all. There are tens [of them]. What am I, a freelance photographer? I’m going to put myself in the middle, it’s no use. So what had I done? I went to all the locations that were prohibited in the stands in the opposite direction. I just did completely different stuff and at that time, Life Life magazine, still existed. At that time, on my own, I had a third of the publications in Life magazine. Against the whole earth. So it’s not because my photos were better. It’s just that I brought something different.

Stefano: Yes.

Eric: So it’s a bit, I think…the advice that can be left here is to sometimes think against the current and to see events from another perspective with a greater breadth to think a little more about posterity and less about. In the very very hot news, it could already have been a little in the analysis of the event. If I’m not mistaken. Ah yes, anyway, it’s always interesting to take an opposite view. It’s wrong. So there. Once again, compared to what we read our young photographers who arrive cultured. How do you grow? Understand how it all works. Educate yourself, don’t leave saying or I’m going to war, it’s no, it’s not that, it’s the essence of this job. What they need to understand is that the essence of this job is only a photograph, of people who will go down in history, the photos we take of these people. They will overtake us. They will go down in history. All these photos I took in Chechnya or anywhere else. These people, they are in the history books, they are in the history books, they are bought by museums. These photos, because it proves what happened, and what young photographers don’t really know is that they are living history with a capital H. The historic moment. They live it so these photos there, that they will take them, me, like all the photographers who are present, whatever photographer will have these photos chosen to remain in history. But there it is, these people. We have to pay attention to them, we owe them to keep their dignity. It’s really the key word, it’s paying attention to people. And we are not worse off or more experienced.

Stefano: Live from Kyiv. Thanks very much. Thank you very much for this very valuable testimony, full of common sense and passion. And thank you.

Eric: Thank you very much. Thanks, Stefano.