The Ukrainian soldier behind the iconic invasion photos – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty | Episode Movies

Iryna Rybakova’s photographs have been featured in media around the world, but using her camera is only part of her job as a second lieutenant and press secretary in the Ukrainian military.

As Iryna Rybakova explains the circumstances behind her most famous photo, she throws in a detail that underscores her personal connection to the Ukrainian war effort.

The above image of a skull-like turret on a destroyed Russian tank, the 38-year-old explains, was taken with a drone in March after Ukrainian troops retook the village of Husarivka in the Kharkiv region after a bitter battle.

“I just ask you to remember,” Rybakova says, “many of my comrades died in that battle.”

The photographer then names the soldiers Yulian Stupak and Oleksandr Garbuz, who were posthumously awarded Ukraine’s highest honor for their actions during the reconquest.

Iryna Rybakova
Iryna Rybakova

Rybakova is one of several press officers in the Ukrainian military tasked with facilitating journalists’ visits to the front lines. The junior lieutenant in the 93rd Mechanized Brigade excels at repeatedly capturing her own images, which have become icons of the war and garnered her brigade a massive following on social media.

Soldiers prepare ammunition just before the Russian invasion in February.
Soldiers prepare ammunition just before the Russian invasion in February.

After the “skull” photo of the tank turret appeared on the cover of The Economist, says Rybakova, “the image began to gain wild popularity.

A cemetery destroyed by artillery in Bakhmut in October
A cemetery destroyed by artillery in Bakhmut in October

Recently, an image Rybakova posted in October of an explosion crater in a Bakhmut cemetery was widely shared on social media as an example of the boundless physical destruction of the Russian invasion. Such front-line aerial photos have become rare today due to a ban on civilian use of drones and the high probability that an unidentified quadcopter could be shot out of the sky.

Two soldiers fly a drone from a position inside a house in an undisclosed location in October.
Two soldiers fly a drone from a position inside a house in an undisclosed location in October.

Despite her position in the military, she says she has to take several steps before she can fly her DJI Mavic Air 2.

“I tell the battalion command that I will deploy a drone in a certain area, and they warn the positions: at a certain time, in a certain place, our ‘bird’ will fly,” she says.

The Ukrainian flag and that of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (left) were photographed near the front lines of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in 2019
The Ukrainian flag and that of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (left) were photographed near the front lines of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in 2019

Rybakova told RFE/RL that she started taking photos in high school, using her bathroom as a makeshift darkroom. During the 10 years she spent working as a journalist in Ukraine, she kept photography as a hobby, using a range of equipment including medium format film cameras that capture crisp, cracker-sized negatives.

A Ukrainian soldier walks near the tail section of a Tochka-U ballistic missile in the Kharkiv region in April.
A Ukrainian soldier walks near the tail section of a Tochka-U ballistic missile in the Kharkiv region in April.

When the journalist joined the Carpathian Sich in 2015, then a voluntary paramilitary group with ties to an ultranationalist political party, Rybakova said her photography skills came in handy immediately. She is now serving in the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of Ukraine as a press secretary and second lieutenant.

A Ukrainian soldier paints over the
A Ukrainian soldier paints over the “Z” on a captured Russian armored vehicle.

Rybakova says after eight years of low-level conflict in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s massive invasion in February came as a shock.

“To be honest, in the army we thought that instead of going to the border posts, we would just go to the borders, set up a line of defense and hold our position for several months,” she says. “[We thought] maybe there would be provocations with shots from automatic weapons, but nothing more.”

A damaged memorial to a World War Two battle between Soviet and Nazi forces stands over the wreckage of a modern armored vehicle in the retaken town of Trostyanka in Ukraine's Sumy region in March.
A damaged memorial to a World War Two battle between Soviet and Nazi forces stands over the wreckage of a modern armored vehicle in the retaken town of Trostyanka in Ukraine’s Sumy region in March.

The photographer and soldier felt all the fury of war. On February 26, minutes after arriving in the newly captured town of Okhtyrka in the Sumy region, Rybakova said she jumped onto the tarmac when a Russian plane dropped what she believed to be an FAB-3000 bomb on a nearby Ukrainian military position dropped and killed many people.

The unguided 3-ton bomb exploded with such force, she says, that it was “like it was an earthquake or a hell pit” that opened up. A photo of the aftermath of this explosion shows a water-filled crater the size of a large swimming pool.

A Ukrainian tank driver was sprinkled with mud in an undisclosed location in October
A Ukrainian tank driver was sprinkled with mud in an undisclosed location in October

When asked about her most memorable experience documenting the war, the photographer’s response illustrates the relentless new perspective of many Ukrainians who have seen their country ravaged by the invasion.

“On the 24th, in Okhtyrka, the boys met an enemy column and completely destroyed it,” Rybakova recalls. “They took me to dead Russians. One of them was officer Ilyasov, a Buryat by nationality. He was killed by a 19 year old [Ukrainian] Soldier. The body was thrown off the road and covered with grass.”

Freshly picked wildflowers lie next to a tree blown apart by shrapnel.
Freshly picked wildflowers lie next to a tree blown apart by shrapnel.

“I finally slept normally that night,” Rybakova says of the sight of the dead officer. “The sight of enemy corpses calmed me.”

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