Iryna Rybakova’s photographs have been featured in media around the world, but using her camera is only part of her job as a corporal 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 37-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.
Rybakova is one of several press officers in the Ukrainian military tasked with facilitating journalists’ visits to the front lines. The junior sergeant in the 93rd Mechanized Brigade excels at repeatedly capturing her own imagery, which has become an icon of the war and garnered her brigade a huge following on social media.
After the “skull” photo of the tank turret appeared on the cover of The Economist, says Rybakova, “the image began to gain wild popularity.
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.
Despite her position in the military, she says she has to take several steps before she can fly her DJI Mavic Air 2. “I inform 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.
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.
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 officer and junior sergeant.
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.”
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 three-ton unguided bomb exploded with such force, she says, that it was “like an earthquake or a hell pit” that had opened up. A photo of the aftermath of this explosion shows a water-filled crater the size of a large swimming pool.
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 guys 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.”
“I finally slept normally that night,” Rybakova says of the sight of the dead officer. “The sight of enemy corpses calmed me.”