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Photographing the levity and macabre of living through the war in Ukraine


Even amidst war, love stories take shape. That's at the heart of a new photo essay that was published on npr.org documenting the war in Ukraine, captured by four-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Carol Guzy. The photos show a couple navigating a new altered reality. A 28-year-old sergeant, Misha, is a commander with Ukraine's 80th Airborne Assault Brigade. He lost both legs last year while fighting in Luhansk during the Russian invasion. And by his side in many of the images is his fiancee, 19-year-old Iryna, or Ira. Taken together, the images showcase both the horrors of war, but also the ability to transcend over adversity. And Carol Guzy is here to talk more about this essay. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAROL GUZY: Thanks so much.

NADWORNY: So I wonder - how did you find this couple, and what made you want to document them in this way?

GUZY: Well, I originally was going to do a more general story on amputees, since the number is obviously growing, unfortunately, in Ukraine. And there are so many amputees now, and there's so much need. But the orthopedic hospital that I went to in Lviv - I was meeting various people. And when I saw them, it was just immediately in my mind that they were going to be the story. I mean, they were so positive and so sweet, and their love was just adorable. And it was definitely - you know, their spirit transcended this horrible nightmare that he went through, losing his legs. And, you know, it's just kind of embodied the spirit and the resilience of the Ukrainian people in general to me.

NADWORNY: So you started seeing kind of these intimate moments between them - because the photos, like, really show that.

GUZY: Yeah. I mean, I started slow and just, you know, did pictures of them, you know, working out or, you know, using his prosthetic legs. And as I got to know them, you know, they were really open. I mean, in general, most people in Ukraine would just welcome us with open arms - our cameras. And I think they're very savvy, and they understand the importance of documenting, you know, this war and all of the elements and aspects of it. And they just basically said, yeah, come in our room. You can sleep here if you want, you know? So it was that kind of relationship. And then we just - you know, I spent a lot of time with them, you know, going through their days - their daily routine and - you know, and they just even became even more open.

And when they were at the pool - he goes for therapeutic swimming - it was like magic because they - he was free from that wheelchair, and they would - you know, they would swim together and almost become one body, swimming together. And it was just beautiful to watch.

NADWORNY: In the piece, you talk about Misha's humor. You say his ammunition is humor - at times self-deprecating and dark. When asked for his weight and height, he quips, with or without legs?

GUZY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: Can you tell me just a little about their personalities?

GUZY: Yeah, he jokes all the time. I mean, sometimes she ignores him because it's just constantly - everything's a joke. But it's, you know, his way of getting through everything. And, you know, it breaks the ice, and it makes people feel more comfortable, I think, around him. And the fact that he has lost his legs - the fact that he can joke about it is pretty inspiring.

And he was a bodybuilder, and he's very proud of his physique still. I never saw one ounce of self-pity or - you know, he wasn't self-conscious about, you know, the fact he has no legs. He's just right out there and loves having his picture taken.

NADWORNY: (Laughter).

GUZY: Oh, and she's - you know, she's...

NADWORNY: Helpful for you.

GUZY: Yeah. And she's much more demure and, you know, a little more quiet, but very, very strong. At her age, you know, it's incredible how she cares for him. But she, at one point, said, too, that she - you know, it's hard for her in many ways, and she needs a lot of the cheering up as well...


GUZY: ...Not just him. 'Cause as a caregiver, you know, of course, it can be tough at times.

NADWORNY: One of the challenges heading into 2023 is how to keep the public here in the U.S. interested and engaged in this war that's so far away. Do you think about that, and does it change the type of stories you go after and how you report them?

GUZY: Absolutely. You know, on any long-term story, there's compassion fatigue, for one thing. And it's always a challenge for journalists to find the kind of stories that may engage people again. And I think this is one of them. You know, it's a very positive story - you know? - and I'm so glad it was published over the holidays 'cause it's - there's such a sweetness about it. Even though, you know, it was horrible what happened to them, the fact that they - you know, they're dealing with it in the way they are. And their love story - for better or worse, they're the epitome of, you know, marriage vows, even though they haven't gotten married yet. But they - in their minds, they are already married.

I feel like people get so overwhelmed, I think, seeing constant dead bodies and destruction and rubble and the horrors of war, that, you know, to give them a little bit of hope, I think, is really important to provide balance in our coverage.

NADWORNY: Carol Guzy is a four-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer. You can find her latest photo essay which documents the effects of the Ukraine war at npr.org. Carol, thank you so much for joining us.

GUZY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.