Vlada and Kostyantyn Liberov were among the first civilians to enter the territory of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region behind the successful lightning counteroffensive that sent the occupying Russian forces reeling in retreat.
“In our conversations with locals, it seemed the occupation was bearable,” Vlada said in a dual interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “They were all very happy to see their homes returned to their native country, to hear Ukrainian again. They really are -- and we saw this with our own eyes -- greeting Ukrainian soldiers with tears of joy.”
Before Russia launched its massive, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the Liberovs worked as wedding photographers and photography instructors in the Black Sea port city of Odesa. Since then, however, they have traveled the country to document the war. Their photographs have appeared on the social media pages of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and elsewhere.
“Our main task is to make sure that no one forgets about the war,” Kostyantyn said. “It may sound strange, but we want to show all these horrors beautifully.”
Their images capture emotional moments such as the reunions of soldiers with their spouses or displaced persons returning to their shattered homes. In one image, a grief-stricken soldier looks at the wreckage of a vehicle in which one of his comrades was killed by fire from Russian forces:
“We know that we are different from classical war photographers, but we aren’t going to change anything,” Vlada said. “As Kostya has said, social media is one of the fronts where we are fighting these days…. Our photographs are the ones that are used by bloggers and by [conventional] media. They often help people express their own pain, even about things that they didn’t see with their own eyes.”
When a photograph gets 10,000 or 100,000 reposts, she added, she knows that 10,000 or 100,000 people have been reminded that there is a war in Ukraine – and they have reminded others as well.
“And if they hadn’t reposted it, they wouldn’t have remembered,” she said. “I really think that one of the reasons that Ukraine has survived -- one reason why Ukraine is holding on -- is because we haven’t been forgotten. Our Western partners haven’t forgotten us, and we haven’t let ourselves forget either.”
“Because we are constantly shouting about it,” Kostyantyn added.
The couple recalled recently seeing photographs of Russia’s military actions and purported war crimes in Syria in 2015-16.
"First, you understand that the same things happened there that are happening here,” Vlada said.
“And then you understand to your horror that you simply did not know about it,” Kostyantyn said, finishing her thought. “It is just the horrific realization that it turns out that Russia did all the same things there – cities laid to waste, when you see whole streets without a single undamaged building…. All of this already happened, but I didn’t even hear about it.”
More specifically, Vlada said, the media covers such things and moves on. But the world soon forgets “because in that area at that time, they hadn’t developed the ability or the habit of taking their telephones and crying out themselves about their own pain."
“In this regard, Ukrainians are doing well because we are always reminding the world that we exist,” she added. “And Kostya and I are helping with this, I think.”
When they began their journey, the couple had a hard time coming to terms with the human tragedies they began seeing on a daily basis.
“I refused to acknowledge that today or tomorrow someone’s son or father or husband would go off to war and never return,” Vlada said. “But thousands and thousands of Ukrainian families are going through precisely this. And it terrifies me that this will just somehow become a statistic. That is one of the reasons why Kostya and I are doing what we do.”
Over the seven months of the invasion, the couple have regularly come under fire, steadfastly trying to be as close to the fighting as possible.
“We are guided by the excellent quotation from [American-Hungarian war photographer] Robert Capa, who said, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,’” Vlada said.
Moreover, the pair, whose native language is Russian, began speaking exclusively Ukrainian both in public and private. Kostyantyn said he believes many of Ukraine’s woes could have been avoided “if we all spoke Ukrainian and hadn’t had all these Russian-speaking regions and so on."
“One of the first things I did [after Russia invaded] was to change the language on my telephone and computer and other equipment,” he said.
The couple is now based in Kharkiv and only rarely are they able to return to Odesa to visit their parents and beloved dogs.
“Whenever we are back in Odesa, it takes us no more than two days before we are overwhelmed by a feeling of guilt – that we are not doing enough, that we have done too little, and that we have to keep moving on,” Vlada said.