It could be one of the greatest war photographs ever taken – or a fake.
A controversy is escalating in Ukraine over a photo that seems to capture the conflict with Russia-backed separatists in a single frame. It shows two soldiers carrying a wounded comrade down a dirt road as an explosion rips up the ground behind them, sending smoke into the sky. An empty baby carriage stands near a blown-out building by the road.
But a group of Ukrainian photojournalists is crying foul over the photo by Dmytro Muravskiy, who works with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
In an open letter published this week, they contend that the photograph was staged and call it part of a “clumsy” attempt by the ministry to engage in an information war with Russia.
“We kindly ask [viewers] not to put these photos on a par with Russian fakes,” they wrote. “The war is really going on…people are dying, and there is a huge quantity of documentary photographic and video evidence to prove it.”
“I’ve shot seven wars and I do not believe that picture,” Efrem Lukatsky, a Kyiv-based Associated Press photographer who signed the letter, told RFE/RL.
Muravskiy has stood by the photo -- and is threatening to sue his detractors.
In an effort to prove the authenticity of the image, he posted videos on Facebook on August 19 in which two of the three Ukrainian soldiers pictured in the photo describe the moment it was taken -- at one point ducking as bullets zip by, interrupting their account.
“I turned my ankle and there was an explosion behind me,” the soldier says. “My comrades threw me on their backs and we ran.”
Several photojournalists and others who have documented the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 9,500 people since April 2014, were united in saying they believe the photo was staged.
“He makes war ‘beautiful’ and unreal,” said Yevhen Stepanenko, a documentary filmmaker and TV host.
The controversy plays into a larger debate over the state of journalism in Ukraine, which has been colored by the war and by Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. Reporters and media-freedom advocates say truthful, objective journalism is falling victim to a form of nationalism whose adherents treat anything they see as criticism of Ukraine as treason.
Other photographs that Muravskiy has taken of the conflict are unusual for their timing, light, and a style of image-handling that is more common in commercial photography than in news photography.
But it’s one particular aspect of the situation which some say points conclusively to the suspect image being staged: the absence of any photos taken just before it.
In a Facebook message to RFE/RL, Muravskiy said that he had deleted several images that were taken before the photo that has caused the controversy. A screenshot from his laptop shows images from after the explosion, but none has been released showing the moments which led up to the one in which the soldiers -- one with a “sprained ankle” -- are seen fleeing under fire.
Muravskiy claims the reason for deleting these key images -- a highly unusual step for a photographer in such a situation -- was lack of experience.
“Since I have never worked with publications before and I just [didn’t realize it] is so important. ... For me, it will be a very big lesson,” he said.
Muravskiy told RFE/RL that he volunteers as a consultant to the Ukrainian military on engineering and management issues and was in the town where the photograph was taken because he tours the front lines in the conflict, inspecting forward positions.
He said the Defense Ministry has taken to using his photographs in the last few months and has made posters and advertising material from them. He said the ones the ministry uses are from training, not combat. Some of his pictures have been on display at the Defense Ministry.
The Defense Ministry press service declined immediate comment when reached by phone on August 25.
In a Facebook post the same day, Muravskiy threatened legal action over any further allegations that the photo is staged.
He said that from now on he would “respond to new accusations only in the form of lawsuits claiming damage to my business reputation.”
With reporting by Merhat Sharipzhan and RFE/RL’s Russian Service