The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Was this Ukrainian combat photo staged? Soldiers and photographers think so.

Soldiers running from an explosion in Shyrokne in eastern Ukraine. June 4 2016. (Photo courtesy Dmitry Muravsky)
Placeholder while article actions load

The photo from the war front in eastern Ukraine is striking: A cascade of mud, dirt and debris rockets skyward as three soldiers run toward cover. To their right, a discarded baby carriage almost within arms’ reach. The picture, posted on Facebook earlier this month, quickly went viral as a token of a war that often seems forgotten.

But a number of Ukraine-based photographers and soldiers claim the photo was staged. In an open letter, the photographers said the picture is a “clumsy” attempt at information war and that if the photo is fake, it has the potential to damage the reputation of the Ukrainian media writ large.

Dmitry Muravsky, the man who took the picture and an amateur photographer who volunteers with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, insists the image is real.

The dispute has broken out primarily on Facebook and on a Ukrainian news site that published the open letter. The issue is particularly sensitive since fledgling Ukrainian outlets have been deadlocked with their better-funded Russian counterparts for more than two years in their efforts to show opposing sides of a war in which propaganda has played a major part. The conflict between government troops and Russian-backed separatists has killed upward of 9,500 people.

“We emphasize that the only thing we are winning in the conflict with Russia is uncompromising and truthful presentation of information from the [front],” the letter reads. “We kindly ask not to put these photos on a par with Russian fakes. The war is really going on, really, people are dying, and to prove it there is [a huge] number of documentary photo and video evidence.”

If the photo is fake, it enters a long line of war images marred by controversy, such as Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier” taken during the Spanish Civil War.

In conversations with Muravsky over WhatsApp and Facebook, the photographer said that the picture in question was taken June 4 in the small village of Shyrokne just east of the coastal city of Mariupol and that the explosion was created by “the enemy.” The village has been a flash point for artillery duels and small-arms fire since Ukrainian volunteer battalions pushed the separatists out of Mariupol in the summer of 2014. Since Muravsky published the picture to his Facebook on Aug. 15, he has returned to the village and interviewed two of the soldiers supposedly depicted in the image.

While the soldiers in the video confirmed the incident, according to a translation by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an officer from the unit wrote in a Facebook post that the men in the video had been co-opted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to buoy Muravsky’s account. The officer, a platoon commander named Viktor Moroz, said he served in Shyrokne from February to June but was not there when Muravsky took the picture.

“If Muravsky or the Ministry of Defense begins to put pressure on the commanders of the unit or on the guys, I will learn about this at once. And I hope and believe that my instructions to the men always to act according to their conscience and those days that we spent as one fighting family did not pass in vain,” he wrote. “I officially declare that Muravsky’s photo with the explosion in [Shyrokne] was staged. The place is real, it’s on the front. The men were told what to do and how to act, there were no injuries and sprained limbs. There was no bombardment, an explosive device was detonated remotely, covered in a sack or in cement or in a mixture used for construction, or in chalk.”

According to Kenton Fulmer, a former U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal technician and current researcher at Armament Research Services, the picture of the blast supports Moroz’s assertion that the explosive was indeed buried underneath something, though a similar effect could have been made by a mortar or artillery round set to explode after penetrating the surface.

“If the mortar had a short delay-action fuse, as opposed to a super quick fuse, then it could present a similar pattern, but I would hope to see some sort of signature fragmentation,” Fulmer said, adding that he would need physical evidence to make hard conclusions.

Muravsky provided the raw image and a number of sequential photos following the blast to The Washington Post for analysis. When asked for the photographs before the explosion, Muravsky said he deleted them because they were “unnecessary.”

“I am not a pro and had not intention of this photo to give to the press so did not know these standards,” he said.

According to an image analysis provided by researchers at the Monterey, Calif.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who ran the photo through a piece of forensic software called Tungstène, there is relatively little evidence of tampering on the raw photo. The picture was taken at 12:50:29 p.m. on June 4, according to the researchers who have experience analyzing photography. The camera was focused on the left side of the frame, specifically at the baby carriage. According to a Ukrainian Ministry of Defense-associated website that maintains a record of attacks on the front, there was a mortar strike in Shyrokne from 12:45 to 12:47. From June 4 to July 4, there were only three other mortar attacks that occurred before 5 p.m.; the other 11 during that time frame occurred after dusk, according to the site.

Cease-fire monitors were in the village from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. that morning but did not record explosions for that day, according to Alexandra Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE.

“Of course, this does not preclude that this happened, and we did not observe it,” she said. 

Muravsky uploaded the picture to his Facebook on Aug. 15 into his album titled “Pain of War.” The photos in the album have no captions. Roughly two days later, the pictures began circulating on Twitter and were featured in a Business Insider article titled “Images from the front lines of Ukraine are a vivid reminder that there’s still a war going on in Europe

The article features a photograph that Muravsky included in his “Pain of War” album depicting two soldiers running in a trench with an explosion behind them.

The photo appears in the same series as the one under scrutiny, but when asked about the trench picture, Muravsky said it happened at a different time and place but would not specify when and where the photo was taken. When asked whether it was training or combat, Muravsky said that he was “not prepared to discuss the photo.”

In another album of his, Muravsky has a picture of Ukrainian troops with similar camouflage patterns and markings on their helmets as those of the soldiers in the trench. In this image, however, the soldiers are kneeling in a field as explosions erupt from a nearby tree line. Muravsky says the picture was taken during training. Both the field and trench images were uploaded the same day.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Muravsky has given past photos to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, and they have been used in advertisements for the military. On Aug. 25, Muravsky said in a Facebook post that he would respond to any further allegations that his photo is staged in the form of a lawsuit.

Andrew Roth in Moscow contributed to this report.