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Photographer of controversial Ukrainian combat photo ‘dismissed’ from duties

Soldiers run from an explosion in Shyrokne in eastern Ukraine on June 4. (Dmitry Muravsky)

The government of Ukraine will no longer use the work of Dmitry Muravsky, an amateur photographer and volunteer for the country’s Ministry of Defense, after the authenticity of a viral picture taken in the country’s war-torn east came into question.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense announced on Sunday Muravsky’s dismissal in a Sunday statement that said the “public reaction” to a series of Muravsky’s photos had led to Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak’s decision to dismiss him.

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

The controversy surrounding Muravsky’s photos–and if they were staged or not–is particularly sensitive as the Ukrainian government has sought to distance itself from any potential comparisons to its Russian counterpart, which has been accused of spreading propaganda in an effort to win over public perception in the now two-year-old conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists.

“The Ministry of Defense recognizes the work of [Dmitry Muravsky]. [The] Defense Agency has received a lot of his high quality and artistic design photos that were never considered by the Ministry as documentary or real war photos,” the statement said. “Ukraine has always adhered to the principle of uncompromising truth and transparency in its war against the Russian aggression, including Russian propaganda.”

Muravsky’s pictures in question, including the troops running from an explosion in a rubble strewn street, quickly went viral after they were uploaded in mid-August.

Business Insider published an article featuring the images titled “Images from the front lines of Ukraine are a vivid reminder that there’s still a war going on in Europe” and then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt tweeted the photos as “Amazing new images from the #Shyrokyne front of Ukraine’s forgotten war – outside #Mariupol.”

Muravsky had been hired on June 16 to help “establish the Information and Coordination Centre for volunteer photographers, cameraman, artists, filmmakers and scriptwriters” that would “allow them to create a high quality content” for Ukrainian armed forces, according to the Ministry of Defense’s statement regarding his dismissal.

“All photos that attracted public attention were taken by the author before his official appointment to the position in the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and at his personal discretion. The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine has never considered those photos as real war photos and made no official statement in this regard,” the statement said.

Muravsky has adamantly defended the image of the troops running from the explosion despite it being the subject of an open letter by Ukrainian photojournalists that called it a “clumsy” attempt at information warfare and a Ukrainian soldier familiar with the incident said the photo was “staged” and that the troops involved had been coerced to defend Muravsky’s account by higher-ups.

According to the soldier, an officer named Viktor Moroz, buried explosives along the side of the road provided the aesthetic of incoming artillery and the baby carriage in the photo was placed there.

A database maintained by a Ukrainian organization associated with the Ministry of Defense did, however, record a mortar attack at roughly the same time and place of Muravsky’s picture.

While Muravsky has defended his hallmark photo, one of the pictures used in both Pyatt’s tweet and the Business Insider article have since been deleted from Muravsky’s Facebook. The picture shows two soldiers running in a trench with ammo as something explodes behind them. When initially asked about the picture over WhatsApp, Muravsky said the picture was taken in combat sometime in mid-June but would not specify where the image was taken. Upon further inquiry he said he was “not prepared to discuss the photo.”

Muravsky refused to answer any questions about why some of his pictures have been deleted.

On Aug. 15, Muravsky uploaded a series of photos to his Facebook that depicted a number of scenes involving Ukrainian troops framed by explosions in the background. The photos had no caption or identifying marks other than their album titles: “Pain of War” and “Fears of War.”

One of the most notable images was the one showing the three soldiers running from an explosion, a picture Muravsky said was taken in early June in the village of Shroykne. That image was uploaded to “Pain of War” with no caption.

Also in that album was the now-deleted trench picture.

In the album “Fears of War” Muravsky has numerous photos showing Ukrainian troops in, what appears to be, combat. The images are distinct for the cinematic framing and are often buttressed with explosions and debris. When asked about them, Muravsky said they were taken during “training.” One of the pictures in the album featured Ukrainian troops dressed similarly to those in the trench photo, notably wearing the same camouflage pattern and red markings. In the image, the troops are in a field kneeling as explosions impact near their vehicles. Muravsky said this photo was also “training,” but it has since been deleted off his Facebook page.

Muravsky told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last week that his pictures had been used in the past by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as advertisements and in an Aug. 25 Facebook post said that he would respond to claims that his photos were staged with legal action.