This Is Reno photojournalist Ty O’Neil recently returned from Ukraine where he was covering the conflict with Russia.
In this episode, we have a very special guest host. Lucia Starbuck interviews O’Neil about his recent visit to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion. They discuss what he saw, the challenges he faced and how Ukrainians treated an independent journalist trying to cover the conflict.
His startling imagery was published in a series of photo galleries and articles on This Is Reno.
Listen to the podcast online here or on all major podcast apps. We also are on KWNK 97.7 FM community radio on Sunday mornings.Support the show
Welcome to The this is Reno podcast and radio show. We are broadcasting on kW NK 97.7 FM on Sunday mornings as well as on all major podcast apps. On today's show we have a very special guest and a very special guest host Lucci Starbuck is here with this as Reno's photo journalist, Ty O'Neill. They discussed ties recent visit to the Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion. Here are Ty and Lucia. Hi, Ty, thanks for joining me today. Yeah. Hi, Alicia. It's good to see you. So you just returned from Ukraine, can you tell me a little bit about just the overview of your trip. So I hate to say it, but actually don't exactly know how many days I was over there. Because especially when you're traveling alone, you just kind of lose track of what's happening. But basically, I flew into Poland, because obviously the airspace over Ukraine is closed. So I flew into Poland, worked a day or two in Warsaw, which is the capital Poland. Then I got on a bus to prison miski, which I'm not saying that town correctly, but that's as close as I can get, which is sort of one of the major borders between Ukraine and Poland right now. And it's where the railway system comes in. And the railway system and Ukraine is doing most of the the back and carry await for refugees right now. I worked there for like two days, kind of covering, you know, the the situation at the border. Then I went into law Aviv, which is the biggest major city in Ukraine, nearest to the Polish border. It's like an ancient city. It's like one of the few that's like, never really seen a huge amount of war. It's it's a big city, but it's not huge. Right now. It's huge, though, because obviously a lot of Ukrainians who don't necessarily want to flee the country entirely, are now in Ukraine. So there's like, no hotel rooms, obviously. And a lot of news media is there. So you're saying like no rooms, it's really dense, packed all the time. And, you know, there's still a curfew. So like, I feel it changes, I want you to guess what it is right now. But like, when I was there, I think it was 10. And you'd see people would hit like nine o'clock and everybody's like, Oh, crap, we got to get back. So it's been a while and Lviv covering everything I could refugees, lots of about refugees, it was mostly what I worked on there. Then I went to Kyiv, the central city of Ukraine, which is more or less where the war was happening at that time, obviously thinks of kind of Russians have kind of moved out of there recently. But when I was there, that was still like a pretty ongoing war. Due to logistic issues, I wasn't able to get to the front line, like I would have liked, we were still able to get to where Russians had hit towns, missiles, bombings, we were stopped by the Ukrainian military informing us that like down the road that we're rushing, so we definitely still got out there. But I wasn't in like, you know, cities like mero pool that are just decimated. I wasn't at that kind of stuff, just from basically a money restraint. So I spent some time in Kyiv. Gotta hope I'm saying that right. I do apologize to anyone if I get the town's backwards. I've been hearing the Russian pronunciation and the Ukrainian pronunciation the whole time I've been writing the Ukrainian ones, but I don't exactly know how to say it. Spend some time and give. Then I ended up back in Levine for a little bit then back at Poland for a little bit and eventually back to the US. Can you describe what what you saw on what you heard while you were there? It just depends on where you were. And the interesting thing was like, the Vive more or less is kind of untouched by the war as far as like damage goes. And of course there was that fuel depot hit. I was actually on a train headed to Kiv on that day, which I don't know if that's good luck or bad luck that I wasn't there. But it was really one of the only times Louisville has been hit. That being said, like obviously that's where the refugees are coming through. There's a ton of Ukrainian military, there's training grounds. The railway goes through there. So it's this big hub right now even though it's kind of in this you know, I guess air quotes safe zone. So there's that's a really Ditmas different atmosphere than Kia like Li Li even though it has a curfew. There's like nightlife all the cafes are open, there's tons of people, but at like two o'clock in the afternoon, the air raid sirens go off. In Kyiv most of the city is completely empty. I mean, you can walk down, I walked across like anyone's been able to say this since like the 2014 revolution over there. I walked across like the six to eight lane, major road that goes straight through the middle of the town like through the central square, you can just walk straight across it and normally you'd have to go like into underground passageways to get to the other side, or like waited a crosswalk or whatever. But like now you could just walk it was it was empty, just empty and the whole time and you're in Kyiv, not not constantly every minute, but to the point where you just get completely used to it. It's just like massive explosions. And because you're in the middle of a city, it's hard to tell exactly where they're coming from. So like, I kept thinking, why aren't I hearing this coming from the north, like these noises, but like, oh, because it's bouncing off. building after building after building so like, One explosion might sound like three or it might sound like a different direction. And you just get used to it, but then there'd be an explosion that would shake the windows, and it was like, Ooh, that was a big one or a close one. And then sometimes a couple of times I heard gunshots and it's like, okay, why are there gunshots in the middle of Kev when the war is like out of paper. But same thing in Lviv there what you wouldn't ever hear an explosion leave, but multiple nights in you know, like right around curfew. I was in my little rental and you just hear gunfire. And what it turned out to be at least on one instance was someone was flying like a drone, not like the giant military drones just like a quadcopter or whatever. Over a like a military base. And all the soldiers just unloaded trying to shoot this thing down. And of course, we never got confirmation if they did or didn't. But yeah, you're just like, sitting in your little room in my little room just like typing away at like 830 at night, trying to get my article and all sudden there's just gunfire everywhere. And of course, because I make good decisions like going to a warzone. I go where's my camera when I run out of my building, like down the street trying to find where this gunfire is. So no matter where you were, that you could definitely like feel the effects of the war, but it was in really, really different ways. So it just depends on where you are in like, obviously the border. You were in Poland, the war isn't in Poland, at least at this time. But that's where the refugees are. So that's where you're seeing people like holding on to like, their all their personal belongings and like Ikea bags or plastic bags, or, you know, sitting like one family member is sitting on like six suitcases while the other family members trying to go like, figure out what's the next step? Because so many people got to the border, and they're like, What do I do now? Like I made it out of the war into Poland, but like, what now do I stay in Poland do I try to like, and then that's like a whole nother battle for those people. Unfortunately, I really like how you describe that. That must be such an eerie feeling when air raid sirens go off one and the the weird thing was to like when I got to live Eve that was still not early on, because I was late. But you could still see quite a few people who would like run into shelters, or at least get undercover or get away from windows. But after like five days of air alarms, or air raid sirens and nothing happening, people get pretty bold. So like the air raid siren goes off, and everybody like looks around and you can hear all the cell phones because obviously they're using their network to like say like, take shelter immediately. And it really is like so you want an ice cream or what? And then of course, you know, all the TV stations that are alive are like there's another air raid siren you're like it's this six today. Like I think there was one day where we had six on like a day. So it is hard, like you know, you get used to it. But then of course the the Russians did actually hit the fuel depot. So when I came back from cube, which was like, days after the thing, an air raid siren went off. And I noticed a very different atmosphere like that a ride saying when went off and probably 70% of people were like, it least taking notice trying to like head towards a shelter going in a building. Whereas like before, it was like the opposite. You know, 30% were like, Oh, we got to be safe and 70% were like, don't worry about it kind of swapped on him like so that was a definitely an interesting thing. And there's also because Aviv is where refugees are going. There's people who were coming from mera pool, Odessa, Kharkiv Kyiv, who when they heard an Aryan siren, it meant probably something was like coming. Whereas lovies would set up air raid sirens much more like, hey, there's like, it was hard. I don't wanna say anything like I know officially. Ukraine's very tight lipped about some things. But what I did talk to them, they explained it like, in case you have an air raid siren meant missiles coming and they were gonna try to shoot down in La vie. An air raid siren might just mean that there's like a high altitude drone, or an airplane or there's a missile, but they don't exactly know where it's going. So you end up with these air raid sirens where the the siren goes off for like five minutes, but technically that the air raid is like two hours, and then they'll sound another different alarm to say like, okay, it's stopped. Whereas in Kyiv and other other cities in Ukraine, if the air is sent went off, that meant like it's coming or whatever is happening is happening right now, but then it was over. So it was that was like a totally different experience from louisv to others. Other cities in Ukraine seems like a really confusing and chaotic time. Yeah. And Levine and I wrote a little bit about on this was like Levine is actively trying to be a respite. So like, people that like run the parks, like the city parks or the museums, they're doing, like free, obviously, the museums are closed, because the more but, you know, you can still go look at a church or look at a historic building or go to a park. So at least for a long time, I don't know if they're still doing it. But at the time I was there, they were offering free tours. Obviously, in Ukrainian this wasn't for tourists to like, so people could go explore Levine. And it was like, that was an act of thing that the government was doing, because it was like these people just fled, like Russian invasion violence, and they've come to the city, they need something to do. And we have this really historic pretty city with a bunch of parks. And if you were willing to, like volunteer their time to like lead a tour group around, so they were actively like, they acknowledge that Louisville is this like safe haven for people. But at the same time, they're not like, You're not getting away from the war. They're not trying to pretend like it's not happening. Like, there's signs everywhere. There's sandbags, there's fully armed military everywhere. So it's not that they're trying to like give you a place Oh, the word doesn't exist, everything's fine. But it is definitely like a respite place of like, you know, where it's, it's it's trying to be a celebration of Ukrainian culture, at a time when Ukrainian culture is quite literally under attack by the Russians. So not just the war, but they're trying to call them Nazis. They're trying to say that their Ukrainians are coming like genocide against the Roma's. All that kind of stuff. So like, right now is a really defensive time for Ukrainian culture alongside military. What did some of the signs say? I'm not good enough at Ukrainian to tell you. But I can say to the credit, the Ukrainians, these are not people that beat around the bush, one of my photos that did better than then some of my others was there's a pain. It's like a poster of a Ukrainian woman shoving a pistol in Putin's mouth. Like that's very direct. It's not a hinting around anything there. And then, you know, it's a lot of like, Glory to Ukraine, that kind of stuff, like very, like, patriotic but very, like anti Russian invasion. And it's very, you know, they're the ones that got attacked, so they're fighting. So you don't see a lot of stop the war. Like I saw a lot of stop the war when I was in Poland. In Ukraine, obviously, they would if the worst stop would be great. But there was much more of an incentive, unlike fight and defend Ukraine, because they can't stop the war. It wasn't their choice in the first place. So that's a it was kind of a difference in in signage was like, the one thing I would say and they directly did this for Western media was there were signs everywhere about close the sky. That was probably the biggest message it was like on every government building in English. Close the skies because Russian airpower is just greater than Ukraine's. And I think Ukraine really, at least when I was there had a feeling like we're making foot work on the ground, but we don't have the Air Force that that Russia does. So like if you're not going to come and help us you know, with with ground troops, close the sky, let us do the fighting. That was like, that was a really distinct message that was very phrase for Westerners like written in English, around where the media was major roads, billboards in English so that we would see it and photograph it seems very purposeful that it was in English. Anytime you saw something in English, I took it like a little grain of salt, because I'm like, Well, I know the audience is not Ukrainian. That being said, it's also like, okay, that's the message that Ukraine is trying to get out. I'm going to state that that's the message Ukraine wants to get out. But I think especially with the closer sky thing, it was definitely more of like a pleading like no for like, we really really want this it's gonna make a huge difference for us. That was probably the thing that Ukraine wanted the most publicly at least how how was media treated while you were there? Specifically Western media. I was there and I I'm hesitant to overly criticize, because there are saboteurs really, I mean, that's a real problem. That being said, I think I got it worse than some other people. Sure. I got it way easier than some but worse than others. Since this is a podcast you should describe what you look like me Oh, I'm, I was very often mistaken for Ukrainian but I was apparently also very often mistaken for Russian. Very, very blond haired, blue eyed, five, five individual who is of military age, so I was under suspicion at all times. And basically, depending on where you were in Lavy, things were a lot easier. As a reporter, there was a lot more press. So you didn't tend to get singled out? Because like, if if the military is checking paperwork and there's 13 camera people at the train station, you know, you can see they're like, Okay, you have paperwork. Yes. All right. Thank you. That's all I've done. That's all you need. You have it. I don't care. You're good. Kev, was the opposite. Kia got to the point where I was like, I don't know how to function as a reporter anymore. What do you because every and this is not really a joke. Every intersection, I was being stopped, surrounded? What's your paperwork? What are you doing? Where are you going? Let me see your photos. And then you go through all that. And that was fine. And then you go to the next intersection had the exact same interaction, it would take like, it took extremely long time to get anywhere. And like where my little rental was, in Kyiv, there was only one road, I could walk all the others if I tried to walk down at with cameras, they'd be like, No, can you like, go all the way around? And I was like, Yeah, I'll walk around the half an hour, it's gonna take me to get to. And I get that, like, I'm not, you know, but it was, especially as a solo. And I get why that would be more suspicious. It's very, it's very unusual, even over there for reporters to be alone, especially with big cameras. So I definitely was like the, you know, I don't know how to say it. I understand why suspicion was being raised around me. That being said, it's still tiring. It's really, really tiring, especially like I was taking photos of the sand. They're sandbagging, like, historic landmarks, so that they're not just hopefully not destroyed. And I was taking photos of one covered in sandbags. And I thought, I'm going to jail. Because apparently, they didn't want me to take photos of that. And I thought I was totally fine to take photos. It's like a historic monument on Google Maps. Like, it's everywhere. It's on every tour for Kyiv or for Kyiv. And, you know, like, next thing I know, I'm surrounded by Ukrainian military, who now have my passport, my press pass my Ukrainian press credentials. They're making phone calls. And eventually, we got someone who spoke like enough English. And he's like, where's your fixer? And I'm like, like, expenses are expensive. You don't walk or like, freelancers don't walk around with lift fixers all day, every day in the middle of the city. And they're like, oh, like, this is a problem. And I'm like, I don't know what you like. It's a statue man, like, I don't have any military gear. Like, I don't know what to do. And that was like, That one took like half an hour to resolve. And then that night, we almost didn't make it back. Because I went to meet some reporters, we almost didn't make it back for curfew. And that there was a whole incident at a checkpoint that was like, really worrying to me, where I was like, this was like, We fucked up this, that was our fault. That was totally our fault that we were out that late. But I was like, this is this is extremely busy getting to the point where it's extremely difficult just to like operate at all, or do my job. What was going through your mind as you approach each checkpoint? Well, it's just because you don't know are they going to check me? Or am I going to get a guy that speaks English? Am I going to get a Ukrainian military? Am I going to get a territorial defense? Am I going to get a policeman am I going to get just some guy that's guarding the street. And like all of those pose different risks. Ukrainian military was usually the best. That was usually your lowest chance of like an issue because we carried with us to cover Kevin frontline stuff, you've needed to have military accreditation, which as far as I understand was like a background check, to check that you were really working for who you said you were working for, and that kind of thing. Which was tough for a lot of freelancers to get. And I very much think, my agent, my wire agency, for getting me some very dedicated paperwork to be like, No, really, this is our reporter, he's working. So a lot has the military with your Med minute, or your excuse me, your military accreditation. Most of the time, that was good enough, as long as you had a passport with the same name. Other times they even call the number, what you had to be more concerned about was territorial defense, because they're more I don't want to call them like a National Guard, but they don't have nearly as much training. So they don't even know what the accreditation was sometimes. So they're looking at this thing, and they're like, so you know, aren't you know, are you military? And it's like, no, no, I'm just like, I'm uproot that. They made me more nervous than anybody else. And then the police were like, pretty cool with it. Usually, the issue with the police was like, with them, they didn't really want to check your paperwork. So if they weren't checking your paperwork, you probably did something they didn't really like. That being said it was like okay, but I mean, it got to the point where you wouldn't even put your paperwork away just like have it like out all the time. And like I said, I get that I get the suspicion and I don't want to criticize that but As far as it being a member of the press, it's just you get exhausted where you're like, I don't want to go photograph the center of key of today, or wherever, because I know I'm gonna get stopped 13 times, it's gonna take me like an hour to get down there, I have the height back to like to make sure that I get back on time for the curfew or whatever it is. Or you could just pay for a fixer all the time. Which if you're a giant mega News Corporation, that's awesome. But us freelancers can't afford 100 $200 a day to have somebody like walk around with you just so that you don't get and you probably will get stopped almost just as much anyway, so. And I also want to talk about I mean, here you are, you're a freelancer, you're by yourself. And as you said, that's not super, that's a little bit unusual. Can you talk about some of the challenges of being a lone Freelancer with limited resources? Yeah, so I mean, I hate to say but money's definitely like a big influence on access. If you have a really good fixer, they can you talk about what a fixer, sorry, yeah, let's, let's, uh, so a fixer is, is a complicated job that is probably a generic term. But basically, it's usually a translator, or somebody that can speak the, like, in this case, Ukrainian and English, or whatever the reports speak. So we had like a lot of French, I think France had the most journalists there of any country. So obviously, if you could speak French and Ukrainian, you were going to get a job. English obviously being like second to that. So usually, they'll translate for you. If they're a really good fixer, they probably have contacts that either were a reporter, or maybe they're like, they were ex police, something like that someone that's going to have contacts, they're gonna be able to put you at low Oh, do you want to get to this town? Okay, let me talk to some people, that's what a good fixer is going to do. They'll probably also drive you most fixers will have a car and drive you around, in some cases, you'll have to hire a driver to obviously, then that starts adding more expense, because then you have to pay for a driver as well. But basically, they're kind of a facilitator to get you around, get you to things. Now, those really good fixers tend to be very in very high demand. And you know, and then as a freelancer, I think a lot of money, obviously, like, it's probably not that big a deal for ABC News, or I shouldn't even say a company, but like some major corporation to pay someone 100 $200 a day. But as a freelancer, I know I'm going to sell the article for $50. So paying a driver and a fixer $100 Each a day, so that I could make and with a big article, you might have to go to three places. So that adds up really, really fast. So unfortunately, money's part of it. Now that being said, fixers deserve to be paid, it's just as a freelancer, you really have to like, you're like, Okay, I hope this town is worth it. Because this is the like, one of the few times I'm going to be able to pay for a driver and uh, and then a lot of times like this is coming, like out of pocket, right? Oh out of pocket for freelancers, especially what we try to do as freelancers, if you do know people, and I would really encourage if anybody wants to get into this know, people, if you can, I ended up meeting a couple of people I really liked, we worked well together, we ended up splitting, and still quite expensive, but at least there were three of us in the car, you know, so it was 1/3 the cost instead of 100%. But it's still kind of tough, and you couldn't get a not great fixer and I think we got a not very great fixer kind of wasted our money. We still got some really good work done. But I don't know if it was a communication breakdown or just there. You could get a not great fixer is the way I'll say it without being to accuse tutorial, but it's very damaging to get one it's not good. And then second to that is just getting access to stuff. And a fixer could facilitate a lot of that. But obviously not everything. So I forgot the question. Just the challenges of being alone. Freelance is the part the second part of being alone and some people are tough people that are just totally happy to go completely alone. And I hats off to them. I think especially when you add the freelance knowing you're not getting paid, probably not getting paid for this adds another level of stress. But being alone is really hard because you're going out to very stressful situations, spending all day in very stressful situations, coming back by yourself to you know, realistically probably like a rented apartment or a hotel room. I was saying like Airbnb, so I wasn't even seeing other reporters. It's not like there was a lobby where I'd run into people. It was like, Okay, I'm gonna walk up that one road or I'm allowed to walk up back into my apartment, cooked dinner, file, edit photos of the traumatic thing you'd probably just photograph write a story about it go to bed and then sorry, not go to bed file. Then you got to figure out what am I doing tomorrow? What's the next story? What's happening? And who can I contact and it gets taxing when it's just you doing all that. And I actually met freelancers who by all technicals, you know, stuff are working alone. But they have another freelancer, that's their friend that they're working together or splitting a hotel room, or they're splitting the room with like a writer or someone or a videographer. Like, a lot of times, I'll see videographers and photographers work together, they're basically after the same thing, but they're not technically competing. So it's a really, you know, a writer's it's a great combo, because you're not directly competition, but you both kind of want to go to the same stuff. But just the fact that you're with someone seems to take a huge amount of like, toll off people like I was working with a photographer, and he had a writer friend, and they were working together. And it was like he was going to come out with us to see this town that had been bombed. And his friend was a little more like nervous about the war. So he was going to stay and and make phone calls to get into like, the shelters in Ukraine, that hospitals or you know, any those kind of stories. So like he could stay behind, and do all this groundwork, and all this research while we're out doing this other story. And then it's like, but when you're by yourself, you're trying to do both of those, and it can get to be overwhelming. And of course, the thing is, that going back to money, if you're doing it all, on your own, it takes a lot more time, well, then you're needing to pay for food and rent and everything for another day. So that adds up. So it's really, really tough to go alone. I totally get some people that can do it. Hats off to them. Maybe in like five years of experience. I'll be like, Oh, I can do it totally alone. But it's genuinely emotionally exhausting, just on like, just not you're alone all the time in a very stressful situation. And you're totally responsible for your safety and transportation. And there's so many unknowns. I mean, one of my constant fears was what if the train tracks not a train? What if the train tracks get hit by the Russians? I don't have a way to get out of Kev back to Lviv, you've covered conflict outside of the country before and and here locally. Can you talk about your your prior experience and how it was different than in than in Ukraine? Yeah, that's interesting. Um, basically, so one of the first real like heavy photojournalism things I got to cover was in Bangkok in 2013. They overthrew their, their current government, and now it's a military, I think, to this day is still a military government at the moment. And that was, that wasn't a war. It was a revolution. People were shot, I did see quite a bit of violence over there. But it wasn't like a full out war. It was unarmed people going up against police. And the police were primarily VAs primarily using water cannons, rubber bullets, there were some real bullets in there. But that was not it was not like a war. In the USA covered, you know, Black Lives Matter riots and covered some pretty some far right? rallies, it got pretty heated. I've had a lot of guns pointed at me. But that's always like on the borderline of becoming like a really, really violent outburst. you frame it as a war. And I talked with reporters who had been COVID covered Syria for years. And and they were like, No, this is the no one's covered anything like this since like World War Two, or maybe the Korean War. Thanks so much for sharing and just being open about what you hope, what you hope your photos do. And just the role that you hope to play as a journalist. It's, it's, it's just helpful to hear. Yeah. And that's, that's why I wanted to do this, and I appreciate you sitting down with me is, is I want people to understand kind of why it is that reporters do this because you know, and there's always going to be that example. There are probably glory hounds out there. And I heard I actually didn't want other than the Can you kiss him thing which upset me. I didn't see any instances. And I met a lot of reporters, and I didn't meet any instances of anybody who's out there for their own self glorification. That being said, and I know people that know people that saw that kind of thing. But I really wanted to share at least my experience and hopefully a similar experience to a lot of my colleagues on why it is that we we choose to get on a plane for 14 hours to get on a bus for eight hours to get on a train for five hours. So that we can go to because it's not a normal choice. But it's one that I think if we do our job right, we've earned the ability to do that. So thank you time. Thank you that's it for today's show. Please visit us online at this is reno.com to see Ty's photo galleries of the Ukrainian War