war is only half the story


Olga Kravets finds inspiration and searches for untold stories in the aftermath of conflict

Olga was 19 before she picked up a camera, which came while she was planning a career with words, not pictures. Studying print journalism in her native Russia, and frustrated by lack of press freedom, she discovered an alternative means of expression. “It was during my second year at Moscow State University,” she says. “I was working for an online media company and hired as a fixer to go to Beslan after the school siege [in 2004]. It was there that I was exposed to what photography is and what a photographer can do.”

On her return, Olga shared her new-found passion with a colleague, a former photographer, who, she says, “gave me a decent camera to use and basically told me to stop talking about it and start doing it.” She took classes to learn the technical skills, alongside her journalism studies, and went on to do a Masters in documentary photography at the London College of Communication. Aged 23, she set out as a freelance photographer, with her journalism training a real asset. “Now that I’ve moved into cinematography and filmmaking, too, I can see how all the skills come together,” she says. “I research and write a film before I make it. I interview my subjects before I photograph them.”

Her instinct for potential stories also came in handy. “One of the first decisions I made was to base myself for a year in Abkhazia, a breakaway republic of Georgia,” she says. “It was a case of right place, right time. A forgotten region, with no other freelancers covering it. Soon after I moved, the war with Russia broke out and I was close enough to cover it and its consequences throughout the region, picking up a commission from a Canadian newspaper. I was there when it counted, because of my interest in my country’s influence on the world.”

The experience also helped to consolidate what became Olga’s specialist subject: the aftermath of conflict and how societies develop when the fighting stops. Between 2009 and 2018, she worked on Grozny: 9 Cities, depicting the war-torn Chechen capital and its fragile post-war society, in collaboration with the photographers Maria Morina and Oksana Yushko. This expansive project comprised stills, web documentary, an exhibition and a book. The challenge here, as with any project, says Olga, was to tell the story in the best way possible

“That means being true to yourself and to the people you document,” she says, “assuming that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. That’s why I’ve worked hard to be proficient in more than one medium, so that I can choose the best one for each story I work on. Some stories work as photo and text, others as film. Sometimes people will only talk anonymously, so I might be in the possession of an important testimony that they do not want published.”

“Storytelling is also about fact-checking, finding the right angle for the project, finding the right characters and getting an image that transmits what I’m trying to say. I try to challenge myself every day. I guess I have more respect for the storytellers who try something new and fail, as I sometimes do, than for those who have found a style that works for them and keep exploiting it. I’d find that boring.”

Like many freelancers, Olga has a portfolio career, dividing her time between personal projects, commercial jobs, teaching and applying for grants. “It’s a necessary mix,” she says. “I love teaching documentary storytelling and I need commercial clients in order to survive financially. At the moment those include steel and plane engine manufacturers and a video campaign with my agency, NOOR, which is part of a European consortium to stop Islamophobia. Whatever commercial work I do has to be in line with my ethics and values.”

Olga joined NOOR at the end of 2019. The Amsterdam-based agency’s commitment to impactful stories that inspire action fits perfectly with her approach to personal projects. “I am attracted to stories on human rights around conflict and religion,” she says, “but that’s a very large field so I try to find a balance between what’s the most relevant, the most doable financially and in terms of access, and also what nobody is working on. Something overlooked but which needs to be covered. There are projects, that for personal conviction you cannot not do, as was the case for me working in Chechnya. I’m channelling my engagement as a concerned citizen. I think I would have become a human rights activist if I knew about that profession at an earlier age. Now I participate in the same causes, but using my skills.”

She is also, for her filmmaking, using a Nikon Z 6. “Being quite a small human being, I love the fact I can now shoot high-quality video with something the size of a regular stills camera,” she says. “In a run-and-gun situation, the Z series lenses are invaluable. The Z 6 is also completely silent, so in certain locations, such as mosques or churches, it comes extremely handy for shooting stills, too. Otherwise for pictures, I prefer to use my Nikon DF.”

The most surprising element in her tool kit is fear. “Fear is a very natural, human feeling. I don’t believe anyone who says, ‘I don’t feel fear, I just go.’ That’s a refusal, or lack of experience, in recognising your feelings. You also have to deal with second-hand trauma and fear, passed on to you by the subjects you’re following. But fear is also constructive. It helps you manage a situation and assess risk. It sounds crazy but I’m much more scared living in Paris than going to Syria, I’m scared of the unknown. When you go to dangerous places there’s been a risk assessment, you know what the dangers are and you’re prepared.”

Nikon Pro spoke to Olga before the coronavirus pandemic. She said that her forthcoming work would not only take her to the Middle East and Syria but also the “many hidden stories outside conflict areas. I see myself being driven more by human rights than geography.” In a post-Covid-19 world, Olga’s mode of storytelling could be more important than ever.

olga kravets

russia

I’ve enjoyed the transition to Nikon since joining NOOR. It’s a big deal
as a photographer to change your
entire kit: suddenly, none of the
buttons are in the same place.

A Z 6 and a DF. The Z 6 is silent and gives me so much freedom to shoot without disturbing people.
It’s the first camera I’ve used for both video and stills. Nikon’s Z series lenses are top-notch for video. I also carry a shotgun microphone, a wireless mic, an Atamos Ninja V compact external monitor recorder, lights, tripods, and various other lenses if I’m doing commercial work.

Z 6

NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S

Natural-light portrait of French actress Aurélie Noblesse, shot making a tutorial video for the Meero photography platform, 2019

Metadata unavailable

Natural-light portrait of French actress Aurélie Noblesse, shot making a tutorial video for the Meero photography platform, 2019

Metadata unavailable

From the Islamophobia in Italy project, an Islam awareness event in Brescia, Lombardy, Italy, in a mosque prayer hall usually reserved for men, October 2019

Metadata unavailable

Fields around Lucera, in Puglia, Italy. Emperor Frederick II expelled Muslims here from Sicily around 1220. From a project about Islamophobia in Italy, October 2019

Metadata unavailable

Shoes drying in Primorsk, a town in the Abkhazia region of Georgia ravaged by war with Russia, January 2009

Metadata unavailable

A world map on the floor of an abandoned school in Primorsk, August 2008

Metadata unavailable