‘It’s absolutely treacherous’: Minnesota photojournalist on capturing 2 years of war in Ukraine

Injured Ukrainian soldiers wait for medics
Injured Ukrainian soldiers wait for medics to arrive after their vehicle struck a barricade blocking the road at the mouth of a destroyed bridge leading to the village of Krasnopillya on Oct 3, 2023.
Courtesy of David Guttenfelder

On Monday, David Guttenfelder was photographing a family in Ukraine whose son has been a prisoner of war since Russia first invaded. He went to church with them, and spent time in their home. On Friday, Guttenfelder will go with a group of volunteers to a village about 2 miles from the border to Russia that has been bombarded weekly.

“At the moment, I feel like I’m back in Ukraine because I want to do my part in keeping the world’s attention on this country and this issue,” Guttenfelder told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer.

A self-portrait
A self-portrait by David Guttenfelder while on assignment
Courtesy of David Guttenfelder

The Minneapolis-based photojournalist has been in Ukraine working as a freelance photojournalist on-and-off since the war broke out two years ago Saturday. He estimates he’s been in Ukraine about 50 percent of the past two years, taking photos that have been on the front page of the New York Times and in The New Yorker.

Guttenfelder has been a photojournalist for more than 25 years. This isn’t his first war zone. He covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and civil wars in Africa. But Guttenfelder said nothing compares to what he’s seen on the front lines in Ukraine.

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“It’s absolutely treacherous. It’s thousands and thousands of miles of frontline, and it ranges from muddy World War I-style trench warfare to the highest tech, swarms of drones flying overhead,” Guttenfelder said. “It’s really hard to fathom the dangerousness of the frontline here.“

An artillery unit
An artillery unit from Ukraine’s 58th Brigade fire from a frontline position near the town of Bakhmut towards advancing Russian infantry around the town of Pokrovske on August 10, 2022.
Courtesy of David Guttenfelder

Up-to-date numbers of casualties are hard to find. The last update from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry is from July 2023, which said there have been more than 241,000 soldiers killed. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine reported this week that it has verified that conflict-related violence has killed more than 10,000 civilians and injured nearly 20,000 in two years, although “the actual numbers are likely significantly higher.”

Guttenfelder has seen much of that carnage, photographing Russia’s assault on Kyiv, the brutal killings and alleged torture in Bucha and Russia’s occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.

“What has struck me the most is that the world probably underestimated the Ukrainians two years ago. I think the world thought that Russia was going to take over the country in three days, and yet here we are two years later, the Ukrainians still in an existential fight for itself.”

The fight hasn’t been easy, and Guttenfelder said right now morale is low among Ukrainians. With focus in the U.S. on the war in Gaza and a presidential election year, ”the Ukrainians are really feeling ignored at the moment, the world's attention has turned elsewhere.”

Guttenfelder said Ukrainians keep asking him when the U.S. will pass billions in dollars of aid for Ukraine that has been stalled in congress.

But even so, Guttenfelder said he’s found moments of joy every day.

“Ukrainian people have such a great sense of humor, a lot of courage and character,” he said. “Every day, there’s little acts of kindness.”

Amputee soldiers
Amputee soldiers at recovery and therapy center in Ukraine.
Courtesy of David Guttenfelder

Guttenfelder said he also gets encouragement from his wife and two daughters back in Minnesota.

“I apologized to my oldest daughter recently and said ‘I’m so sorry that I’m going to be away again.’ She said, ‘Come on dad, you’re chasing your dreams.’ So that really is an inspiring thing for me, encouraging thing for me.”