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Behind the scenes: photographing alleged war crimes in Ukraine

In 2018, National Geographic photojournalist, Anastasia Taylor-Lind, used the eyeWitness to Atrocities (eyeWitness) camera app to uncover the everyday stories of civilians living in wartime Ukraine, whilst simultaneously gathering potential evidence of alleged war crimes. The project came about after eyeWitness commissioned Anastasia to collaborate with experienced team of human rights documenters, Truth Hounds, to test the eyeWitness app in a real-life conflict zone and offer her honest feedback.

You can watch Anastasia’s documentation journey in Episode 2 of our "eyeWitness in Action" series.

At the same time as gathering potential evidence with the eyeWitness app, Anastasia used her regular camera to capture photos of everyday life in Ukraine. These images came to be collated in a poignant article written by Alisa Sopova for TIME magazine. Then, in 2021, a sample of photos that Anastasia took with the eyeWitness app were submitted to the United Nations as evidence of alleged human rights violations in Ukraine.

This article offers a behind the scenes look at Anastasia’s documentation journey, the challenges she faced, and how her images came to be used as evidence.

Partnering with Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Truth Hounds

Since its inception, eyeWitness has collaborated with civil society members to ensure that both its app and services meet the needs of documenters around the world. To that end, in 2018, eyeWitness commissioned Anastasia – who had already been reporting on war and life in Ukraine for four years – to test and evaluate the app. Like many eyeWitness partners and individual users, Anastasia had extensive experience using images, but she had no experience gathering potential evidence for legal purposes. This made her the ideal candidate to test the app.

eyeWitness organised for Anastasia to have the opportunity to shadow expert documentation organisation and long-term partner, Truth Hounds, who were embarking on a factfinding mission into potential human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Ukraine. Working with expert environmental advisors and local environmental activists, Truth Hounds sought to use images and interviews to document the ongoing shelling and gun fire, and how these were affecting people’s homes and the wider environment.

Documenting and mapping environmental damage caused by war in Ukraine

Using the eyeWitness app, Anastasia and Truth Hounds gathered images of trees allegedly burned by tracking rockets, eco systems ravaged by heavy artillery, shell craters, trenches, and damaged and destroyed houses. The purpose of using the app was to not only corroborate interviews, but to also geolocate and map the incidents.

The evidence-focused outlook that Truth Hounds and eyeWitness brought was of enormous journalistic benefit to Anastasia. Although Anastasia had managed to capture images of damaged houses and infrastructure, she had not told the story of the environmental damage caused by war and had struggled to photograph its less visible consequences. As she explained in her daily video diary, “I’ve been trying to tell stories about Eastern Ukraine for the last four years, and it’s a conflict that is very hard to visualise. For the most part, war doesn’t look like war – it just looks like everyday life.” However, using the eyeWitness app and working with Truth Hounds’ team enabled Anastasia to capture sights she would not normally be able to identify such as historical shell craters that had since become masked by wildflowers.

“It’s unlikely that a photojournalist would ever go and make a series of pictures of these almost invisible slight dents in the landscape and this environmental damage caused by war. You can hardly see it,” Anastasia said. “But using the eyeWitness app, the caption, information gathered from [the environmental expert], the geo-locating capabilities of the app, being able to map out that very, very localised damage to the landscape meant that I was photographing something that I would haven’t usually photographed.” As will be described later, this mapping and capturing of damage was essential for not only Anastasia’s documentation efforts, but also for seeking justice.

The next step was annotating the images within the eyeWitness app. Photos do not always readily explain which human rights abuse is being committed or who the alleged perpetrator is. For Anastasia and Truth Hounds, these pieces of information were revealed through hours of interviews. Moreover, the descriptions and causes of environmental damage were drawn from the team’s accompanying environmental experts. As such, Anastasia spent her evenings using the app’s image description function to write explanatory captions.

The final part of the documentation process was uploading the footage to eyeWitness’ server for verification and safe storage. Once uploaded, it was reviewed, tagged and catalogued by eyeWitness analysts, ready for eyeWitness’ legal team to begin looking at avenues for accountability and redress.

Reporting the everyday stories of civilians living in Eastern Ukraine

As a photojournalist, Anastasia’s goal was not only to collect potential evidence of environmental damage: she wanted to tell the stories of individuals and communities living within and around the conflict.

“Yes, we care about the environment,” said Anastasia. “We also care about the people inhabiting that environment.”

She went on to explain, “We are using the eyeWitness app to document evidence of shelling in civilian areas, but then we’re also finding people who are affected by this shelling and telling personal stories around the photographs that we make with the eyeWitness app.”

As such, whilst Anastasia used eyeWitness to photograph the physical devastation of conflict, she also used her professional camera to capture the everyday stories of marriage, parenting, cooking and celebration in Ukraine. As mentioned previously, these images were shared via an article for TIME magazine.

Challenges of documenting human rights abuses in the field

Anastasia’s mission with Truth Hounds revealed some important documentation challenges.

First was poor internet connectivity. Whilst the eyeWitness app works offline, users still need to connect to internet to upload their footage to eyeWitness’ server. In Anastasia’s case, she was only able to upload footage via her hotel’s wifi. Although the eyeWitness app automatically compresses the footage, uploading videos on a weak internet connection is always going to be a lengthy process.

Second were issues with aspects of the eyeWitness app itself that were incompatible with the fast-paced workflows of journalism. These included an inability to continuously scroll through images in the secure gallery, a prohibitive character limit on the image descriptions, and the fact that users could only transfer photos and videos off of the phone one at a time. All of these factors made the app difficult and time-consuming for journalists like Anastasia who capture hundreds – if not thousands – of images during a single investigation. The feedback was invaluable for eyeWitness and its partners. Indeed, eyeWitness has since overhauled the user interface, implemented continuous scrolling in the gallery, and enabled bulk sharing. To date, eyeWitness continues to regularly review and update the app in accordance with feedback from its partners and individual users.

Using Anastasia’s footage of potential human rights violations to seek justice

Eventually, in March 2021, almost three years after Anastasia broke the story in TIME, her footage was used as evidence in a report submitted to the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing. In partnership with the University of Essex’s Digital Verification Unit, and with input from Global Rights Compliance, eyeWitness’ legal team used Anastasia’s and Truth Hounds’ images to ascertain the exact dates, times and locations of civilian houses damaged by shelling. Additionally, the team conducted an online investigation to gather evidence that could indicate whether there were reasonable grounds to believe that the damage to the civilian properties was an event of military nature in violation of international law. The final report called for the Special Rapporteur to initiate effective investigations into damage to civilian homes caused by constant artillery attacks.

Capturing the footage with eyeWitness broadened its accountability reach in a way that would not have been otherwise possible.

Looking forward

Anastasia’s documentation journey demonstrated some of the challenges journalists face when balancing the slow, methodical needs of evidence collection with the fast-paced realities of journalism. However, it also revealed the amazing ways that journalists can contribute to justice, especially when paired with professional documentation organisations like Truth Hounds.

Thanks to eyeWitness’ server, Anastasia’s footage continues to be securely stored, ready for potential future investigations.

Register for our upcoming virtual event with Truth Hounds:
As part of the ICC Assembly of States Parties 2021, eyeWitness is hosting a webinar titled 'Using digital technology for war crimes' documentation and accountability in Ukraine'. Featuring Truth Hounds, the event will give real-life examples of accountability efforts taken by Truth Hounds and eyeWitness based on footage received from Ukraine, discussing goals, challenges, and successes alike. The event will take place Tuesday, 14 December 2021 at 15.00-16.15 (GMT) / 17.00-18.15 (EET). Learn more and register.