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Polk Winners Discuss the Risk and Reward of Covering War

By: REYNA IWAMOTO / MANAGING EDITOR

On Thursday, April 13, in partnership with the Center for Communication, LIU hosted the annual George Polk Awards Seminar, where journalists Evgeniy Maloletka, Alex Perry and Lynsey Addario spoke with moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault about their award-winning coverage of war and conflict. (Photo: Reyna Iwamoto)

“Like, the purpose of all good journalism, whether it's writing or photography, ultimately, you're trying to establish empathy. You're trying to put yourself, or the reader, in someone else's shoes. You're trying to take them out of their life, so that it doesn't feel that foreign, and strange, and exotic, and dangerous — it feels like something that might happen to you,” journalist Alex Perry said.


Perry is one of three journalists and 2022 George Polk Award winners who were featured in the annual George Polk Awards Seminar, “When Covering War Gets Personal” on Thursday, April 13, on the LIU Brooklyn campus.


Held in-person for the first time in three years due to the pandemic, the seminar was moderated by award-winning print and broadcast journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who spoke with these reporters about the stories behind their winning work and what it means to them to cover conflict and war.


Video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, who won the Polk Award for war reporting for his team’s coverage of the siege on Mariupol for the Associated Press (AP), was scheduled to speak, but was unable to attend due to his continued work covering the war in Ukraine. Chernov’s colleague Evgeniy Maloletka, the chief photojournalist for the AP in Ukraine and part of the winning crew, participated in the panel in his place.


Author and journalist Alex Perry won the Sydney H. Schanberg Prize for his investigative account of an ISIS attack on a town in Mozambique for Outside Magazine.


The final panelist was photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who won the Polk Award for photojournalism for an image she captured of the bodies of a family who were killed by a Russian mortar that narrowly missed Addario.


Ralph Engelman, faculty coordinator of the Polk Awards, told Seawanhaka that in a “very difficult moment in history, with these wrenching conflicts, we need to know what’s going on, we need to know the story, and we need to see what the impact is on individuals.”


“All three of these panelists have really done stellar work in communicating the human reality and the impact the war in Ukraine and other global conflicts have on individuals,” Engelman said.


The seminar began with a brief video and conversation with each of the panelists, allowing them to introduce their work and provide more context behind their award-winning reporting.


Maloletka, a native and nationalist of Ukraine, shared that being from Ukraine while covering the war has had its advantages, including having an insider understanding of the conflict.


“On one hand, it’s easy because you know the language — you know what’s going on here,” Maloletka said. “But on the other hand… when you see so many losses, and when it's your friend, or the friend of your friend who is dead or killed, it's much harder, you know, that you [understand] that [from an inside perspective].”


Maloletka and members of his team at the AP, covered the frontlines in Mariupol when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. These journalists were on the radar of Russians, to the extent that their names were on a hit list — a consequence that followed their coverage of Russian forces’ airstrike on a maternity hospital.


“When we published it, the next day, all the newspapers and all the media outlets published those pictures [too]. And then we came under attack, and we saw how Russian propaganda media and their telegram channels blew up,” Maloletka said. “They started mostly screaming and blaming us as informational terrorists, and writing that this [was] staged.”


According to the AP’s coverage of the bombing, Russian officials had claimed the maternity hospital was empty, taken over by Ukrainian extremists, and that the AP images were fake.


“And when we published the picture[s] of pregnant ladies, it showed the complete opposite. So, that's why we became a target,” Maloletka said.


Providing on-the-ground coverage in Ukraine, Maloletka described the graphic scenes he would encounter, including scenes of children being killed and doctors trying, but failing to resuscitate the fatally injured. “It really breaks your heart in the end,” he said.


As a photojournalist, Maloletka had to wrestle with the obstacle of deciding what to document and publish and what he should not show.


“It was difficult — should [I] take a picture of this all the time?” Maloletka said. “Or should I do my work to help somehow, but [then] you see that you have a professional on the ground who is helping to resuscitate a child, and of course you are like, ‘I don't need to do that.’ But, you know, at that time, it's important to photograph and I think, ‘maybe I will not publish it now, but I will document this for history.’”


Perry followed Maloletka, sharing the story behind his award-winning piece “‘I’m still alive but sh*t is getting wild’: Inside the Siege of the Amarula.” Perry displayed a similar sentiment to Maloletka, describing the challenges of being a journalist and the delicate nature of speaking with survivors of this attack and loved ones of those who were lost in Palma.


“Well, you can’t pry,” Perry said. “I mean in those types of situations, I hardly ask any questions… I’ll let somebody talk and sometimes they’ll talk for hours and sometimes they’ll talk for five minutes… People will tell you what they wanna tell you, and there's a line you've gotta observe, or just some form of decency.”


Hunter-Gault asked Perry if holding these interviews is a traumatic experience for him, to which he replied that if anything, he is “intruding on other people’s trauma.”


“You know, foreign correspondence has, like all types of journalism, at its core, an element of theft. You know, you are taking somebody else's story,” Perry said. “And the only way you can justify it, really, is if you do a damn good job of timing it, and possibly get it out to a wider audience than they would themselves, and tell it with perhaps more skill than they would themselves.”


Perry shared that it took nearly 18 months after the attack until he could return to the northeast coast of Mozambique to talk with those who returned to the town and work out the full extent to which this attack had on Palma.


“It was so big, I had to actually set up my own NGO to do a survey of the town,” Perry said. “Thank you for the prize money — that’s what it paid for.”


Perry received the final figures from his survey only last week, finding that 1,219 people had died, with more than 300 people beheaded and around 150 children killed.


“I'm literally the only guy, well, now, [everyone in] this room as well, who knows how many people died in that town,” Perry said. “And with that knowledge comes a sense of mission and responsibility.”


With resolve, Perry indicated that his work on this story was still not finished.


“You know, what happened to all these people in my story is [these people] were abandoned by an oil company that said it would protect everybody, [but they] just jumped in its helicopters and left,” he said. “I'm gonna take those numbers, I'm gonna go to TotalEnergies, and I'm gonna confront the CEO, and I'm gonna ask him about his promises to protect everybody in that town versus reality.”


“So where does the patience come from, to live it out as you had to do it?” Hunter-Gault asked.


“It's not patience,” Perry replied. “I mean, all these stories, along with the sense of empathy, is a sense of mission. You know, you get conviction, and you use your shock, the pain, or whatever, you use that. You turn it into outrage.”


The seminar then turned to Addario, who shared the story behind her award-winning photo and a video that was taken by journalist Andriy Dubchak in the moments leading up to and following the mortar shell hitting the family in the photo and just missing Addario.


“When we came upon the bodies… it was a mother, her two children, and a church volunteer, [and] it took a minute to process, but there were still rounds coming in. It wasn't like that round came in and it was safe. I mean, there were a series of rounds that came in leading up to that particular hit. And each one came closer and closer. So we knew they were bracketing onto the position that we were at and we had to work very quickly,” Addario said.


Addario, who has covered conflicts in various other countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Yemen and Syria, explained that in the past when she has been under fire, she would usually run or even forget to take photos, simply trying to stay alive.

But in this case, I had to actually remind myself of what I had just witnessed. And I knew that it was intentional because it was one of the very few times in my life I actually witnessed the run-up to an attack that killed a civilian in front of me,” Addario said. “And so I had a job [to do].”


Addario described the adrenaline rush during a moment like that and the difficulty in trying to stay composed while acknowledging that there is work to be done.


It was very emotional. One of the first things I noticed was sort of a puffy boot, like a moon boot of a child. And so that sort of struck me because I have children,” she said.


During her past reporting on various other conflicts, Addario has been thrown out of a moving vehicle, kidnapped once in Iraq and again in Libya where she was beaten, tied up, blindfolded, and threatened with execution. But she has never thought of giving up.


When we got out [in Libya], it didn't dawn on me to quit because I believe in journalism and I think this work is really important. But I did realize I had to sort of listen to where I was emotionally and physically and step back a little bit and maybe not do such dangerous assignments until I was ready again,” Addario said.

Addario also highlighted that the situation in Ukraine is different for someone like Maloletka, who calls Ukraine home. “It's different for Evgeniy because it's his country. You know, he doesn't get the luxury of what we can do and we can leave. You know, for him it's a lot more intense,” she said.


Following each of the panelists’ introductions and stories, the journalists took questions from the audience.


Seawanhaka inquired with Addario about the story behind the family in her photo and she shared that she had managed to get in contact with the family’s godmother on Facebook and meet her and the father of the family.


In an interview with the father, who had been in Eastern Ukraine when his family had been killed, Addario said to him, “I'm so sorry that I'm the one who took this photo that you will remember for the rest of your lives, and it's probably the worst moment of your life.”


“And he looked at us and he said, ‘I'm glad you were there. The world needed to see this. And if you weren't there, they would have just been a statistic.’” Addario said. “And that was really important for me. It wasn't [necessarily] asking permission, but it was sort of like his blessing to have published this photo.”


Other questions from the audience included one asking the panelists about their role as a journalist in holding people accountable for what they have done and accumulating potential evidence for this purpose.


“It's definitely validation. But I think we all think, again, I'm speaking to you all as an international reporter, there is an accountability in what we do, and that's one of the main motivations for it,” Perry replied.


Maloletka added on, emphasizing the importance of documenting what was happening in Mariupol, especially since responders did not have enough resources to document everything.


“I think it’s very important that some names of the people who were killed have been highlighted. You know, their names will be in the pictures. And we'll remember them,” Maloletka said.


LIU junior Nicole Fruman attended the seminar and shared with Seawanhaka her takeaways from the evening.


“I'm Ukrainian so this hit closer to home,” Fruman said. “I still have family members there so the fact that there are journalists and photographers going out there, I feel like it really puts into perspective how much we take for granted. And you don’t realize that these people are also putting their life on the line, it's not only the military and the people that live there.”


Addario shared that while being a journalist is not the most lucrative business to be in, it is emotionally rewarding.


“It's rewarding in terms of the fact that I'm doing what I believe in. And I can't — I could never do anything else,” Addario said.


“[In this line of work,] people always ask you, isn't that just phenomenally depressing work, and the answer is no, it's really not. In the most extreme circumstances, yeah, you see some pretty horrible stuff, but you also meet the most inspiring people,” Perry said.


“You know, war has a way of stripping away kind of everyday nonsense, and it cleans reality, in some sense. You can meet amazing people doing extraordinary things and that keeps you going,” he said.

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