For ove two years, Russian troops have been committing war crimes in the invaded areas of Ukraine. Through newspapers, social media, and TV, we’ve witnessed the horrors of war. But this is the world we live in: full of cruelty, pain, grief, unjustified violence. Capturing all these we find photo journalist Sitara Thalia Ambrosio, who’s been to places in conflict like Iraq or Syria to raise awareness on the most pressing issues that people on the ground have to face.
Most recently, she’s spent two years portraying the challenges that members of the LGBTQ+ community are experiencing in Ukraine since the Russian invasion started. Recently published as a book by Verlag Kettler (see here), Fragile Glass shows us the heart-breaking testimonies of Yehor, Sasha, Dimettra, Yeva Lotta, and Edward, all of which have to endure trauma and hardships that most of us can’t even begin to imagine. With her insightful, profound, and vital work, Sitara allows the world to know more about the daily lives of people living under siege and endless missile attacks. And since they’re LGBTQ+, in addition to the problems everybody else faces under war, they have to confront others, like having to stop transitioning for fear of not receiving hormones or having a valid passport to leave the country in case of emergency. Today, we speak with the German photo journalist about what fuels her to keep going, giving voice to the marginalised, and her new photo book.
Hi Sitara, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. To get to know you better, could you tell us what you’re currently obsessed with—what you’re reading, listening to, watching/streaming…?
What a lovely question. I’m currently reading and working a lot with poetry, which somehow often helps me to get a new feeling for the world. I’m also starting another research project and planning my next trip to Ukraine—that takes up a lot of my time.
You grew up to be a photographer, so I understand you were obsessed with image making from a young age. What are your first memories with a camera or of taking pictures?
I have had a great passion for expressing myself through photography for as long as I can remember. I dreamed early on that my photography could become relevant to more than just my friends. I didn’t believe it for a long time. To be honest, I still sometimes doubt myself. I’ve not had this single moment regarding photography in which I thought, wow, this is it. Somehow, it’s like with many other things in my life: I grew into it and then found myself along the way. But during the process of discovering photography for myself, I realised at some point: this is what I can and want to do.
Being a photo journalist must be tough and draining, both physically and mentally. So what sparked your interest in pursuing this career?
My father’s family came to Germany as guest workers, so I grew up in a working-class family. Nobody went to university. My parents didn’t even think that their perspective on social conditions could be relevant. I had to emancipate myself from that. At some point during this process, I realised that my youth was characterised by social injustice, which is why I want to draw attention to it today. I want to raise issues, I want to highlight voices that I feel are not heard enough because of my own history. Incidentally, it’s not just the stories that I accompany that challenge me, but also the industry. Constant competition, sexism, always having to prove yourself… But all these hardships are worth it. Because it gives me self-efficacy, the opportunity to contribute to society.
Let’s discuss Fragile as Glass, your latest series portraying queer Ukrainian individuals living under siege after the Russian invasion. How did the project come to be, and how did you meet these people?
I spent the first few weeks after the Russian invasion in 2022 travelling to western Ukraine, working on assignments for newspapers and magazines. During my work, I met Yehor at a volunteer centre. He had just fled Kyiv with his partner. At that time, Russian troops were in the suburbs of the capital. Many people were certain that Ukraine would not withstand the attack for a week.
Yehor told me about his thoughts and feelings. I just listened for the time being. At the same time, I asked myself what perspectives are being shown in this war that are perhaps less heard of? It was a mixture of this encounter and my thoughts that led me to start researching, contacting queer people and asking if they would like to share their perspectives with me. Then one thing led to another.
You always set your gaze towards marginalised communities or less talked-about topics within ‘popular’ conflicts. Why did you feel it was important to focus on the LGBTQ+ community within the broader context of war?
I have heard several comments about my project stating: But the war affects everyone equally. And yes, war is terrible for everyone living in Ukraine. Again and again, we hear and read about war crimes against civilians committed by the Russian military. Occupations, bombings, and forced evacuations affect everyone living in Ukraine. The war crimes in Butcha, a suburb of the capital, can no longer be erased from the world’s memory thanks to the extensive media coverage. What has received less attention so far, however, is that minorities in particular are exposed to additional dangers from the invaders.
For example, Ukrainians who feel they belong to the LGBTQ+ community and are committed to supporting it. And Ukraine is thus exemplary for other conflicts: war is the most violent and threatening state a society can find itself in. It reinforces existing imbalances. Historically, we can trace the rise of group-related enmity in the context of conflicts. And I see the task of journalists, especially in the international context, to step in and raise awareness. Because in a situation like this, hardly anyone listens to those who are already marginalised.
“It was and is very important to me in my work to go a little deeper than the photos we often see from war and crisis zones. I wanted to get an impression of the problems of the people on the ground.”
Reading the testimonies of Yehor, Sasha, Dimettra, Yeva Lotta or Edward is heart-wrenching: from the trans experience of having to stop their transition for fear of not receiving hormones or not having a passport to leave in case of emergency while changing the name officially, to thinking of suicide, to the hopelessness of seeing no future. Were there any common concerns or experiences they all shared?
I think there is one worry that unites all of the people I met: the fear of becoming invisible. The fear of being forgotten. As Ukrainians and as a queer persons. The fear of losing family or loved ones. There is never a day when war doesn’t play a role. It is always there. Whether in the west of the country or in the capital. Many who may be reading this now cannot imagine what it is like to be attacked by a country that does not see you as worth living in two ways: as a homosexual person, for your gender, your love. But also as a Ukrainian, for your culture, your language, your identity.
Was there a particular testimony that stroke you the most?
Yehor’s story particularly touched me, also because I got particularly close to him as a protagonist. I remember the winter of 2022, sitting in his cold apartment in Kyiv. Russia shoots missiles every day. The power goes out, candles are part of everyday life. Yehor’s relationship is not going well, he has been sleeping on the sofa with friends for weeks. He would actually like to go back to his hometown of Nikopol, to his grandmother, his childhood home, to find peace for a few weeks, but it’s right on the front line. It’s too dangerous to live there now. The alarm only goes off when the shells start hitting. You can’t find peace there at all.
This series has been published as a photo book by Verlag Kettler. In it, we find testimonies of several queer youngsters, an opening essay by Yana Radchenko, and your pictures. Could you tells us more about it?
The book has only just been published. I often still can’t believe that it is now available for everyone to order and, above all, that the topic is accessible. Already while I was working on the project, I had high hopes that the story could be published as a book. It was important to me to find a form of publication that would make it possible to capture everything together as a kind of testimony to the times. I was aware that my photos alone could not tell the story. I needed a text to give it even more context, so I’m all the more pleased that Yana has written a moving essay. The queer journalist herself fled her hometown in Ukraine to escape the Russian troops. In her text, Beyond Pain, she interweaves the facts on a personal level. I really admire her for the words she has found. It has become a very painful text.
It was and is very important to me in my work to go a little deeper than the photos we often see from war and crisis zones. I wanted to get an impression of the problems of the people on the ground. But I also wanted to capture the moments that give them strength. There is a good mixture in my book. Portrait photos are juxtaposed with quotes from the people, in which they talk about what the war does to them. But I also show birthday parties. And, of course, war plays a role. For example, in one of the photos, you can see a makeshift bed in the cellar of Yehor’s grandmother near the front, in the south of the country. This serves as an emergency sleeping place.
Time is crucial in your projects, which are generally long-term and get you deeply involved with a situation and the people living it. For example, you’ve worked for two years on Fragile as Glass. In a day and age where immediacy and shallowness seem to pervade everything, how do you feel projects such as yours challenge the contemporary standards for creative endeavours?
The fact that we live in such turbulent times is challenging. We are experiencing so many crises and wars at the same time—people simply don’t manage to deal with all the issues in detail. I believe that if you want to work on human rights and provide an in-depth analysis of the situation, you simply need more time. That is also the main difference to traditional news and reportage reporting, which I also do as a photojournalist. I see my long-term projects as a supplement that enables people to identify with the protagonists. They humanise the dehumanised through their depth.
I’ve recently watched Civil War directed by Alex Garland, which moved me deeply. I don’t know if you’ve watched it yet, have you?
I have to admit I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I am familiar with it and I definitely want to watch it. However, I recently watched the new movie about the reporter Anja Niedringhaus.
The film follows the story of photo journalist Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and (writing) journalist Joel (Wagner Moura). I see you’ve also worked closely with one writer, Bartholomäus Laffert, on different stories in Syria concerning migration, the weaponisation of water, or the Turkish elections. Could you tell us more about how this connection came to be, and what is it like to work as a writer/photographer duo?
Yes, that’s right. I really love being able to work with talented writers. It’s not only a great enrichment to work in a team, but also indispensable. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues. At the beginning of last year, I spent over four weeks in north-eastern Syria with Bartholomäus. As you said, we researched water as a weapon of war, but also other challenges in the region. I had previously worked in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and had already studied the Rojava region. Bart had already been there several times. We know each other through common colleagues. When we decided that we would like to work together on the topic, we were cooking together; shortly afterwards, we applied for funding for our trip.
Also, in the movie, we see how Kirsten’s character is almost detached from the stories she photographs. At some point, after witnessing so many tragedies, cruelty, and despair, she’s built a shield around her to be able to keep working. Do you relate to that? How do you stay sane, grounded, or even positive (if you do) after portraying the darkest sides of humankind?
I think it’s important to strike a kind of balance between detachment and compassion. You can’t stumble naively into the stories. You have to be aware that it’s stressful. I mean, what kind of person would you be if you didn’t care about these issues? It’s important to feel grief, to empathise with pain and to allow it to happen. To listen. I’ve already conducted interviews with victims of violence where we just sat and cried together afterwards. And in my opinion, there has to be room for that. If we as photo journalists deny ourselves this feeling, we will eventually unlearn it and close ourselves off.
Nevertheless, I am aware that I cannot actually change the situation. My job is to report and make stories heard. I have been told stories and also experienced them myself that I will never forget and that have left their mark on me. But I have also seen how strong people can be, how humanity and tenderness can prevail. I believe in that. Sounds crazy in these times, but I believe in people, because we can make a difference if we want to.
And when you need to relax, to separate yourself from an intense project or story that’s gotten under your skin, what do you do to evade yourself or even reset your mood?
I’m trying to learn that at the moment because it’s a big challenge to find your way out of a story. It never really works out that way. But I’m practising it. Doing sport and getting out into nature sounds very banal. But when I turn off my cell phone, sit down by a river and write poetry, my head feels empty again afterwards and I have gathered energy. What gives me the most grounding under my feet are friends. Honest, loving friendships at eye level. That’s something that heals wounds. I never really had a place that I called home, but there were always people who brought me peace.
You’ve seen and lived through so much. What fuels you to keep going? What gives you hope for the future?
When I was a teenager, I had a difficult time in my life, my world was upside down and I didn’t know what to do with myself. But there were people in my life who gave me courage and strength. I think this time shaped me so much that giving up was never an option for me. I don’t know if I really have hope. Perhaps it is more the willpower of the individual people I have met that has taught me that something new can emerge from the ashes. Not only with hope, but with willpower.