Traveling light, Ukrainian photographer flees, again, from Russian invaders

'I grabbed only a camera and a bag with documents. I’m starting a new life from zero. There is me, a tracksuit on me, a camera, and my fiancé.'

This article is an adaptation of our weekly History newsletter that was sent out on February 28, 2022. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By David Beard, Executive Editor, Newsletters

Among the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing Russian soldiers, bombs, and missiles, Olena Bilous has an “edge,” if you could call it that.

The Ukrainian photographer had to flee her home from Russian invasion once before.

On Friday, after explosions in Kyiv, she set off west in a caravan of seven cars. By Sunday she was safe, for now, near the western border. “I have no clothes, little money,” she told Nat Geo’s Whitney Johnson. “I grabbed only a camera and a bag with documents. I’m starting a new life from zero. There is me, a tracksuit on me, a camera, and my fiancé.” (Pictured above, the bag.)

Her wedding to her fiancé had been set for March 11. Not only is that in flux; he can’t follow her if she crosses the border, because men from 18 to 60 are required to fight the Russian invaders. The couple is together, for the moment.

Bilous’s life reflects the nation’s struggle. She was uprooted from her home in Donetsk when Russia invaded the eastern region in 2014. A year later, at a Nat Geo Photo Camp for displaced people, she met Johnson. Bilous said then that displacement transformed her, and she sought for her images “to go straight to the heart.” The latest invasion has rocked her and her family.

“I don’t want to be a refugee,” she tells us. “I want to live in Ukraine. I love Ukraine.”

Here are a few of her photographs below, and here’s our collection of images from Ukraine under attack.

In the bomb shelter: A Ukrainian woman named Maria, a friend of the photographer‘s sister, is holding a baby while waiting for the missile threat to end.

Dismantled: This sign once had the name of a town in western Ukraine, Bilous says. Ukrainians have dismantled town and street signs and destroyed bridges to slow the Russian invaders.

Prayer: While the shelling continues, a woman is praying for the protection of our country and Ukrainian soldiers.

Resources: Learn about the tangled history of Russia and Ukraine from this story and this separate timeline of Ukraine’s 30-year struggle for independence. Catch how Bilous and other displaced photographers had adapted before this latest invasion.

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STORIES WE’RE TRACKING

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

The face of a 4,000-year-old woman: That image before you, of a woman who lived in northeastern Sweden, features the work of reconstructive archaeologist Oscar Nilsson. He meticulously uses clay to rebuild faces like this, using clues from the bones, migration data, 3D printing, and often DNA. “I need to bring the face alive, so you actually get the impression there’s someone looking at you within those eyes,” he tells Nat Geo’s Nina Strochlic.

TAKE A GOOD LOOK

PHOTO OF THE DAY

A meeting in Harlem: Two legendary Black photographers met for the first time for this image, which accompanied a 1977 National Geographic story on Harlem and recently was featured in our Photo of the Day archival collection. To the left is James Van Der Zee, famous for his portraits of Black New Yorkers during the Harlem Renaissance. To the right is Gordon Parks, legendary magazine photographer, author, and director of films such as The Learning Tree and Shaft.

Related: How the Harlem Renaissance helped forge a new sense of Black identity

Subscriber exclusive: See Black America's story, told like never before

SEE MORE VINTAGE PHOTOS

IN A FEW WORDS

LAST GLIMPSE

He mailed himself to freedom: Henry Brown spent 35 years enslaved to a Virginia property owner. In 1849, Brown got a box. He addressed it to a Philadelphia supporter of the Underground Railroad and got inside (illustrated above). The delivery succeeded. “His novel escape made him a folk hero, a wanted fugitive, and a public speaker,” Nina Strochlic writes.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

Today's newsletter was curated and edited by David Beard, Jen Tse, and Monica Williams. Have an idea or link to a story you think is right down our alley? Let us know at david.beard@natgeo.com.

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