MOSCOW, September (RIA Novosti) - Colleagues and friends of Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency remember photojournalist Andrei Stenin, who has died in Ukraine, as a true professional, who preferred hot zones to dull offices. He himself chose the profession of a combat news photographer, to capture historic events that ruin the lives of ordinary people.
Stenin traveled to Ukraine in May 2014 and sent back dozens of photos daily. He went missing on August 5. In the end of August, a Renault Logan with bodies of three people was found among the burnt out cars on a highway between Snizhne and Dmitrovka. It was established that one of the bodies was Andrei’s.
"[Stenin] returned after one of the first trips, to Cairo, full of energy and inspiration, his eyes were glowing, and told Vladimir Baranov, the head of the Department of Photo Information, that he only wants to shoot conflicts. From now on all the conflicts will be mine and nothing else, he said," recalls Alexander Stohl, the head of the Joint Department of Photo Information of Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency.
Stenin set off to the southeastern regions of Ukraine on May 13, a month after Kiev launched a brutal punitive operation targeting independence supporters. In early May he once again went to Syria to cover the presidential election.
"We wrote one another when Andrei was in Syria and we were in Ukraine, in Slavyansk," says Andrei's friend Alexander Kots, a military news photographer with the Komsomolskaya Pravda. "He was worried that he had missed historic events. For his part, Andrei wrote us when we left Slavyansk urging to come back and saying that we were missing a historic event. Those events in Ukraine were not a mere photo, they meant a lot to him. That was history."
HE COULDN'T SIT STILL
In Slavyansk, Andrei shared a room with Dmitry Steshin, a friend and a combat news photographer with the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. Dmitry took him away from a house, destroyed by shelling, where Andrei rented a flat and nobody else lived at the time.
"We lived in perfect harmony although we rarely talked, two sociopaths. We went to shoot together, watched movies and listened music together. When I left, I didn't even think that I had seen him for the last time. I left him a kettle so that he would send away occasional boredom with tea. I remember how sorry he was that he was left alone," Steshin says. "Later I thought a lot about why he didn't leave with us. The war sucked him in. He embraced it. It resembles an overdose. He was afraid to return to peaceful life that lacks that drive and edge. We wrote each other each day after I returned to Moscow. He told me horrible things. It was obvious that the situation was extremely bad, everything was changing so fast, it was a mess. It was very hard for a journalist to work under such conditions. But he couldn't sit still."
Indeed, Stenin was never able to sit still: prior to Slavyansk he was covering events in Syria, the Gaza Strip, Crimea at the time of the referendum,the barricades and tent camp of the Maidan, Egypt, Libya, Kirgizia and Turkey. When not away, Stenin was covering unauthorized rallies, trials, emergencies and riots.
Michael Voskresensky, a special photo correspondent of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, said that he really got to know Stenin during the last work trip. Voskresensky praised Stenin for his uncompromising attitude to work. Andrei refused to spend time doing mediocre work. He always aspired for more and tried to achieve the best.
"After his trip to Slavyansk he was wiped out. We talked for more than an hour. That was quite unusual for Andrei, I think. After a couple of day he got back to work. Usual stories were not enough for him. He wanted to be at the cutting edge of the news: where houses were burning and bullets were fired. As a result, he joined a group of military news photographers among the independence supporters and went with them to the most dangerous places," Voskresensky said.
THOUSANDS OF PHOTOGRAPHS AND ONLY ONE TEXT
Stenin used to be a writing correspondent. He wrote for the Societies section of the Rossiyskaya Gazeta from 2003, then in Gazeta.Ru for several years. Andrei took up photography in 2008. He shocked his former colleagues and bosses when he decided not to write anymore. Andrei then was a freelance photographer for ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, Kommersant, Reuters, The Associated Press, France Press. From 2009 he worked at RIA Novosti and from 2014 he was a special photo correspondent for the Joint Directorate of Photo Information in the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency. Twice, in 2010 and 2013, he was awarded the prestigious "Serebryanaya Kamera" [Silver Camera].
After taking up photography Stenin wrote only one text titled "Fighting for a free Libya". His piece describes a photograph he took and his life as a professional photo journalist in the middle of battle action.
"In 2011 I read an article on Libya on the RIA Novosti website. It was a brilliant, colorful piece and I was surprised when I saw who wrote it. Stenin is a photographer, I thought," Kots recalls.
Stenin's article stuck in Steshin's memory as well. "I was overwhelmed with how well-written it was. I asked him why he wasn't writing. He told me he wanted writing to be a labor of love, and he wanted to work as a photographer," Steshin said.
HOPE TO THE LAST
Stenin spent almost three months in the Donetsk Region. He took photos of Slavyansk, Semenovka, Cherevkovka, Nikolaevka, Snizhne, Marynivka after their shelling: houses ablaze and in ruins, hospitals, stores, churches, injured locals and children, funerals. He captured moments of everyday life: trenches, field kitchens, a wedding of one of the independence supporters and a kitten. Andrei Stenin was one of the first photographers to visit the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing near the town of Shakhtyorsk. He sent photos depicting parts of the plane and bodies to Moscow.
On August 5, the editors received photos from Andrei for the last time. The pictures are of the residents of Shakhtyorsk, hiding from shelling in an entrance hall of a residential building in the aftermath of the shelling and the Lenin monument covered in shards of glass.
On August 7, the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency announced that Stenin was missing.
The last known fact was that Andrei, along with two other military photographers with the "Informacionny Korpus" website, affiliated with the independence supporters and went to Shakhtyorsk and Snizhne, to the east of Donetsk. They were driving a blue Renault Logan. On August 6, they were seen in the headquarters of the independence supporters in Snizhne. They drove out to the village of Dmitrovka on the border with Russia. At the time one of Stenin's fellow passengers called his wife. No one was able to contact them after that. Their phones were out of reach.
"At that exact moment Ukrainian National Guard launched an offensive in that region. They cut Dmitrovka off Snizhne and fortified the zone," explained Stenin's friend Semen Pegov, a Lifenews correspondent. "We had hoped to the last moment that the guys managed to pass Dmitrovka."
However, in mid-August independence supporters broke the blockade and the National Guard had to retreat. It became known that Andrei and his colleagues never came to Dmitrovka. Instead, information surfaced that the National Guard fortified its position on a hill located between Snizhne and Dmitrovka. They gunned down all passing cars fearing that they would be attacked under the guise of civilians or independence supporters would get through.
Journalists talked to a woman who managed to survive that bloodbath. She was driving with her husband from Dmitrovka when the National Guard fired at their car. Her husband died at the scene. The injured woman managed to crawl to a nearby farmstead located approximately a kilometer away. Locals tended the wounded woman for a week.
"On August 20, we found about 15 cars, including the burnt out Renault Logan with three bodies in that area. We couldn't identify them without DNA testing. All that remained was a pile of ash and calcinated bones," Pegov recalled.
That was likely Stenin's car for several reasons: the time and place of the killing of those in the car and two burnt out professional lenses in the trunk. Nearby lay a shirt of an Italian brand that Stenin used to wear. Its sleeves were folded. Friends recalled that Andrei liked to wear his like that.
It also matched with the story told by an unknown man who answered one of Stenin's phones in mid-August. The man said that he was a soldier of the Ukrainian Army, who had just returned from the area where Dmitrovka is located to Slavyansk. He said where he found the phone and stated that its previous owner is dead. It was later established that one of Stenin's phones was indeed in Slavyansk.
"It can be assumed that the car was shot at, and the cameras, phones and other valuables were then stolen. Then the car was set on fire or it caught fire from one of shells," Dmitry Toreev, the head of the investigation department of the Donetsk Ministry of Internal Affairs, told RIA Novosti.
Andrei's friends and colleagues hoped he was alive to the last moment. The hope was kept alive partially due to the statements of the Ukrainian side that were later retracted. On August 11, Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs undertook the case to locate Stenin. Next day Ukrainian authorities said for the first time that they know what happened to Andrei. Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, told Latvian radio Baltkom that the photo correspondent was arrested by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) on charges of assisting terrorists. Later Gerashenko said that his words were misinterpreted. He only assumed that Stenin was detained but that information was not confirmed. Baltkom said that they have a recording of the interview and gave it to the mass media.
Rossiya Segodnya Director General Dmitry Kiselev said "mediators [representing] the Ukrainian side contacted our agency and suggested holding talks on swapping him, implying that Stenin is alive."
DNA testing confirmed the worst.
"Waiting for a miracle: That is a typical state for all of us. In the dramatic circumstances of Andrei Stenin in the south-east of Ukraine we hoped for the best outcome. But the unpredictability of the negative reality surpassed our hopes," said Vladimir Vyatkin, a special photo correspondent of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency.
"Who he was? A reliable professional in his chosen field. Silent and nearly invisible while at the office. He remains a mystery to many. He left forever. He left invaluable photos depicting historic events of the beginning of the 21 century. Stenin's photos document crimes the authorities committed against their own people, against our brothers and sisters, our shared history, shared suffering and victories", Vyatkin added.
Evgeny Byatov, special photo correspondent of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, still hopes that Andrei is alive. "I didn't talk to him often. Generally, we discussed work, right before an assignment. Once we had to shoot a march together. I went to the head of the column and saw Andrei there. We had a quick word, I turned away and when I looked back he was not there. I looked around but couldn't find him. Perhaps, that's how he made the photos when nobody else couldn't, in places where others were not allowed, not to mention war zones," Byatov said.
HE LIVED TRULY ONLY UNDER GUNFIRE
"He was stubborn, photo editors were afraid of him. He always chose figures of authority according to his own principle. He never really argued with anyone, but he always insisted on his own framing of shots, on his own vision," said Shtol. "It was useless to scare him. He was not scared at all. He would go away, think about it and return with the same request."
According to the head of the Joint Department of Photo Information at the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, Stenin never sent many photos if he didn't think there was something valuable captured. "Sometimes you need more, an editor could ask Andrei to send something else but Stenin would say that there were no photos left," Shtol added.
Vladimir Astapkovich, a special photo correspondent of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, said that Stenin was a person you could follow blindfolded into combat. "Stenin was a person who would help you in a critical situation. I remember one of the first unauthorized rallies Moscow. The crowd, police, everyone is running, pushing. You run with everyone else. You get knocked off your feet, you almost fall. Suddenly, someone grabs you. Andrei. And then you run together. Short break. A cigarette. A couple of phrases and back to work," recalled Astapkovich.
"Andrei seemed to be truly living only under such circumstances - under gunfire, shelling, at war. Here, in Moscow, he seemed to be bored. As soon as he could he would go to a hot zone and return with photos," said Ekaterina Novikova, a senior editor at the Department of Analysis and Production of Photography at the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency. "We all knew that if it were necessary, Andrei would drop everything and go anywhere editors want him to, day or night."
According to Natalia Seliverstova, the head of the photo editors of the real-time photo release, people like Andrei have to be respected for their cool head, self-possession under any circumstances - that is especially important for photojournalists. "He was one of the few photo correspondents who was ready to risk his life. Working with him was easy. He was a true friend," Seliverstova said.
Evgeny Poddubny, a military news photographer with Rossiya 24, recalled that last time he saw Andrei in Slavyansk. They went to Semenovka together and they sat in a trench together when the Ukrainian Army was shelling the area. "For me his death is a great tragedy. I refused to believe that that was him," said Poddubny. "Andrei was a great person and a professional reporter. I met him in Syria two years ago. I liked his work and followed his career with interest even if I never visited places where he had been."
"He was a thoughtful man. He was familiar with the political situation and he understood people well. I wouldn't say he was very social. We always lost him everywhere. I was sure we would find him this time. He was very kind and outgoing. You could always count on him," said Kots.
"Andrei captured events that a few would dare to photograph. People saw what wars were really like through his images. And now we can only mourn him and feel for his loved ones. Killing a photojournalist means putting out society's eyes," said Vitaly Belousov, a special photo correspondent of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency.
"Trips to battle zones are always physically and mentally exhausting. In the last several years Andrei had a lot of that," said Valery Melnikov, a special photo correspondent of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency. In war photography you have to be close, having personal contact with what is going on and with people involved is extremely important. War photography is impossible without that."
"Andrei came as close to war as humanely possible. Look at his last photos. Maybe, besides war you will see something that you will remember forever."