It’s often hard to follow what’s going on in other parts of the world without getting biased, incomplete snapshots that serve to stir up more confusion or even misinformation.
But in his role as a freelance visual journalist and documentary filmmaker, Pittsburgh-native Nick Childers aims to tell the truth about people’s lives and experiences, without sensationalizing them.
He reported recently in Ukraine amid the war with Russia, documenting people’s fear, loneliness and grief – as well as their unification, community and generosity. In this month’s Behind the Byline, we discussed his experience seeing the crisis first-hand and previous work in Ukraine
Where are you from?
I’m from Pittsburgh, originally from the Polish Hill area. I moved back to Pittsburgh about five years ago and now I’m living in Polish Hill again.
What got you into photography, filmmaking and reporting?
It was a combination of things. My father is a multimedia artist. He was my digital media teacher for four years at CAPA here in Pittsburgh, and I kind of followed in his footsteps.
My mother is a researcher. She works in neuroscience and influences me in the more scientific aspects of my work. I love the creative aspects of film and photography, but I prefer more of the informational side of what my photos and videos tell.
I know you just got back from Ukraine a few days ago. What’s it like being back in the U.S. after several months in Europe during the war, and continuing your projects from a distance rather than right there on the ground?
I intended to be there for just a month — I’m a freelancer and I had an assignment I was working on with Postindustrial. I ended up doing a short documentary for AJ+, Al Jazeera’s short documentary department, and working for a studio that wanted some footage of a group of nightclub owners and DJs who decided to join the territorial defense units. So, one month turned into three months, and during that time I got very acquainted with a lot of people — it kind of felt like I was a local after a while.
While I was there, I would read the news in the U.S. and most of it was about Roe v. Wade, gun violence and other issues. It was strange because while I was in Ukraine, nothing else seemed to matter besides the war. Even though there’s a war there, the war really unified Ukrainians, more so than other things. There are some issues here that are very polarizing on the left and right — LGBTQ+ issues and other causes. But in Ukraine, the war united people and it was very surprising.
Where did you stay in Ukraine?
I was in a bunch of different cities, but the one I spent the most time in was Dnipro. I started off in Krakow, Poland, and then crossed the border into Lviv, which is the western city. It was very safe there, but there were a ton of journalists, tons of people escaping the war — it was crowded. I stayed with a couple there, did my reporting, and then decided to go to Kyiv in the middle of the battle. That’s when things started getting harder because the city was still being bombed, and every night you’d wake up to loud explosions. The last city I went to for about a week was Kharkiv, close to the border. That city was heavily hit. I saw and experienced a lot more there, a lot of shelling and destruction.
You were in Ukraine twice before for other projects. Obviously, the circumstances were different this time around. What was it like going back after those previous two visits, and how was your reporting approach different this time?
The first time I went was in May of 2015, and it was after learning that Pittsburgh is a sister city to Donetsk, which is the Russian separatist capital city to the East. I went over there to do a comparison story for a couple of weeks.
I went back in 2017 to do a story on how musicians use music to cope with war. I bounced around between Kyiv, Dnipro and Donbas for about two weeks.
This time was a lot different because a lot of things got interrupted — especially flying — so it really forced me to be more resourceful. I was asking friends of friends to stay with them, and they were very helpful and generous. If there’s anything I would take away from my experience there, it’s how incredible the Ukrainian people are. They’re very resourceful, they really want to help and they’re very proud of their country.
Unlike my last trip, where I had everything planned out, this time there was a lot more chaos — but in that chaos, a lot of good stuff happened. I was shown another side of Ukraine that I probably wouldn’t have ever seen if the war had not started.
When you’re speaking with people who are in desperate circumstances, how do you gain their trust?
I mainly consider myself a documentary filmmaker, and I try to explain that difference to a lot of the people I interview or film, because I think documentary film is more respected than some of the quick news reports. I reassure them that I take my time with my work. I like showing characters — I’m looking to tell an in-depth story about a smaller group of people rather than just quick, topical sound bites.
What would you say is your favorite part of your job as a visual journalist and documentary filmmaker?
I think my favorite part is seeing people’s reactions to the films. Seeing the joy that people experience sometimes when their story is told — that really brings a lot of pleasure to what I do. What also brings joy to my work is, photographically, it’s like a painting — capturing a movement and the people and characters that are in that movement.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I’ve been running a chapter of a video consortium which is a documentary film program I’m facilitating. Besides that, I’ve been chilling with my dog, Ringo, and spending time with friends and family.