In this March 19, 2022, file photo, refugees fleeing the war from neighboring Ukraine arrive at the border crossing in Palanca, Moldova. Credit: Sergei Grits / AP

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Michael Seamans has seen a lot over the course of his 16-year career as a photojournalist. He has covered natural disasters, deadly disease outbreaks and moments of tragedy here in Maine and elsewhere. But he has never seen anything quite like what he is witnessing and documenting right now in the fallout from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve never seen such despair and depression and terror in people’s eyes before,” Seamans said. “There’s a look I’ve never seen before in my life.”

Seamans is currently working in Europe for USA Today as part of a project with the Pulitzer Center. The BDN Editorial Board reached out to him to see if he would discuss the experience, and he spoke with us this week from Moldova, where he has been helping to cover and understand the plight of those displaced by the violence. Millions have fled Ukraine, with hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed the border to Moldova since the invasion began in late February.

He emphasized that he is there to cover the people being displaced by the war, not the war itself.

“I’m not a war photographer,” he said, pointing to the work of other photographers like Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks of The New York Times who have been documenting the conflict and destruction on the ground in Ukraine. “My purpose is to show what comes after that.”

Seamans has been overseas for about two weeks. This has included a 24-hour trip into Ukraine embedded with an aid organization as it dropped supplies in the cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv,  picked up 80 people from the latter to bring to Moldova, “and got out of there as fast as possible.”

He explained how he watched those fleeing say goodbye to loved ones staying behind.

“It was like I witnessed 80 funerals all at once,” Seamans said. “These people saying goodbye to their boyfriends, their fathers, their husbands, not knowing if they’re ever going to see them again. On top of that, being put on a van, brought to another country, put on another bus, and brought to another country. I mean, the trauma associated with that, I just could not comprehend.”

It is difficult and emotionally draining work, but it is what Seamans went there to do.

“Listening to these stories, photographing the new world that they’ve been put into, where it’s just as scary for them to either stay at home in Mykolaiv or hop on a van from an aid organization and be brought to another different city to be processed, only to be sent off to another city somewhere else in the world,” he told us. “Which, in their words, is just as scary.”

There was one specific moment from that journey to Mykolaiv with which Seamans had “a hard time editing my pictures,” finding it particularly difficult “to go back and relive that moment.” A 16-year-old daughter with her mother was saying goodbye to her father, who was staying behind. It reminded Seamans of saying goodbye to his own father before he died of cancer, only in this case, it was violent conflict separating a family.

“Just devastating to see,” Seamans told us. “It really just wrecks me every time I think about it.”  

We can all see this devastation in Seamans’ photos on the USA Today website. What is happening should wreck us, and inspire continued action.

Seamans is trying to “shed light on the human emotional toll that this has on people, and it’s just downright crippling.”

“You’re just watching people suffer for no reason,” he said. “Just because of one person’s aggression and greater global plan.”

In a world of disinformation and propaganda, especially from Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, this work that Seamans and other journalists are doing is that much more critical. Reporting like the recent USA Today story about displaced Ukrainian Jews, including photographs from Seamans, quickly and forcefully refutes Putin’s false pretense of “denazification.”

Disregarding the “bunch of malarkey” coming from the Russian government is “probably the easiest part of the job,” Seamans said. “It’s just a load of crap, what’s coming out of the Kremlin.”

Seamans has also been bothered by a dip in aid that he’s observed.

“You can see the drop in aid, which means people are losing interest, which means people are going to suffer more,” he told us, stressing the importance of the American public continuing to pay attention to what’s happening and support assistance efforts.

“Flying a Ukrainian flag outside your house is not going to save these people,” Seamans said.

“It’s got to be financial support,” he added. “Otherwise, you can’t put gas in the tanks. You can’t put bottles of water in the truck. It costs money to help these people.”

“This isn’t going to end anytime soon,” he said.

Seamans suggested looking for organizations providing direct aid, and also encouraged people to support news organizations like the Pulitzer Center that make projects like his possible.

“I just hope that what I am able to bring back to the readership is as indelible on them as it was on me,” Seamans told us. He hopes to help people “see the disgusting evilness of it all.”

In the face of such evil, Seamans wants people back home to know that they can be part of the solution.

“It’s preventable, and it’s preventable through awareness,” he said, again highlighting the importance of continuing to support organizations doing the work on the ground. “I’ve seen the look on people’s faces when they get a hot meal.”

“There are things people can actually do that can make a difference in even just one person’s existence here,” he said.

Remember those words, confront the despair seen in Seamans’ photos, and decide to do something about it.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...