MH17 photographer recalls grim crash day | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.07.2015
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MH17 photographer recalls grim crash day

Oleg Vtulkin was the first photographer on the scene of the MH17 plane crash that killed 298 passengers and crew members. The anniversary evokes memories he would rather let lie. Kitty Logan reports from Torez, Ukraine.

A firefighter holds a sputtering hose next to debris of the MH17

Oleg Vtulkin was in his hometown of Torez in eastern Ukraine on July 17 last year, when an unfamiliar noise caught his attention. "I heard a loud explosion and a hiss," he told DW. "Then I headed off in that direction, started to phone around and found out that it was a plane which had crashed somewhere near Grabovo."

Within half an hour Vtulkin arrived at the village, around 10 kilometers (six miles) away, and found that he was the first photographer to witness the aftermath of the crash of flight MH17. It was unlike anything he could have imagined. "It was my first experience of something like this." he says. "So I was shocked. I couldn't work properly and take normal photos. I was just standing there, totally confused. Then I did start to take pictures. No one else was there yet to do it. But I did the minimum of work."

Oleg Vtulkin looks at photos on his computer

Vtulkin felt obliged to photograph the crash site

When Vtulkin arrived at an open field a mere stone's throw from the cluster of homes which make up the tiny hamlet of Grabovo, the wreckage of flight MH17 was smoldering. The Malaysia Airlines plane had lost control in the skies over eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 on board. But the enormity of the tragedy was not immediately clear. "When I got there, there were already fire fighters on the scene. There were soldiers there too. The most cruel thing that I saw …, " he says, his voice breaking off. "Well, when I approached there was smoke enshrouding dead bodies. Everything was burning."

As Vtulkin photographed the scene, he struggled with what he was seeing. "It was real horror. I didn't want to be there," he says. "But as a photographer, I had to document everything. I had to take photos for history. But it was very hard emotionally. I saw human bodies and there was a smell, a putrid smell, like in a morgue. It was hot and dead bodies were lying out in the open."

Smoldering debris at the MH17 crash site

Most of the photos Vtulkin took are horribly graphic

A year later, Vtulkin searches through several hard drives before he finds his collection of photographs from that day. He has never tried to sell the images. Most would be too graphic to be published, reflecting the sudden and senseless cruelty of the passengers' and crew's death.

These are not pictures Vtulkin likes to be reminded of. "Honestly I try not to look at them," he says. "It's rare that I do. It's better not to see these photos."

Vtulkin scrolls through the unedited images, explaining how he watched and kept working as firemen doused the flames and the smoke drifted away from the wreckage, allowing him to move in to document details, including personal travel documents he found lying in the field.

Plane debris in a field

It remains unclear exactly why the plane crashed

"The thing that touched me most," he says, pointing to a disturbing image on the screen of a child's body, "is that over there on the road there was a girl lying. A small child, a dead girl. I have my own children, so it was very hard for me to see it."

Despite shelving the horrifying collection of images, Vtulkin continued his career as a photographer, joining newly emerging rebel media outlets. But the day of the MH17 crash has stayed with him, a day, he says, on which the conflict in eastern Ukraine, that affected so many people around him, also had an impact on others around the world.

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