Photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev

Interview: Nezih Tavlas / April 14, 2021

“I put a camera and empathy in my bag”

(Courtesy of Sergey Ponomarev)

Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?

Sergey Ponomarev: It was like love at first sight. I had my first camera when I was 6 and at 15 I was shooting, developing, and printing pix in the darkroom in the bathroom on my own. At 17 I joined a newspaper that was run by teenagers. Of course, it was all naive, and I started to learn about grands like @jamesnachtwey or @Sebastiaosalgado and their legacy later.

Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?

Sergey Ponomarev: Now I’m using @Nikon and @Fujifilm. My primary camera is D810 with 24-70, and I love the sound of the shutter. And for more gentle work and street photography, I use X-Pro2.

Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?

Sergey Ponomarev: Off course I use Instagram
Instagram -
Twitter -

Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?

Sergey Ponomarev: I put empathy, an open mind, and a camera in the bag. And often I take things from the bag in the same order.

Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?

Sergey Ponomarev: I work in a minimalistic style, I don’t like to carry a lot of gear and prefer a small bag and one camera. I noticed that lots of gear on your belt and shoulders distract people from acting normal. Also often I don’t take my camera out of the bag immediately, I let my subjects get used to me and we can have some initial time and then if they feel okay I can take the camera out.

Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?

Sergey Ponomarev: It depends on many things eg how long you work on your story and how long the text is. But for a good edit of 10-12 pix, you need to give your editor at least 40 different pictures.

Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?

Sergey Ponomarev: I just came back from Senegal, where I worked with a Russian NGO that was helping albino people. They were collecting donations to build the first albino center in Thies and we produced a series of portraits and VR film for the campaign.

Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?

Sergey Ponomarev: It always goes up and down, right now I have my editing/marketing time when I think what I can do with my pictures and search for new clients. And I look into new ideas and ventures.

Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?

Sergey Ponomarev: My favorite feeling is when I see that my photograph starts it’s own life in minds of people. It’s like giving birth to your baby. You publish it, and later you receive fan art and replicas of your photograph. This happened with #theboatpeople and it was replicated thousands of times. I have collected a bit of such fan art. And when the world is saturated by images, you realize that this shot was 10/10, it has spiked the emotions and reactions.

Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?

Sergey Ponomarev: Every story has its own message, but I want my audience to immerse into the environment where I was. I use multiple tools for that. Like compositional and meaning layers, or light, or direct look and others.

(Courtesy of Sergey Ponomarev)

Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?

Sergey Ponomarev: It must be artistic and meaningful. It should attract you to read it, and spend some time looking at it.

Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?

Sergey Ponomarev: I don’t have an answer to this. People’s mind is still a terra incognita for us. You can’t tell which image will become a meme.

Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?

Sergey Ponomarev: I’m confident that I can produce content that will touch minds and hearts. And the world still has stories to tell. we might change the format of storytelling, but there will be people who has to go and do this.

Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?

Sergey Ponomarev: Reporting on the frontline always put you at risk. I had some very hard stories when I was thinking “that’s not gonna end good”, somewhere in Ukraine and earlier in Libya and Bahrein. But thanks God I’m still alive and talk to you guys. The only advice I can give - use your “six sense” - and trust it.

Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?

Sergey Ponomarev: I think the story that no one reported yet could be a good one. Like a flight to Mars.

Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?

Sergey Ponomarev: Just be a human and think more about your subjects than yourself. But seriously, photojournalism isn’t anymore about going out and shooting. Now it’s more about research, production, editing, and marketing.

Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?

Sergey Ponomarev: Now every kid can whiten teeth and soften eyebags on the photo, it’s okay for personal use. But if we play in the frames of journalism and public information, we must follow the rules.

Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photographer?

Sergey Ponomarev: Respect your subjects and be honest, those are the main goals. But it always can be more. And help if there is no one around you to help.

Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?

Sergey Ponomarev: Not at all. It’s reshaping and we see new mediums and new formats. But the essence of photojournalism is the same. We have to be in the right place and at the right time and document the historical moment, no matter what kind of camera you have in your hands.

Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

Sergey Ponomarev: Be fair, believe in your mission, trust your “six sense” and hope to change the world.

Sergey Ponomarev

Sergey Ponomarev is a freelance photographer based in Moscow, and is best known for his work covering wars and conflict in the Middle East as well as the migrant crisis in Europe. In recent years Sergey’s work has taken him to Libya, Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt, as well as Europe, Russia and Ukraine. In 2016 he was part of the New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the arrival of some one million refugees from the Middle East and Africa to Western and Northern Europe. His photos of the migrant crisis also won first place in the World Press Photo contest. Among other awards Sergey received the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award in 2016 for his coverage of the Mosul offensive in Iraq.