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Fear Rides with Motorcycling Photojournalist in Ukraine

From the Common Thread Team

By Neale Bayly of RevZilla

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Photojournalist Kiran Ridley's secondhand, 200 cc, Chinese-built motorcycle he relies on to get around in Ukraine. Second-language issues could be blamed for the Xplode name written on the side panel — something you don't want your motorcycle to do, especially in a war zone.
Photojournalist Kiran Ridley's secondhand, 200 cc, Chinese-built motorcycle he relies on to get around in Ukraine. Second-language issues could be blamed for the Xplode name written on the side panel — something you don't want your motorcycle to do, especially in a war zone.

Editor’s Note: I discovered this story on Common Thread the ZevZilla web site. I hope they don’t mind Bikernet sharing this with our readers. You should go to their site to see Ridley's moving photos.--Bandit

When the phone rang a couple of weeks ago, the voice on the end of the line sounded tired. Alone. A friend in need of a chat, someone in need of a familiar voice and a chance to maybe release some of the emotions from the pressure cooker inside his mind.

Simple things at first about his motorcycle: a badly wobbling rear wheel and a high idle speed, along with the machine's refusal to run without the choke engaged. As a motorcycle journalist, I am surprised the motorcycle is not known to me. It's an odd 200 cc single-cylinder, four-stroke machine that "rides like shit — you are fighting it all the time," he tells me.

The circumstances of how he acquired the machine are fascinating, as he tells me about a chance meeting with a heavily tattooed pizza delivery rider that led to a conversation and an opportunity to purchase the delivery rider's second motorcycle. It took just a few calls, a meeting, and with an exchange of cash the deal was done. Ridley was mobile.

It's still cold in Eastern Europe at this time of the year, temperatures still fall below freezing, and without proper riding gear the cold is greatly exaggerated, so I am concerned for his safety and welfare — and not just from the weather. We talk like this for a while more about the motorcycle and I suggest some mechanical things to check to try and improve the ride before I ask, "Are you safe?"

"I'm OK, mate," he tells me. "I have an escape route."

A long pause followed, signaling the start of one of the more difficult conversations I've had in a long while.

Duty, guilt, risk, and getting the job done with the help of a motorcycle
Working in western Ukraine, award-winning photojournalist Kiran Ridley is under immense pressure. A veteran of the pro-democracy riots in Hong Kong, with an extensive background in producing stories about a range of subjects from human rights to drug smuggling and migration issues, the mild-mannered Brit has been documenting world affairs since 1998.

Currently photographing the refugee crisis in Ukraine from the saddle of a motorcycle, Ridley gives me a chilling insight into the daily lives of both fleeing refugees and the residents of Lviv, as they prepare to face the attack they feel will inevitably come from the advancing Russian military. Younger children make camouflage nets and older people prepare defenses. He sounds emotionally torn as he talks about the will and resolve of the Ukrainian people to fight for their homes, balanced against the reality. The knowledge that once the Russians begin to pound their city with long-range artillery, destroying their infrastructure and killing their women and children, it will only be a matter of time before their amazing resolve gives out.

I learn that the greatest danger for Ridley is the checkpoints. Paranoia sweeps all rational thought aside and his press passes, cameras and images of refugees often add up to the word "spy" from nervous guards with itchy trigger fingers. Thankfully, so far, Ridley has diffused these extremely tense situations, but it's an added pressure to also be at risk from the people he is trying to help with his images.

This danger is curiously balanced by the incredible freedom the motorcycle affords, and the way it disarms the local citizens when he arrives in their villages. It has certainly allowed him in to capture many of the more intimate images he has shared with the world, images perhaps he would never have obtained without his motorcycle. It's also been invaluable navigating the long lines of refugees at the border checkpoints, sometimes up to 30 kilometers in length.

Ridley and I have shared intimate details of our lives over conversation at the Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, the last two years, in the way travelers often do. So as humbled as I am to hear about the situation in Ukraine from my friend firsthand, it leaves me with a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. Sitting here in my comfortable life it seems there is so little I can do. It also leaves me with the realization that without Ridley and all the other journalists working in and around Ukraine, this war is not happening. The only way we learn about the situation is from the work of these brave souls on the ground, and if they were not in Ukraine, Putin would have carried out his invasion without the world watching and we wouldn't be able to sit here comfortably voicing our opinion about the subject.

The conversation to this point has been a couple of body blows and an uppercut, but the next part of our talk was the roundhouse that took me to my knees. Another journalist has just been targeted and killed. At Ridley's home in Paris, his wife is caring for their three-month-old twin daughters, terrified for his safety. He's torn between a need to tell the world the horrors Putin is inflicting on the people of Ukraine and the need to be home safe with his family. All I can do is listen, provide a friendly voice in the darkness, and let him talk of the guilt he feels, of how he can leave Ukraine any time when so many can't. Over the phone line I can feel his pain.

It's 1 a.m., he is cold and tired from being out past curfew, and the sirens will start again at 5 a.m., so it's time to grab some sleep. Hopefully, tomorrow, Ridley will meet another journalist and not be alone. Then the phone line crackles, and I hear a faint "Good night, mate."
Click for the story with revealing photographs
Click for the story with revealing photographs

The line goes dead, leaving me to wonder when — or if — we will talk again.

Days pass and there's still no word from him, only my ongoing worry that he's OK.

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Reader Comments

A brave soul . There is nothing glamorous working/participating in a war despite how Hollywood likes to entertain us . I've been there!
Have worked as a contractor going back to the final says of Rhodesia, late '70s , San Salvador and Nicaragua in the '80s, Sierra Leone in the '90s and the Middle East in the early 2000s .

I feel for this guy. He risked everything to tell an important story, unlike the pathetic TV reporters who fly in, do some photo ops and zip out.

Good job Bandit, for putting this on your platform!
You continue to impress .

Captain Ed Hardison
Corolla, NC
Wednesday, May 4, 2022
Editor Response Thanks brother. I wish our leaders would have taken decisive action and ended this madness the day after it started.

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