ORLANDO, Fla. – A Central Florida man is combining his passion for photography with a serious conflict overseas.
TJ Waller, 59, recently returned after spending a month in the war-torn country, sharing insight captured through the lenses of his cameras.
“The main reason why I went over there, I choke up every time I tell this story. I saw a picture of a little girl whose apartment complex had been bombed and she never woke up. They had to dig her out like an archeological find and her body was motionless still holding her teddy bear. I said ‘OK, I can’t go over there and do something about Putin, but I can go over there and use my skills as a photographer to try to get the story back here so people can see the truth of what’s happening,’” Waller said.
Waller, a freelance photographer from Geneva, said he saved up some money and traveled to Ukraine.
“I went into Odesa and Mykolaiv where things were happening and it was a little more tense but I was just determined to get the story, to get the truth, to get the pictures,” he said.
Waller said things got real in Odesa when he saw what looked like an aircraft flying toward the city from a distance.
“I thought it was a jet fighter, but as it got closer, I saw it was a missile that Russia had fired from the Black Sea. It went directly over me, so close that I could see the numbers on the missile,” Waller said. “Adrenaline pumps in at that point.”
Waller witnessed several bombings during his visit. Some were shot down by Ukrainian forces, others destroyed buildings like a civilian warehouse and apartment buildings, leaving cars charred. Many civilians were hurt or even killed as a result. Waller ran toward the danger with Ukrainian soldiers.
“I was sitting in the corner of a blown-out building, and (soldiers) were getting debriefed and I was shooting photos and one young kid, he was 19 or 20. He was crouched down on the wall and he had his hat in his hand and his weapon in his arms. I went up to him using Google Translate (on my phone) and asked, ‘What are you thinking of?’ and he said, ‘Family,’” Waller said. “They are angry and of course want it to end soon but they are in it for the long haul. They say, ‘We’re kicking Russia out of Ukraine.’”
During the monthlong visit, Waller worked with his military contacts, delivering supplies to special forces.
“One time I was carrying my camera around and someone snatched the camera and then I was detained for being a Russian spy,” Waller said.
He said he was mistaken for a Russian spy several times, taking hours to go through questioning and credential verification before he was freed. Then he continued to deliver supplies to Ukrainian soldiers, like a sniper, who Waller said was grateful when he realized he was there to help.
“He comes up to me and gives me the biggest bear hug and he says, ‘Thank you, thank you’ with tears in his eyes. It just tore me apart. It’s my pleasure, it’s my honor to do that,” Waller said.
During his travels, Waller said he also captured the beauty of the country, sharing photos of the Ukraine’s national flower - the sunflower. He also shared pictures of The Arch of Freedom monument that stands at the capital of Kyiv.
His photos also depict the realities of families dealing with war. One photo shows a soldier on leave spending time with his girlfriend in uniform.
“The things we take for granted over here, it’s just crazy,” Waller said. “If they can find it in their heart to help, they still need help. They still need help from us, the strongest country on the planet. I met so many Americans that didn’t even make it into Ukraine—they were helping at refugee houses for children. I was proud, proud. It was wonderful.”
More than six months into the war, Waller wants to keep the conversation alive and encourage others to help however they can. He plans to save more money so he can go back to Ukraine.
“Because my job’s not finished,” he said.
If you’re looking to help the people of Ukraine, including the soldiers and refugees, Waller provided links to organizations and military contacts that give resources directly to soldiers on the front lines. Waller said he worked directly with Ukraine’s Fund for Liberty and For Electronics of Combat Drones during his travels and has seen the work they’ve done to assist Ukrainian soldiers.
Waller urges those making monetary donations to do the research to make sure the organizations they’re sending money to are legitimate.