When Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself in Kiev at the height of violence during Ukraine’s Independence Square protests, the documentary photographer decided to record not the fighting itself, but the human beings involved. Setting up a makeshift photo studio in an alleyway inside the barricaded square, she beckoned passers-by — the protesters themselves, and later the women who came to mourn their deaths — and captured their images on film, using a medium-format camera. The result is a hauntingly intimate, arresting set of portraits that gives a sense of the ordinary people in an extraordinary moment, and gender roles in conflict situations.
As events continue to unfold after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections last Sunday, Taylor-Lind tells the TED Blog about her experiences during those harrowing days.
Why were you in Kiev during the protests? Did you go to cover it as a photojournalist?
I initially traveled to Ukraine as part of a wider, long-term project I’m working on called Negative Zero, that looks at Europe’s declining populations. There are 19 countries inside Europe that have declining populations, and Ukraine is one of them. I had been to Romania, Serbia and Nagorno-Karabakh already, and Ukraine was next on my list. And actually, even before the war, Ukraine had the lowest life expectancy for men inside Europe.
So I traveled to Ukraine with the idea that I was going to photograph a story about winter deaths. I was going to look at TB dispensaries, AIDS hospices and palliative care — or the lack of it — for cancer patients, and the elderly. I arrived in Kiev and was researching how to facilitate access to these places that actually all lay in Donbass, in the east of Ukraine. It is a war zone today, but it was peaceful at that time. While there, I started photographing the protests in Maidan.
I knew the protests were going on. Corruption and depopulation are two very closely linked issues — and these were essentially anti-corruption protests, so already there was some relevance. Once I started photographing in Maidan, and particularly working on the portraits, I knew that I had to stay, and that my story was there.
I was in Ukraine again in August, and I tried to reach some of the places I had initially planned to photograph, but they were cut off by the fighting, so I wasn’t able to follow up my initial plan.
What are some factors for low life-expectancy in Ukraine?
Smoking, alcohol and drug addiction, poverty, poor access to health care — and now war.
You’re primarily a documentary photographer. What made you decide, in that moment, to shoot portraits?
I had never done a portrait series before. But I made my decision to shoot portraits in reaction to the presence of so many other journalists in Kiev and in Maidan. It was a news event, and I was working alongside so many of my colleagues and my friends. That’s really unusual for me — I’m not used to working surrounded by other photographers. Of course, if I’d been the only photographer in Kiev, I wouldn’t have shot the portraits — I would have had to take reportage pictures to show you what was happening. But the presence of all of the other photographers made me understand that I didn’t have to tell the whole story as one individual — what I could do was contribute one small part to the collective recording and collective understanding of the events there. Acknowledging that and trying to find one thing — one way to talk about it, the way that only I could talk about it — led me to making these portraits.
I’d been in a news situation once before, in Libya, during the revolution in 2011, and I’d felt a similar frustration. It’s not necessary to repeat news pictures that other people are taking; as a photographer, you have to not just find something to say, but you have to find your own way to say it. I struggled with that in Libya, and then the idea came to me, I should make portraits — both of the journalists as well as the fighters. Because what I noticed in Libya was that we photographers were emulating the costumes of the rebels.
That sounds dangerous!
It’s something that happens naturally, I guess. Not that photographers were wearing combat clothing, but they had a similar look: hipsterish, skinny jeans, beards, the checked scarves. When I was in Kiev, I noticed the same thing: we all looked like the fighters, like somehow we were all choosing the same clothes. This reminded me that I’d had this idea to take portraits in Libya, but I hadn’t done it, because I’m not a portrait photographer, I’m a reportage photographer. This time, it was the photographers around me who said, “That’s a good idea, you should do it!” So in a way, the presence of all the other journalists pushed me to do something different from them. It helped me to push myself creatively.
All the people you photographed were in the middle of either fighting or mourning. How did you get them to agree to stand still for a portrait?
My portrait studio was by the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, inside the barricade of Maidan. I set up my studio there every day in the same place. It was a collapsible metal frame with a black muslin curtain. I placed it in a bricked-up alleyway, so it was set back a little bit, and my fixer Emine had a gold reflector to bounce the light onto the subjects. We stood there all day.
That spot was on a thoroughfare leading to the barricades, the front line with the Berkut, the police. So we’d stop people as they were passing and ask them to come to the studio. After the worst days of violence — February 18 through the 20th, 2014 — all of these fighters were joined by tens of thousands of civilians in the square. Many women came to lay flowers for the people who had been killed — they started laying the flowers at the points where people had died, which you could tell because there was the blood on the ground. People set up small shrines and put crosses there. Eventually the whole square was covered in millions of flowers.
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