Tag Archives: War

Ordinary people in an extraordinary moment: Portraits of the men + women caught up in revolution in Ukraine

TED Fellow Anastasia Taylor-Lind on the other side of the camera in Ukraine. She originally planned to photograph a series about the declining population in the country, but quickly realized that the protests were her story. Photo: Alexander Checkmenev

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.

Eugene, 22. Protestor from L’viv region. February 24, 2014. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

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.

Natasha, 21. Mourner from Kiev. February 23, 2014. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind

To read the full interview, please visit the TED Blog >>>



Orphans of the narrative: Bosnian photographer Ziyah Gafić documents the aftermath of war

Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.

Tell us about the overall focus of your work.

The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.

My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.

How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?

I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

A mother’s plea from Gaza: war photojournalist Eman Mohammed writes from within the firestorm

Eman Mohammed's daughters Talia and Lateen, currently trapped in Gaza with their mother during Israeli bombing.

Eman Mohammed’s daughters Talia and Lateen, currently trapped in Gaza with their mother during Israeli bombing.

As Gaza’s only female photojournalist, Eman Mohammed is no stranger to the terrors of war. But it’s a whole different kind of fear when you’re a mother. Today, the TED Fellow writes as bombs fall around her and her two young daughters, aged 3 and 1, who — despite being American citizens — are currently trapped in Gaza. All borders are closed in the wake of the most recent conflict around the abduction and killing of three young Israeli settlers and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager. Here, Mohammed shares her experience of the conflict of motherhood in a war zone.

As a photojournalist, stepping into war isn’t a dilemma for me. It make sense to grab my cameras and run out to document the man-made misery, the horrors of war, each and every time hoping we’ll get the lesson. But nothing prepared me to understand how to raise children in a war zone — not even having been a child in one myself. Despite my best efforts to give my daughters a different life, I ironically find myself in the exact same situation my mother was, 16 years ago.

After covering two wars in Gaza, I’d shifted my whole life, moving with my American husband to the United States, trying to give my two daughters — Talia, who is 3, and Lateen, who’s 1 — the universal dream of peace. But as I drifted into a suburban life, I also longed for my sweet mother and my home. I longed to smell the roses while walking on the beach. So I took my daughters back to Gaza to visit their grandmother, and now I find myself again at ground zero, trapped again between airstrikes and the unknown.

Now, seeing my two daughters staring at me in shock, calling my name in fear, asking to come with me when I leave to go photograph the conflict — as my professional calling has me do — my heart refuses to believe I could have possibly risked the life of my two angels by bringing them here. They don’t understand why their little adventure to see gramma escalated so fast so dramatically, and or why they can’t get a hug from daddy but only get to see his face through the cold laptop screen.

The ones who write the rules of war are the ones who never experience it. If you haven’t tasted the pain of losing a loved one, the need to run away when all doors are closed, jumping out of bed to hold your kid and cover her ears in a blink of an eye because a war plane just offloaded its rockets around your house — you can’ imagine life in Gaza. In the field, I capture the moment a mother mourns over her 3-year-old girl. It strikes me so painfully — she’s the same age as my baby — but she lost her child and I’ll be able to go back home and hold mine.

As a photojournalist, it was one thing. Now, when I turn on the TV and see another mother in a different nation, same conflict, crying her heart out, I can only wonder, Whose war is this? I didn’t sign up for this. When things get darkest I wonder, Will I be next? Will I be the next crying mother over the dead body of her baby? My trust in humanity fades away, and I sink into tears of rage and weakness.

The fear for my own life isn’t same. But my daughters… they didn’t choose this. They deserve 10, 15, 20 more years of happiness, life and joy, exactly as I dreamt it would be carrying an unborn child covering the 2nd war — hoping it would be the last one, no pain no tears, just happiness and peace.

No one has the right to take an innocent life no matter what — young or old, Christian, Muslim or Jew, white, black or brown. I didn’t realize this as a mother or a war photojournalist. I did as a human.

Now I ask for help, not to leave Gaza — along with hundred of thousands of mothers here, I am now experiencing firsthand what it means to not have the option to secure the safety of my children. But someone please tell me: how do I explain to my three-year-old daughter that she will not get a cake on her birthday because the airstrikes won’t allow me to drive to the bakery?

Arming rebels with art – Esther Chae’s memoir of teaching in Nigeria

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Stage and television actor and writer Esther Chae is not afraid of adventure, having climbed the Indian Himalayas, Mt Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among other epic journeys. Here, she shares with the Fellows blog an unusual teaching experience that took her into an altogether different context for her craft, and changed her perspective on the importance of film, acting, and art. Chae recently closed a performance of Extraordinary Chambers,  in which she portrayed a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in San Diego, and is currently developing her one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies – about an alleged North Korean spy interrogated by the FBI – as a feature film. 

A few years ago, TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt asked me to write about my experience teaching in Abuja, Nigera, to include in her e-book, “The Audacity of Humanity.”  I’d like to share it here on the TED Fellows Blog since it is one of the rare moments my limits both as an explorer and actor (acting teacher in this case) were tested at the same time. There is a strong correlation between the two: both require one to stay vigilantly present in the moment, to be open to unexpected challenges and to persist through that uncomfortable place of extreme vulnerability. That compound effect was intense.


How on earth did I end up here in Africa…?

That’s what I was thinking as a howling sandstorm ravaged Abuja, Nigeria. With bandanas covering our faces and sunglasses protecting our eyes, we stepped outside the classrooms. We looked like a group of bandits about to rob a bank, not fancy artists sent to teach filmmaking. As my students were rehearsing their assigned scenes, I suddenly felt like Coolio, singing in my head how kids in the hood had been spending most their lives living in the Gang-sta’s Paradise. I felt like I was in some intense music video and I needed to rap my way through it.

In the spring of 2010, I was part of a group of American teachers who were “planed over” to help build Nigeria’s first official film academy. I was hired to teach Acting for Film.  Somehow I missed the memo that I was going to be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s tough character in the Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) edition of Dangerous Minds, teaching “gangster rebels.”  Craft service and make up were certainly not on this set, though.

The makeshift film school was located in an abandoned governmental structure, and the water stopped and electricity went out every day (but not at the same time).  This was a stress factor for this gal who was trained (and tortured) under her über-fastidious Korean mom. I could see Mom tsk-tsking, shaking her head at me. “Now look at where your horse traveling spirit has brought you to. And this place, so dirty!”


Filmmaking class.

Filmmaking class.

In the first few days following our arrival, one of the African-American teachers, who was overwhelmed to be “back” in Africa for the first time, broke down in class.  He was so excited about and focused on teaching his students, he did not even notice those sandstorms.  He lost his voice and then got a sinus infection from the dust.  I had to take over his class on top of my already five-class load that first week.

The production assistants were not doing so well, either. Not only were they younger and  less experienced working in developing countries, but they did not have the benefit or gratification of working with the students. They didn’t get to see the students’ lightbulbs turn on and creativity flow, like we teachers did. Instead, the PAs had the harsh task of managing the expensive film equipment, which started fraying in the heat and dust, to over 200 confused students who were completely new to film production and constantly fought over time slots and camera equipment. Their duties were stressful, and it started to take a toll.  I would see mounds and mounds of hard liquor bottles and cigarette packs outside their hotel room doors.

I knew Nigeria was one of the most recently volatile regions in Africa. Before going there, I had spoken with friends familiar with the area who thought tough Esther could handle it. Okay. I’ve trekked the Himalayan mountains in India, bamboo rafted across Thailand’s rivers, and even survived tiptoeing across the frozen Neva River in Russia in the dead of winter. I could do it. I’m going to Nigeria! But when I first arrived there, I felt I’d made a huge mistake.

When our group of fifteen-some teachers from Los Angeles and New York landed, we were greeted by an equal number of uniformed guards all armed with AK-47s.  They shuffled us into the vans that were waiting to take us to the the crumbling “five-star” hotel. This was not customary, but the US-affiliated film academy insisted that we – and the expensive equipment – be guarded for safety. I think I would have felt safer without the guns. The guns stayed with us the entire time we were there.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

But later, I understood why.  Ten days after our team of U.S. instructors had arrived, more than 500 civilians, mostly children and women, were killed at a church in the nearby city of Jos. It was surreal to watch the CNN news in the hotel lounge, knowing the brutal massacre had happened only 160 miles away from where I was standing. It was the latest in a sickening cycle of retaliation due to differing political and religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, all which were too complex for me, the foreign teacher, to decipher…

One of the screenwriting students mentioned that the Nigerian press reported that the US Film Academy teachers were there to rehabilitate the rebels of the Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta region is the southeastern area between Lagos and Cameroon, home to nine Nigerian tribes whose land contains vast reserves of oil. The area had become a scene of horrific bloodshed and violence as the conflict between disenfranchised populations, oil conglomerates, and the government played out. Apparently, many of our students, who were former rebels from that region, were fully funded by the Niger Delta government to come to this Film Academy for “rehabilitation.”

Well, that was helpful information.  No wonder some of the students looked so completely lost and confused! The students all had stories of how they’d found themselves at the film academy: cousins who’d applied on their behalf, church pastors who’d reached out, radio advertisements they’d heard while driving. Those students wanted to learn filmmaking. But the other students from the Niger Delta region had been granted scholarships to go to Abuja and had no idea what they were doing or what they were in for. These students were “rebels” indeed. I would like to imagine they were the ones who had the opportunity to actually defy violence and conflict in their region, the ones who’d traveled from far and further afar to Abuja to learn filmmaking, acting, editing and animation. They were eager 20-somethings desperate for a creative outlet to spread their war-weary wings and fly.  Hopefully we teachers could help them arm themselves with art and the power of storytelling. Their pens had to be mightier than the sword. They were now rebels without machetes or guns but with pens, scripts and acting in hand. I had to show up for them, however fatigued, uncomfortable and confused I was.

The sandstorm eventually subsided. The AC started working again, and we picked up where we’d left off. As I walked around the classroom checking in with my students, I heard the song beats of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in my head again.  I smiled as my “rebel students” rehearsed their scenes, hoping to fulfill my role as the inspirational teacher that they’d never forget. I hoped many of them would become the Nouvelle Vague of Nigerian cinema, if not civic leaders who questioned their current political and social circumstances through the arts and storytelling. It was in that moment that I figured out the how and why I ended up in Africa. I was there as both a teacher in front of the class and a student of this particular life experience.




“The War You Don’t See” – A Must See Documentary

Some of the world’s leading star reporters from mainstream and highly influential networks come clean about their role in war reporting. “The War You Don’t See” by John Pilger is an unflinching, powerful and timely documentary about the role of media in making wars like Iraq and Afghanistan possible. 





Taghi Amirani

TED Senior Fellow


“We Are Many” Picks Up Three PUMA Creative Awards at The Good Pitch

We are delighted to share the good news that our feature documentary We Are Many presented at The Good Pitch in London on 10thSeptember 2010 had an overwhelming response and picked up three PUMA Creative Awards. PUMA, through its PUMA.Creative initiative, launched a unique long-term partnership with Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation on September 10. The new PUMA.Creative Documentary Awards will provide financial support, creative counsel and industry recognition to documentary filmmakers whose work address creative, social justice, peace or environmental issues globally. 

Directed by Amir Amirani, We Are Many will tell the story of the biggest peace march in human history. On 15 February 2003, in over 800 cities around the world, 30 million people protested against the planned invasion of Iraq. In telling this remarkable story, the film will harness the passion and political energy of this phenomenal movement as a force for good in giving people a voice.

See the 4-min trailer here

The Good Pitch brings together inspiring social-purpose film projects and a group of expert participants from charities, foundations, brands and media to form powerful alliances around groundbreaking films. In the new partnership between BritDoc and PUMA, We Are Many received a PUMA Creative Catalyst Award and two PUMA Creative Mobility Awards.



Maxyne Franklin, Jerry Rothwell (Director, Town of Runners), Amir Amirani (Director,We Are Many), PUMA Chairman & CEO Jochen Zeitz, Taghi Amirani (Producer, We Are Many), Jen Arnold (Director, Writer, Producer, A Small Act), and PUMA.Creative Director Mark Coetzee at the PUMA.Creative and Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation Gala Awards Ceremony


Together with pledges of support and collaboration from Saatchi & SaatchiAvaaz (6 million members), CND, The Elders and Greenpeace We Are Many has received a great boost on what will be an extraordinary global journey.

To join in or simply keep up with the latest developments on this project become a fan of our FB page and follow us on Twitter@15Feb2003. There will also be news on the Amirani Films FB page.  If the film strikes a chord please spread the word.

Taghi Amirani  TED Senior Fellow  @tagz23   Amirani Films



Good News, Good Film, Good Pitch, Good People

Good News

Our feature documentary We Are Many has just been selected as one of eight projects to be presented at The Good Pitch in London on 10th September 2010. The Good Pitch brings together inspiring social-purpose film projects and a group of expert participants from charities, foundations, brands and media to form powerful alliances around groundbreaking films.

Directed by Amir Amirani, We Are Many will tell the story of the biggest peace march in human history. On 15 February 2003, in over 800 cities around the world, 30 million people protested against the planned invasion of Iraq. In telling this remarkable story, the film will harness the passion and political energy of this phenomenal movement as a force for good in giving people a voice.


Good Film

You can see a 4-minute trailer for the film below


And a longer 8-minute version here. 


Good Pitch

The Good Pitch is just one of many fantastic initiatives run by the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, a new social entrepreneurship organisation bringing new thinking to public service delivery. This is what the good people of BRITDOC say: Films are the best medium for changing hearts and minds and lives, by bringing stories and issues to the widest possible audiences. Films inspire people to engage and act. That’s why we broker relationships between Foundations, Charities, NGOs and Filmmakers.” Over the past three years BRITDOC have supported two projects at Amirani Films, and we love them for that. So a big shout out to Jess Search, Beadi Finzi, Maxyne Franklin, Elise McCave, Sarah Ross, Katie Bradford, Matt Jones and Sarah Mosses.


Good People

That’s you and your friends. Please help spread the word about We Are Many to as many people as you can. Come on board early and be part of the movement that gets the ball rolling on this important social action project. With your help we can make this film a catalyst for a global dialogue about the fundamental right of citizens to have their democratic voice heard when it comes to governments’ decision to go to war. Let’s put peace firmly on the agenda and ask: is a referendum before declaring war the only answer? Transparency and accountability must become the watchwords.

You can become a fan of the Facebook page, follow the film on Twitter, contribute to the content of the film’s website, blog and tweet about it. Even share your own story and perhaps take part in the documentary. If you have ideas for making this work we would love to hear from you. Whatever you do, however small, will make a difference. 


Wish Amir and his film luck on September 10th!


Thank you.



Taghi Amirani

TED Senior Fellow



Amirani Films