In an improvised studio in a graffiti-strewn alley, photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind has been quietly capturing images of the people who have been taking part in the dramatic protests in Kiev. Last week those violent protests, in the downtown square known as the Maidan, left more than 80 protesters and many police officers dead and culminated in the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Taylor-Lind discusses what it was like to photograph these men, women, and children before and after last week's unprecedented violence.
How were you able to set up a portrait studio on a protest square, and why did you decide on portraits?
I started photographing in the Maidan the beginning of February by setting up a makeshift studio by the barricades along Hrushevsky Street [named after Mykhailo Serhiyovych Hrushevsky, president of the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic, 1917-1918]. I've been using a black backdrop of black muslin fabric, and have a wonderful photo assistant, Emine Ziyatdinova, who has been working with a silver and gold reflector. But it's pretty makeshift. I didn't come to Ukraine intending to make a series of portraits. I've been working on a long-term project in Europe about declining populations, but it's been impossible to ignore what's been going on here in Ukraine. I had noticed the uniforms the fighters had fashioned for themselves and found it so interesting. They haven't coordinated what they wear, but there is sort of an ideal for how they look.
And what is that ideal? Also, what is the yellow ribbon I see on one man's arm? (See image above.)
It's distinctly militaristic. There is a feeling of a uniform to it. The yellow ribbon—it's actually yellow and blue. Those are the colors of the Ukrainian flag, and people have been tying on the ribbon in order to show support for the protests. The pictures are from two weeks ago, and some of the same people are almost unrecognizable now. So many here are clearly traumatized now. At the time of the pictures, the atmosphere was quite optimistic and defiant. Now the mood and atmosphere have completely changed. We are photographing some of the people again now, and they are completely different.
Can we see those pictures now?
I need to bring them back to London to process and scan. Some are of the same people, and some are different. Right now we're also photographing some of the thousands of women who are paying their respects and laying flowers for the dead.
One of your pictures is of a child. Were there actually children there at the barricades?
Yes. There is a photo of a little boy and then a girl in a white coat.
At that time there were three types of people occupying the Maidan: protesters and fighters, journalists, and civilians—ordinary people who would come to visit. The boy and girl in the white cream coat came at the weekend to see the barricades and protesters for themselves.
Did this little boy borrow this helmet from a fighter?
No, he was wearing it when he came with his parents. He also is wearing a little army-style bag. Again, it's this unofficial, collective uniform we saw on the Maidan. Even the journalists had a sort of uniform, and sometimes talked about having a "Maidan tan"—which is when your skin goes black from the soot of burning tires.
It seems like one of the men in your portraits has a motorcycle helmet as defense.
Yes, many were wearing motorcycle helmets. It was clear from the clashes early on that the fighters would need body armor. So they fashioned their own. They'd wear motorcycle helmets and drape themselves in Ukrainian flags. One man in the photos is resting on a weapon: a baseball bat. They were stockpiling homemade weapons, and there were people whose job it was to fashion homemade armor. I saw shin guards, thigh guards, and forearm guards fashioned from plastic drainpipes.
After the violence, did you see any evidence that the makeshift armor worked?
Many who were killed were shot by snipers. Their bodies were laid out in the streets. You could see all of their armor, but the rounds had gone straight through their helmets. Many of these were proper army helmets as well. I have a ballistics-grade helmet, and I don't think I could have survived a sniper bullet with it.
Were you out there during the worst day of the fighting?
Yes, last Thursday. It was like a war zone. There were snipers shooting all day.
Were you using your makeshift studio that day?
No. That would have been impossible. We were only able to resume yesterday [Saturday], because before then the situation was just too chaotic.
Was the drainpipe part of their uniforms effective at all?
No. The majority of people I saw were killed by sniper bullets, so they were shot in the head and the chest. Some were shot in the legs first, so that when someone else came out to rescue them, both would get shot in the head. The walls were covered in bullet holes, some 40 centimeters deep. Bullets were going into people and out the other side—people wearing bulletproof vests.
There is one of a fighter who appears to be holding a sandwich.
There have been these women—an army of volunteers—who feed these men. They were coming with cardboard boxes filled with sandwiches. This one woman, she had just come past right before we filmed. Often people with full-time jobs would come when they could with sandwiches and hot tea –that's what's been keeping us going as well. On the helmet of the man is the national symbol of Ukraine: the coat of arms. The sandwich in his hands is salo [pork fat] and pickle.
What about the picture of the man with his hands looped into his flak jacket?
We actually just saw him yesterday and gave him a copy of this photo.
So he survived?
Yes. He survived. But his teeth were missing. His two front teeth were broken off. But he was not injured in his body. [Photographer assistant Ziyatdinova comes on the phone to add detail from her conversations in Ukrainian with the man: "He was happy to have the photograph. He said that in the tents all their photographs were burned. All the tents were burned when the police stormed the camp; the protesters had been in the tents for months and had a lot of photographs from home."]
And there is another man with a rosary and an icon on his helmet. (See image fourth from top.) Did you see a lot of religious symbolism there?
Yes. I believe that priests passed them out on the Maidan. They were plastic and donated by volunteers. We were given an icon too. This man has his pasted on with [Scotch] tape.
In another photograph we see a man wearing blue gloves. He looks like a character.
I didn't ask him to pose like this. He was very keen to have his picture taken. I'm sure if we saw him now, the portrait would be very different. It's very somber, the mood here today. You'll also see in the pictures that people are wearing many layers. It was between zero and minus 13 degrees Celsius [8.6 degrees Fahrenheit].
One of your portraits appears to be of a photographer. Is that right?
Yes, that's Eric Bouvet. On some days I could see more photographers than people on the barricades. I photographed 20 or 25 photographers. Shame on any photographer who spends their life taking photographs but refuses to have theirs taken. Those I photographed were fine with it, though.
Why are you not used to working around other photographers?
I'm a documentary photographer. My first piece for the magazine [National Geographic] was last year: I shot medium format and followed in the footsteps of writer Peter Hessler along the Yangtze River. That was much quieter, not news oriented. I have all my film sitting on my bed here; I'm not really set up for a news situation. I've actually been using my iPhone to take photos through my viewfinder to show on social media, so I can post a few. I usually work on long-term personal documentary projects. That's what I was supposed to be doing here, but then I found myself in a news situation.