You arrived in Kiev on 1 February this year. What brought you there?
I’d been working on a project called Negative Zero about population decline in Europe. I’d photographed in Romania and Serbia and Ukraine was next on my list. While I was in Kiev getting access to various places in the east, I was also photographing in Maidan Square. I’m a reportage photographer; I’ve never made a portrait series before. I started out making reportage but quickly became frustrated with that process.
Why did you feel frustrated?
As a photographer you always have to think, why am I here? Why am I doing this? Why am I shooting this in this way? The presence of other photographers made me more aware of the fact that I, as one photographer, did not have to tell the whole story of Maidan Square. I was one small part of a larger collective documentation. So I started thinking, what can I say? What can I contribute?
In a video on your publisher GOST’s website you say, “This is not just news, it’s history.” What’s the difference?
Those are the words of Larry Towell. I was sharing an apartment with him and Donald Weber. I was feeling disheartened because, like Larry, I was shooting film; people would call me at the height of the violence saying, “We’ve heard you’re doing portraits and we’d like to publish them tomorrow.” But those rolls of film were still sitting unprocessed in my apartment.
I started to find the highly visual and dramatic backdrop – fire, black billowing smoke, ice – distracting. I noticed the costumes that the fighters had started to fashion for themselves. They’re not uniforms, no-one issued them, but there were similarities. I realised I’d have to pull the people out of the situation in order for you to really see who they were.
Image: Illia, 18 Protestor From Kiev © Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII
Is that why you chose this black backdrop – because it’s more neutral?
I chose black because Maidan Square was black through the whole of February. Everything was burnt, sooty. Your skin turned black being there – it was called the “Maidan tan”. It made sense for the background to reflect the environment. If I’d made these pictures in Libya – which is actually where I first had the idea – I’d probably have chosen a sandy-coloured background.
You shot the portraits in a portable studio by the barricades. Tell us about the logistics of this.
Most important was my fixer, collaborator, translator and friend Emine Ziyatdinova – a young Ukrainian photojournalist who worked with me for a month. Initially we tried to buy the materials in Kiev. We had clips and were trying to hang black fabric off the barricades. We gave it a go but nothing really worked.
Half way through my trip I went back to London to process film and to buy new film. While I was there I discovered that both of my cameras had broken. Out of maybe 150 portraits, only about five had come out. I shoot on two cameras – a Hasselblad and a Bronica – alternately in case one breaks. That was difficult but it made me realise how much I wanted to make this project.
I got my two cameras fixed. I licked my wounds for a few days, bought a couple more hundred rolls of film and went back with a collapsible backdrop. It’s a metal frame with a black muslin curtain. You buy them from Calumet in two pieces. The frame collapses down into something you can put over your shoulder, like a tripod bag, and the curtain folds up.
We photographed in several different places, eventually settling on a bricked-up location inside the barricades. We needed a space that wasn’t too windy, otherwise the frame would blow over, that was always in shade so the lighting was consistent and near a thoroughfare so we could pull people off the street.
Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square from GOST Books on Vimeo.
How did you choose who to include?
I photographed two types of people: first the fighters, who are predominantly men, and then civilian mourners who started coming to the square after the worst violence. Since there had been a noticeable absence of women on the frontlines I decided to photograph only women mourners, with the flowers they were laying at the barricades in memory of people who’d died.
People must have been quite preoccupied with what was going on in their lives at that time. How did they feel about being photographed?
Before I went to Maidan Square I’d formed an idea of what it must be like from news reports. The reality was different. Although there were some very violent points, it wasn’t like that the whole time. There was an awful lot of sitting around all day in the cold with the men holding the barricades, smoking, drinking tea, chatting. So people were happy to come and spend 15 minutes being photographed.
With the mourners, we’d say that we’d made another series of the fighters and now wanted to photograph them. Often they were crying. A few women said, “But look at the state of me, there’s mascara down my face.” and Emine would explain, “We want to capture the atmosphere of this place at this time, look at all of us, we all look like that, it’s not about that...” We talked to everybody. We’d take names, find out how old they were, where they were from, how long they’d been in Maidan Square, what they thought about it, why they were there.
Image: Natasha, 21 Mourner From Kiev
Did you direct them much?
Mostly not. I’d tell them to stand still in the studio, one metre away from the black background. Then I’d take a light metre reading, explaining that I had to get my exposure and focus right. Emine would hold the reflector to light them a little. She’d also write down all their details. Sometimes I might say, face that way, you need to move to the left a bit.
At what point did you decide that this project was going to be a book?
I didn’t. GOST, the publishers, did. I’d been trying to meet with Stuart Smith, the designer, for a while. I’d just got back from Maidan and had some rough scans of the pictures. He was really surprised – it’s very different to my other work. He asked me to come back with all the images and contact sheets. I did and he and Gordan MacDonald said it would make a great book.
I’ve been a photographer for 10 years and this is my first book. I never wanted to make one for the sake of it. I think it’s the best way to see these pictures. It’s hugely costly to make a book, hugely time consuming. It has taken precedence over everything else, including Negative Zero, which I’d hoped to be half way through completing now. But I believe in this project and it felt right.
What advice do you have for photographers starting out now?
It takes a long while to get going in documentary photography. Keep making projects, year after year. In most cases the strongest work photographers produce is self-initiated, often self-funded, because it keeps you free from anybody else’s agenda. In the beginning people would ask me to shoot digital. Medium format film is part of my aesthetic so I stuck at that with my personal work and now I find that clients assign me because they specifically want me to shoot things in the way I do, on medium format.
Image: portrait of the photographer © Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII
Maidan – Portraits from Black Square by Anastasia Taylor Lind is published by GOST Books. Anastasia will be discussing the project at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 23 July. Book tickets.
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Main images [L-R]: Vasiliy, 52 Protestor From Komorovo. Olena, 26, and her six-month old baby Ostap, Mourner From Kiev. Both © Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII