Anastasia Taylor-Lind spent several weeks in August 2014 photographing in Ukraine as fighting intensified in the eastern part of the country between the Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed separatists. Her aim was to document the war as part of her ongoing Negative Zero project, focused on depopulation in Europe. She shares her experience with Proof.
Driving towards the frontline, I can feel the fear creeping up my abdomen and reaching my chest. I soothe myself by listing signs of everyday life that I see through the window: a man cycling, laundry hanging on washing-lines, cars on the road. The other voice in my head lists the different injuries that bullets and shrapnel can cause and notes that we only have one door in the back of our vehicle (a security risk). We don’t know where we are going, nor do the Ukrainian Army press officers who are leading us.
I think about the responsibilities I have, not just to myself but also to my family and friends. I’ve heard about the many mothers who wander into war zones to collect their children’s corpses. Will my mum leave her job to come and care for me in London if I get shot? Would she release a statement that tries to make sense of my death, how I died trying to reveal the suffering of others? Would she believe it?
I’m afraid. And I can’t find any of the youthful bravado I had when I was 22.
I am traveling with my colleague and friend Alvaro Ybarra Zavala. He has been working in the area for a few weeks and guides me through my first days. We share a translator and driver, splitting costs, and most importantly, we support each other photographically.
As we approach the last checkpoint before no-mans-land, he mentions how white my face has become—the blood drained from it. “Do I want to turn back?” he asks. “No,” I answer. But he doesn’t buy it. “Anastasia, there’s one rule if we are going to work together. You must always tell me the truth.” I can’t hide it—I’m scared. We turn back to Kramatorsk.
Traveling with the Ukrainian Army presents many risks: you can be the target of friendly fire, or be ambushed by pro-Russian insurgents. There have also been reports that some combatants are labeling their vehicles with the word “TV,” masquerading as press. That same evening, Alvaro and I talk with a British security man. He was adamant: Our trip was a “suicide mission” and we were right to pull out.
So why do I still feel like a wimp for turning back?
I initially travelled to Ukraine in February 2014 to continue my work on a long-term project about Europe’s declining populations. At that time my intention was to travel to Donetsk Oblast to document low life expectancy in the region. When I landed in Kiev, I became captivated by the growing protests. I stayed there for a month making a series of portraits that have since been published in a monograph, Maidan.
This time my goal was to pursue my original plan to photograph low life expectancy, population decline, and I wanted to understand something about war. As a photographer I collect impressions, experiences, reactions; taking it all in with the hope that I can formulate an idea, an output, a project. Everything I see, everything I feel, everything I experience informs the photographs I make.
But not all projects work out the way you want them to. This trip is proof of that.
I learned a lot about war. I learned that, for the most part, war does not always look like war. In Ukraine, it can look like everyday life. Sometimes you can hear it—the hum of airplanes circling overhead or the crackle of machine gun fire.
You can also read about it on Twitter—the dying mothers, war crimes and tortured prisoners, swirling around in the ether. You see raw moments captured by citizen journalists, people unfortunate enough to be on the street when a mortar strikes a shop, so they document the aftermath with their mobile phone. Journalists share on-the-ground reports of military advances or defeats, and quotes from European politicians that usually include the phrases “we are gravely concerned” or “we call on all parties to exercise restraint.”
One day I come across Russian TV footage shared on YouTube. It shows the aftermath of a pro-Russian insurgent attack on a bus filled with Ukrainian soldiers. The presenter asks a dying man where he is from, he answers before being bundled into a truck, then the camera pans to the shot-out bus, where many bodies lie among the shattered glass, fresh blood flowing down the steps and window frames. There is a cut in the film and we see an insurgent making a phone call. My fixer Nastya translates. They dial “mum” on a mobile phone taken from the pockets of one of the corpses, and they tell her “we have killed your son.”
A taxi driver talks of rumors that the pro-Russian insurgents will try to re-take Sloviansk. A waiter asks for confirmation that a local checkpoint was attacked. Yet, on the surface, life goes on as normal.
I also learned that war is something that manifests itself in unexpected ways. War is made up of checkpoints, flags on official buildings, and men in mismatched combat fatigues. War is about empty supermarkets, imposed curfews, rumors and suspicion. War is about broken dinner sets, blown out windows, and shrapnel in gardens. War is about uncertainty, closed banks, and cars filled with belongings. War is about broken families and the end of childhood friendships. It’s about the hurt and hatred that won’t subside after the ceasefires have been signed.
I tried to document this war, but I’ve seen these photographs before. There’s the woman who shows me the remains of her house after it was bombed. There are the young men who strut around a checkpoint, posing with bravado for the camera. There’s the victim lying in bed, one of his legs missing. His name is Mykolai. He’s 66 and he lost his leg in an explosion as he tried to reach his basement for shelter. He tells me he has no family and gets very few visitors, so I stay and chat. Eventually we run out of things to say, but I continue to sit there in silence.
I don’t want to make these photographs. There are so many of them out there already, and they only go so far in helping us understand the world today. What I know is that I have huge respect for the photojournalists who cover the war from the front lines, taking incredible risks in doing so. But I can’t find it in myself to take these same risks. What this trip taught me is that I can’t work in a hectic, fast-moving and turbulent environment. My photography isn’t about that.
I spent three weeks in Donetsk Oblast wondering how I could represent what’s happening in eastern Ukraine today. In the end, nothing I could have done would have been as powerful as the series of family photographs I stumbled upon on one of my last days in Ukraine.
I found these mementos outside 11 Mira Street in Mykolayivka, a building hit by shelling on July 3, causing a gas leak that destroyed an entire section of the apartment block. Rescue workers spent a week retrieving bodies and personal effects from the rubble. A month later, most family artifacts had been claimed, with the exception of these badly damaged photographs which I’ve come to label “Me and K,” based on words written on the back.
“Me” is a man. He’s worked most of his life in Russia – some of the pictures show him working on a pipeline over many years. “K” is Katya, his “honey bunny.” Through his pictures, I get a stronger sense of what war is all about. It’s not about victims and refugees, grieving mothers and fathers, insurgents and soldiers.
War is about normal people. In these photographs, “Me and K” are seen celebrating New Year’s Eve and picnicking along a river. They pose with colleagues and family members. They share moments of happiness, with the camera acting as a time-traveling machine that will freeze these instants forever. They are just like any of us. They are like me. And that’s probably what scares me most about war.