Anastasia Taylor-Lind talks about how she grew up living the life of a modern gypsy, traveling across southern England in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, and how her experiences covering conflicts in Iraq and Ukraine forever changed the way she views storytelling and war photography.
ANASTASIA TAYLOR-LIND (PHOTOGRAPHER): “I grew up horse-drawn, so my parents lived in a bow-top wagon, like a bow-top gypsy wagon with a canvas covering, and that was pulled by our cart horse, Blue, and they were moving from the east coast of the U.K. to the southwest, mostly with the apple-picking season.”
Peter Gwin (Host): That’s photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind. She’s probably best known for her assignments in conflict zones—Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, Myanmar [photographing Rohingya in Bangladesh as they fled Myanmar]. So how does someone raised in a horse-drawn wagon end up as a photographer documenting wars? I’m Peter Gwin, and you’re listening to Overheard at National Geographic. And for more than a year, you’ve heard me introduce this as a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo.
A lot of those conversations are about scientific expeditions or other interesting questions we’re chasing after. But some of the astonishing stories we hear are about our contributors and their personal journeys.
So today we’ve got something a little different. We’re going to meet one of the people we send out to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. I recently sat down with Anastasia. And she describes how as a college student she traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan and embedded with a unit of female Peshmerga soldiers. And how one photo she took on that trip altered the course of her life.
But before any of that—there was her unique childhood, and the revelation about her family that forever changed the way she viewed storytelling.
TAYLOR-LIND: I grew up horse-drawn, so my parents lived in a bow-top wagon, like a bow-top gypsy wagon with a canvas covering, and that was pulled by our cart horse, Blue, and they were moving from the east coast of the U.K. to the southwest, mostly with the apple-picking season. And I was born on the road in a small village called Cricklade in the hospital.
GWIN: Not in the caravan.
TAYLOR-LIND: No. If you asked my dad when he was still alive, that's probably how he would have told the story. But no. I was born in the hospital, but my parents took me back to the caravan. So we were camped on Cricklade Common, which is a patch of common land, which is where traveling people can legally stop and stay.
GWIN: And “traveling people” is actually a term in Britain, right?
GWIN: What does that mean?
TAYLOR-LIND: So there are several different communities that travel in the U.K.: There's Gypsies, and there's Irish Travellers, and there's what was known as New Age travelers—so they’re people who were traditionally settled people who would adapt to that way of life. They would typically be traveling in trucks, sort of motor...
TAYLOR-LIND: Exactly—but Gypsies and Irish Travellers. And then I was born in 1981. Even then, communities would be moving around the country. And there are different versions of the story in my family. But the way my dad told it was that his grandfather was a Gypsy, and he grew up settled in the East End of London. And when him and my mum decided that they wanted to start a family, they bought a job lot—of a horse, a cart, the harness for the horse—from a gypsy camp in Hackney. Neither of them knew how to drive a horse, but the guys that they bought it off showed them. And then they headed out from London.
GWIN: Wait a minute, this is like the city of London.
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. Inner city.
GWIN: London, with roads and, you know, modern London. They're driving out in a horse cart.
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. At that time...
GWIN: In 19…
TAYLOR-LIND: 1980. They started out. Yeah. And this is like working class, inner-city London.
TAYLOR-LIND: Which is where my dad grew up. So yeah, they didn't want to have that life anymore. My dad didn't want to have that life, and he had this sort of like romantic dream of what it would be like to live on the road, kind of like Wind in the Willows: Toad, of Toad Hall, sets out in a Gypsy caravan—he doesn't really know what he's doing. I suppose it was a bit similar, only my dad wasn't a posh aristocrat. He was a working-class guy from the inner city.
GWIN: And obviously your mom went along with this. But I mean, was she as enamored with this sort of Wind in the Willows dream—gypsy dream—as your dad?
TAYLOR-LIND: My mum had been a dancer, which is how they met. She'd been dancing in London. So she doesn't come from this community at all. And as I said, like, we don't really know if we do have Gypsy heritage in our family. My grandma, until she died, said we do not have any Gypsies in our family. And my dad always said we did. So I don't know. I guess it's a bit about storytelling as well.
TAYLOR-LIND: You know, like I don't know what the real story is. But now it doesn't matter. It's part of my heritage.
GWIN: OK, so what—how old were you when you guys stopped traveling?
TAYLOR-LIND: So we bought the field, I think, when I was three or four. But we'd still travel with the wagon in the summers and go to the horse fairs. And I started school when I was—like proper school—when I was nine. Until then, I was sort of homeschooled.
TAYLOR-LIND: And yeah. And then we—I lived in the field until I was 13. So you can imagine like getting electricity and running hot water for the first time.
TAYLOR-LIND: It was kind of amazing. And TV.
GWIN: Oh boy. And they were cool with that. I mean, you'd had this life without all those things.
GWIN: Up until this point. And then suddenly...
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah, we moved. My parents got divorced, and me and my mom and my brother moved. Actually, we—my dad stayed living in the field in the caravan until about ten years before he died. And two years ago, when he died, we buried him in the field. We took him back to—his body— back to the field, on the back of a horse and cart. And me and my brother dug the grave ourselves by hand with the tools that he had—with spades and shovels. And yeah, had a small funeral ceremony there, with the horse and cart watching over.
GWIN: Wow, Wow. Your dad seems like such a large figure. I mean, I can tell, you know, when we started the conversation, you immediately sort of like—what was he like? What was his personality like?
TAYLOR-LIND: He was a storyteller. He could tell really, really good stories. He wasn't great at reading or writing, but he was a great oral storyteller. So I grew up on stories about traveling—his travels all over the world. And that's really what inspired me to become a journalist.
GWIN: So you have this really, you know, in many ways, unique childhood.
GWIN: And your father obviously is a big influence as far as storytelling. How do you become—how do you find your way into journalism?
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah, well, I really had no exposure to journalism as a kid because we had no TV. My parents didn't take newspapers, really. So it wasn't like I was consuming or being exposed to journalism in any way. Certainly not news journalism. But my granddad bought us a subscription to National Geographic every Christmas as a Christmas present for the family. So we had Nat Geo delivered every month.
GWIN: Wow—huh? You don't have running water and electricity, but you have National Geographic.
GWIN: Please let the record show that we did not—I didn't know that before. That’s fascinating.
TAYLOR-LIND: And I didn't really think about the photographs too much. I was so absorbed by the people in the photo, and what people were doing. So I didn't really think consciously about this job as a photographer.
TAYLOR-LIND: To be honest, like mine and my brother's favorites were those pullouts, with a diagram of dinosaurs and stuff like that. So we just put them out and stuck them on our bedroom wall in the caravan. It was great.
GWIN: As did I. As the kids across—yeah. Of course, those are great.
TAYLOR-LIND: But we read a lot of books, and we read a lot of poetry as well. Had bedtime stories. My mom read bedtime stories and poetry as well at night. And so I decided when I was quite young that I wanted to be a war poet. You know, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, like those old British canons of war photography—sorry, war poetry. I thought that would be a career that I would like. And then when I was 16 and in high school, there was a photography class, which I took. I just thought, oh, that might be interesting. And when I was studying photography, I came across a book of photographs by Don McCullin about the Vietnam War.
GWIN: Right. Famous British war photographer.
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. And those pictures looked really familiar to me. They were sort of black-and-white, grainy, contrasty, a lot of pietàesque pictures of young Marines sort of tending to each other when they were wounded. Very dramatic, perhaps romantic too. And the pictures reminded me of these sort of—the First World War poetry that I knew. And I didn't know that there was someone whose job it was to photograph those things. And I guess in some unconscious way, I must have also thought, well, that's going to be easier than writing poems about this, right?
GWIN: Oh, little did you know, Anastasia.
AD BREAK 1
TAYLOR-LIND: But yeah. So I went to, you know, I told my parents, I want to be a war photographer when I grow up.
TAYLOR-LIND: When I was 16. Yeah.
GWIN: And how did your hippie parents feel about their daughter saying you want to be a war photographer?
TAYLOR-LIND: My mom freaked out, but my dad was—from the beginning, he was like, That would be a great career. You should absolutely do that. And he always, always supported me. So when I was 22—and I told you I went to Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time—he was super proud. He convinced my grandma to lend me 1,000 pounds in cash. I had 20-pound notes that I put in plastic bags under the soles of my boots. I had 500 pounds in each boot, and I crossed the border from Turkey to do reportage about the Peshmerga women soldiers who were fighting with the coalition forces then, not knowing that it's customary—I mean, I hadn't really been anywhere at that point, I'd never been to the Middle East—not knowing that it's customary to take your shoes off and leave them outside the house. So I arrived in Dohuk and entered the first house and had to leave all the money I had in the world hidden in my boots outside the front of the house. But I guess you're not born knowing these things, right?
GWIN: I mean, so how did that—how did the assignment come about? I mean, you say that you had no experience. You know, you're sort of like, you know, you’re self-financing, it sounds like.
GWIN: But I mean, so how do you even enter that world for the first time?
TAYLOR-LIND: Well, I was still at university, so we had to make a photo project as our final piece for our degree.
TAYLOR-LIND: And so I'd heard about the Peshmerga soldiers and that they had women's units. And I just thought, God, I want to meet them. And my dad had traveled through Kurdistan in the late ‘70s, with no money. And he always told these amazing stories and bedtime stories.
TAYLOR-LIND: I mean, half of them might've been true, half of them may not have been, but it didn't matter. He always said, if you go to Kurdistan, you'll never be hungry, you'll never be lonely, you'll never be in need of anywhere to stay.
TAYLOR-LIND: And while my mom and everyone else is really worried about me making this trip, my dad wasn't at all. He was like, I know you're gonna be fine there. So.
TAYLOR-LIND: I mean, and, you know I didn't end up being that war photographer that I sort of intended to be when I was 16. But—I'm definitely not a combat photographer—but lots of my work touches on war and post-conflict and the civilian experience of that.
GWIN: Well, let me ask you this: So when you get there, when you're arriving, you meet them at the border, and they take you into this world, right? This world that you want to see, you know, with your camera. But you're like, you're totally green here, right? I mean, you're still a student. So how did you—I mean, did you just start shooting everything you saw? Did you have a strategy for how you were going to tell a story? Did you have a conception of how to tell a photo story?
TAYLOR-LIND: I knew how to make pictures, but I didn't have a really great handle on how to tell a photo story. So I just knew. And it's—I was kind of right. You just go somewhere. You live with the people that you're photographing, and you photograph everything that they do. And it could be really boring things like people brushing their teeth. But you can tell so much about someone's life just by the way they brush their teeth. If they run it under the tap. If they have a cup of water, if they brush their teeth outside or inside. So I was stationed with a small unit of women Peshmerga on an army base outside of Sulaymaniyah near a checkpoint. And then I just slept there with them and photographed them manning the checkpoint and cooking dinner. And overall, the photo story that I made was not very resolved. I mean, it's that 10,000 hours thing, right?
TAYLOR-LIND: I sort of knew that. But because I didn't know what I was doing, I just photographed everything. And at the end of it, the photo story didn't really hold together in the way it should. But I made one picture of a woman called Gashaw Jaffar, who was holding a Kalashnikov while she manned this checkpoint in the middle of a road. And I entered into a photography competition that was run by The Guardian. It was the first time I'd ever entered a photo competition, and I won the whole bloody thing. So I got first prize. No one had ever heard of me. David Bailey, this really famous English portrait photographer, was one of the judges. And he likened my portrait to the famous picture of Che Guevara by Alberto Korda. And I got 5,000 pounds, which was more money than I'd ever had in my life. And I got a commission from The Guardian magazine to go back to Kurdistan and photograph the PKK women soldiers. So I only needed to make one good picture, and it started everything for me.
GWIN: So when you arrived in—like you go back with your Guardian money to do more, right?
GWIN: Did—having sort of thought about war photography from the from the book that you saw, but not ever having been in a place like that, what did you think of what was happening in Iraq at that time, and did you, you know—what was your first sort of experience with with actual fighting?
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. So I guess the world doesn't look like it does in photographs, right? And war certainly doesn't really look like it does in photographs. And that's why I wanted to see that for myself, and it wasn't like a Wilfred Owen poem. And it wasn't like a Don McCullin photograph. And for the most part, now I know that war doesn't really look very much like war. It looks pretty ordinary, and people continue, for the most part, doing the things that they do everywhere else. The failing of war photography or war reporting in general is that as soon as war arrives in a place, people don't become themselves anymore in war stories. Like I might be Anastasia, Daniel’s sister, and a Nat Geo photographer, and Eleanor's daughter now. But if war shows up in Stoke Newington where I live, I will be a civilian, or a combatant, or a separatist, or collateral damage.
GWIN: The label that outsiders see.
GWIN: People in those places.
GWIN: You lose your identities.
TAYLOR-LIND: And how do we report on people who are affected by conflict in a way that doesn't “other” them that much? Because when people become so exoticized, I mean—I really think the purpose of telling war stories in that way, or the purpose that it serves, is to make us believe that war could never happen to us. Like it's always something that happens somewhere else to other people in places that don't look like our homes. And that's not true. It could just as easily happen to me living in London.
AD BREAK 2
GWIN: So when did you have this epiphany that like the war photography that you saw in books was sort of different than what you were seeing when you were actually in a real war zone?
TAYLOR-LIND: In 2011, when I went to Libya, for sure. And then a few years later, I covered the Euromaidan revolution that became very, very violent very quickly—on one day when almost 60 people were shot by snipers in Maidan Square. And I just became really uncomfortable with...
GWIN: Where—I’m sorry, Maidan Square?
TAYLOR-LIND: Ah, sorry. So In 2014 the Euromaidan revolution overthrew President Yanukovich. He eventually fled Ukraine. But there were months of protests that brought trade ties closer to Russia and away from Europe. And there was a popular uprising in Ukraine. And those—slowly those protests became more violent. And they culminated in this worst day of violence when snipers killed a lot of people very, very quickly. And the following day, Yanukovich fled to Russia. A few days after that, Russia annexed Crimea, and then very soon after that, a war started in the east of the country. So that summer, with a production grant from National Geographic, I went east. I'd been working on a project about population decline in Europe. And I had always intended to go to Donetsk, which is in the east of Ukraine. And yeah, at that time, the front line was still shifting quite a lot.
TAYLOR-LIND: And I just—I was just really frightened, I guess.
GWIN: So you'd already been to Libya, you had been to Iraq. But this situation was different somehow.
TAYLOR-LIND: I just couldn't justify the—I couldn't justify to myself why it mattered that I made pictures like that.
GWIN: Like what?
TAYLOR-LIND: Like of—I photographed a man called Nikolai who was lying in a hospital bed. He had been—there'd been heavy shelling in his town, and he'd tried to get to the basement, but hadn't managed to close the door in time. And he'd lost a leg. He was lying in hospital. He'd had his leg amputated. The doctors showed us in. I made his picture and asked what happened to him. There were queues of refugees queuing for food in a monastery. I photographed them. Women carrying bags, wearing headscarves. Like all these tropes of photojournalism. And I just felt that the pictures I was making were doing more harm than good. I couldn't justify making those pictures.
TAYLOR-LIND: Because I felt that though—I mean, that me, but also all of us as photojournalists, were fueling wars. I mean, I always—I wanted to become a photographer because I saw photography as part of a solution to violence. I was 16 when I decided I wanted to be a photographer, and I was naive. I assumed that wars happened because nobody knew what was happening. And if you just took pictures and they did know, then why on Earth would anyone let that happen?
TAYLOR-LIND: And of course, that's not true. And the media and photography is a cog in the war machine as well.
GWIN: You mean like in a voyeur sense.
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. And also used to justify all sorts of things, used to justify military advances from one side or another. I mean, I still haven't figured all this stuff out in my head. But at that moment, I just had this visceral feeling that I couldn't make those pictures, and I left. And I left photojournalism entirely as well. Actually, I applied for a fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and I went and spent a year at the university—not making any pictures at all but looking at the way we tell war stories. The way we tell war stories in fiction and in nonfiction and… Yeah, trying to figure out a way to do that more responsibly and less sensationally. And I don't—of course I don't have all the answers, but that, yeah, that shaped the way I photograph, and I've been photographing in Ukraine for six years now.
GWIN: So what are the pictures you take now? What are those like? What's your approach now, if you're not going to be taking sort of the gritty frontline kind of things, what do you turn your camera toward?
TAYLOR-LIND: I suppose experiences of ordinary people. Daily life experiences of ordinary people. The way people keep living, even in conflict zones. Looking a lot at, like, the challenges to infrastructure. When a front line divides a community, it doesn't just mean that there's landmines and roadblocks. It also means that the maternity department of a hospital may be separated from the main department of the hospital as it is in Avdiivka from Donetsk. So how civilians navigate that space once it's carved up, and the sort of the innovative ways that people learn to live despite all of those challenges. The way young people still remain living along the front lines and find different ways to raise their kids. For example, I've been—all this time, I've been working with a Ukrainian journalist called Alisa Sopova, who's from Donetsk. And so some of the reporting we've done is around the stories that parents tell their children about what shelling is. And we found that some parents would tell their children that some—that's just the sound of the neighbors moving their furniture around upstairs. Or others would say…
GWIN: To keep them from being frightened.
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah, yeah.
GWIN: Almost kind of like stories your dad would say—in a really extended sense, right?
TAYLOR-LIND: Or this one. This is the sort of thing my dad would have said: It's just in a cloud exploding in the sky. And this particular mother, when her child asked her, but why was the cloud exploding? She said, because it was a very angry cloud.
GWIN: With a little bit of the time we have left, I wanted to mention something you posted on Instagram. You had this post about—you had this, you know, you have books that your father had, I guess, given you.
GWIN: And then seeded with all these little Post-it notes.
GWIN: Well, what was the—what was that? I mean, where did what. Was this something he…?
TAYLOR-LIND: He just always did it. And I never paid any attention. So he would—especially with books about war photography, because he really was proud of the fact that I wanted to be a war photographer.
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. So he would buy me autobiographies and books of war photography, and he would write a note in them. Like “To Anastasia at Christmas” or whatever. I don't know what note you have there. Is it a Post-it?
GWIN: Yeah, I've got it here. I was gonna… Yeah, I wanted you to actually—would you read this? So this is a picture of a book, open to a page. And there's a yellow sticky note right in the middle. And then I guess it's his handwriting, with a message. Would you read that?
TAYLOR-LIND: Yeah. So it's a book called Get the Picture by John G. Morris, who was a famous photo editor. And my dad's underlined a sentence on page 13 in which John G. Morris says, I got an unexpected break. So that's underlined in red pen. And he's put a Post-it note underneath. It says, “It's the rule. Everybody in the early days of their career gets a lucky break or two. Always have the courage to take them and have faith in yourself and your ability to succeed. These breaks have your name on them. You have attracted them to you. Trust.”
GWIN: Yeah. So how do you, how do you...?
TAYLOR-LIND: He was a good dad too. He was a good dad in some ways, and he was a bad dad in some ways. And of course, you don't get to choose your parents. But if I had got to choose him, I would have done—because of everything I learned from him being my dad, you know? All the good things and the bad things too. I mean, it's—it makes us who we are, right? Thank you for showing me that.
GWIN: Yeah. Anastasia, thank you for being here.
TAYLOR-LIND: My pleasure.
GWIN: To see more of Anastasia’s work, including the photo that changed her life—as well as her photos from an assignment we did together riding Arabian horses in Oman—check out the links in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.
This episode of National Geographic’s Overheard is produced by Davar Ardalan, with help from Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter. Our editors are Robert Malesky and Ibby Caputo. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. And I’m your host, Peter Gwin.
Thanks for listening, and see y’all next week.
You can see the photo of the female Peshmerga soldier that launched Anastasia’s career on her website along with many of her other projects.
Read Anastasia’s essay “The Most Frightening Thing About War” here.
Check out the story Peter Gwin and Anastasia collaborated on about riding Arabian horses in Oman.
You can watch Anastasia’s TED talk “Fighters and Mourners of the Ukrainian Revolution.”
See our story on soldiers using art to reveal the trauma of war and learn about today’s battlefields, where more women than ever are on the front lines of armed conflict and as peacekeepers in the world’s hot spots.
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