© Anastasia Taylor-Lind
The protesters stand in motley, improvised armor, homemade tactical vests and mismatched headgear. Their irregular camouflage and black uniforms are enlivened by splashes of yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian national flag. Mourners are shrouded in black, with pale, stricken faces and flowers clutched in heavy hands. These are the faces of Euromaidan, the ongoing protests in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) that turned violent earlier this year and are captured in documentary photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s new book, Maidan: Portraits from the Black Square (GOST Books, 2014).
There is a touch of genius in Taylor-Lind’s decision to erect a black curtain and start shooting portraits in the middle of a battlefield. The result is transformative: Men and women are suspended in the eye of a storm, removed from the burning barricades and smoke-filled streets that appear in countless images of conflicts.
These photographs quiet the din of war and the background noise of politics, however briefly, and allow the viewer to appreciate the individuals who created a popular movement. Taylor-Lind arrived in Kiev on February 4 to work on an unrelated project but was quickly caught up in documenting the civil unrest as the Euromaidan movement grew to a fever pitch. “I started to realize that what was happening in [Independence Square] was so visual and so dramatic that the way people had begun to prepare themselves for battle was being lost in the setting,” she explains. “That’s when I thought of removing the background altogether by using a black curtain.”
Lacking an appropriate backdrop for her medium-format photographs, Taylor-Lind tried everything, from hanging a piece of cloth in a burned-out bus shelter to attempting to use the reverse side of a large reflector. But her jerry-rigging was for naught. When she returned to London after weeks in Kiev, she found that both her Hasselblad and Bronica cameras had broken imperceptibly just as she began taking portraits of people from the square. Out of more than a hundred exposures she made, only five were usable. Taylor-Lind credits this crushing setback with making her even more determined to see her new project through. Cameras fixed, she left England with a stockpile of film and a professional studio backdrop and arrived back in Kiev on February 19, in the midst of the bloodiest clashes of the nation’s post-Soviet era. The very next day, protesters drove riot police from the city center and snipers left bodies strewn across Independence Square.
“Everything was on fire and there was very heavy fighting,” Taylor-Lind recalls. “I was [also] on assignment for a German newspaper, so the first two days I spent shooting reportage. Then on Saturday, when the president stepped down and things seemed quieter, I set up my studio and began in earnest.”
The most indispensable element of the pop-up studio was Taylor- Lind’s Ukrainian assistant and fixer Emine Ziyatdinova, a talented photojournalist in her own right. Every morning, they carried their equipment to a location that had little foot traffic but was close enough to the main thoroughfare to easily approach prospective subjects. Initially nearly all of them were male protesters in their salvaged armor. But after Kiev fell into a spasm of violence, many more Ukrainians came to the barricades—not to fight, but to mourn the lives lost. It was the women with their flowers who Taylor-Lind focused on then. She admits that she cried alongside every grieving woman she photographed.
Wanting also to “share the experience of being a photographer” as it happened, Taylor-Lind photographed her notebooks and made videos that she posted on Instagram. She also used her iPhone to shoot through the viewfinder of her Bronica, eventually using a makeshift mount that Ziyatdinova created with repurposed tripod parts to attach the phone to her film camera. “There were all these things happening in Maidan square and I wasn’t going to be able to show anyone any of them until several weeks later,” she explains. “So the photographs I made with my iPhone meant that I could show pictures as events were unfolding. The technology allowed me to add that extra dimension that I wouldn’t have if I was just shooting film.”
In the past, images for upcoming assignments were carefully guarded secrets. Today, however, magazines often request that photographers contribute to the publication’s Instagram account—a cultural shift in the world of photojournalism, according to Taylor-Lind. And though she admits that she is “a bit of a traditionalist” and shoots rolls of 120-format film with a medium-format camera, her social media engagement has been both enjoyable and prudent. In Kiev, she found fixers through Instagram and subjects were able to follow her. Perhaps most importantly, she built an audience for her book from the ground up by publishing her iPhone images on TIME Lightbox, Instagram’s blog and other digital outlets.
Fellow photographer Larry Towell, with whom she shared an apartment in Kiev, sparked the idea for the book by commenting on her iPhone images. The offhanded remark planted a seed that grew as Taylor-Lind began to realize that by the time she got back to England and processed the film, the images would likely be too dated for submission in today’s fast-paced news cycle.
“When I returned [to London] I realized these pictures were the most precious pictures, to me, that I had ever made,” Taylor-Lind says. “Of all the work I ever made, I just felt so differently about them, I wanted to make sure they were seen the right way.” Emboldened by her faith in her work, Taylor-Lind approached Stuart Smith, codirector of the London photography and visual arts publishing house GOST Books. Smith and his partner Gordon MacDonald told her that they wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
With the situation in Ukraine far from resolved, Taylor-Lind’s first instinct was to return and continue to document the unrest. But she and the publisher soon agreed that the book was about “one very particular segment of time, in a very limited geographical range, and that [story] was finished now,” she says.
Only a few months have passed since Taylor- Lind shot these photographs, but already the events of Euromaidan have been eclipsed by the widening crisis in Ukraine. Even in Kiev, many have tired of the protesters who remain in Independence Square, and ugly infighting has replaced the clarity of those early, heady days. But Taylor-Lind’s indelible portraits keep alive the energy in the air, hearts and mouths of the Ukrainians who manned the barricades and mourned their dead during those days of fire.