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Filmmaker Vanessa Black shares her photo diary of a month in turbulent Ukraine
When New York-based filmmaker Vanessa Black heard about the sniper attacks in Kiev in February, she packed her cameras and jumped on a plane. Her goal was simple: to document the revolution through storytelling. Below, Black discusses her experience with House Seven and shares her extraordinary images of a month in the midst of a revolution.
Her work will be on display at SHNY Gallery in the Lower East Side from April 21st. The photos are part of her #UkraineRising project, which aims to raise awareness about the crisis in Ukraine.
Before this trip, what had your experience of the Ukraine been?
I lived in Kiev for a few months before the revolution. It was a fairytale city: beautifully-worn buildings colored in various pastels seem to grow out of a green, hilly landscape. There is an interesting cultural juxtaposition between the Tzar, Soviet and modern architecture. The city has seven hills with ornate gold domed churches on top of each. It’s a lovely place and the Ukrainians I know are all wonderful, caring people.
How and why did you decide to jump on a plane to Ukraine last month?
I bought a ticket as soon as I read about the sniper attacks on February 18th. I knew I had to be in Kiev to support my Ukrainian friends and do whatever I could to contribute to the movement. My goal was to explain the revolution to a younger audience. As a filmmaker, I usually produce pop-culture content for my clients, but my passion is documentaries. I channeled my experience photographing people in fashion and my directing experience in music videos to tell a story about real life that was in the MTV language kids in America could understand.
What surprised you the most about the people you met during the trip?
I was shocked to find out that the anonymous “protestors” you read about in the news are overwhelmingly normal people. Imagine the cast of characters on any subway car in New York City – that will give you an idea of who the protestors were.
These normal people were in a real war in their hometown, and they were being tortured and killed by their own government. I am in awe of their bravery. I keep saying Kiev is a city of heroes. Grandmothers would hit the Special Forces with bats. Unbelievable.
I also felt as if I was living out a strange post-apocalyptic eastern European version of the 1960’s hippy movement. People sat around at night with their guitars signing songs about revolution. Some girls wore traditional Ukrainian flower crowns.
Tell us about your project, #UkraineRising.
At first, #UkraineRising was just a way to track my project on social media, but now it’s becoming a symbol of what I believe social media should be about. I want to use social media purposefully. We’re just beginning to see how these tools can be used for good. In Egypt, Facebook was instrumental in bringing down the 30-year Mubarak regime. Twitter was banned in Turkey in the weeks leading up to the recent elections. Those instances are evidence of how powerful social media can be.
I also want to challenge the media to make storytelling more relatable. People want the human stories, not just the breaking stories. And on a personal level, I want to inspire others to live their lives fully. If you have a dream, go after it full speed and don’t let anyone stop you.
What did you see that shocked you the most?
The barricades the protesters construct are unbelievable. What you see on the news doesn’t convey their sheer size or how many there actually are. They are made up of anything people can get their hands on: sandbags, burnt cars, lampposts, billboards, tires and so on. I saw one blocking the entrance to a subway that was made entirely of city benches. You can feel the desperation and fear that went into making the barricades.
The urban battlefield is on top of one of the city’s central shopping malls. You walk through rows of military tents, pass by tire walls and barricades and then take an escalator down to a mall, where you’re greeted by beautiful women who spritz perfume in your face. It’s bizarre.
You spent a lot of time with young soldiers – what was that like?
The defenders, as I called them, were inspiring. These young men live voluntarily in urban camps in the middle of the main square, Maidan. Because there is a temporary government and post-revolution Kiev is nearly police-free, they are the safe keepers of the country. The Kalush camp took me under their wing — the guys would call me anytime they were doing something interesting for me to shoot. One day, we went to strike on the Russian banks in Kiev, and I was the only photographer they allowed inside.
We had extremely heavy conversations: many of them told me they were willing to die for Ukraine. Some of their closest friends were murdered by the former government and in brutal ways. They taught me how to fight for what I believe in, and they’ve inspired me to be brave in all aspects of my life.