‘This is how I’ve chosen to live my life’: On Ukraine’s frontline with Anastasia Taylor-Lind

View Gallery 6 Photos
Anti-government protests, Kyiv February 2014. © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Over almost a decade, the photojournalist has documented life in Ukraine – now a new exhibition in London brings together her images of war, protest and resilience

It was in the first days of February 2014 that Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself, quite by accident, on the frontline of a revolution. The photojournalist had been travelling across Europe, three months into an entirely unrelated project, when delayed paperwork left her stranded in the Ukrainian city of Kyiv. In the midst of what would become known as the Revolution of Dignity – a period of deadly clashes that culminated in the ousting of the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych – Taylor-Lind headed for Independence Square, and for the heart of the capital’s unrest.

“I thought ‘I would love to make a studio portrait series here,’” Taylor-Lind recalls of her first days in Kyiv. “To pull each person out of this really visual and dramatic background of fire and smoke and molotov cocktails.” Using a makeshift studio, she set about making portraits of the revolution’s fighters and mourners – men in homemade armour and women bearing bunches of fresh flowers. The photographer had been due to remain in Kyiv for just five days, but it was a month before she finally laid down her camera.

A protester in central Kyiv, February 2014 Civilian protester, Yevhen Shulga, stands in a makeshift photography studio where Anastasia Taylor-Lind spent weeks photographing hundreds of people. Yevhen was one of thousands that gathered to protest against the Ukrainian government. An event which marked the beginning of a conflict that tore parts of Ukraine apart. ‘I felt deceived, like the rest of conscious society: we were promised a pro-European course, and were led back to the Soviet past instead… We had to confront them.’ Yevhen Shulga. © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

“How can we avoid the tropes of documenting people who’ve been affected by violence?” 

Along the way, Taylor-Lind met Yevhen Shulga, a civilian protester. Sporting two black eyes, a concussion and a broken hand, the young man passed her pop-up studio as he made his way back towards the front line. His portrait became one of the defining images of her 2014 project Maidan, Portraits from the Black Square. The solemn photograph is now central to Ukraine: Photographs from the Frontline, her exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum.

The exhibition’s most arresting image shows a smoke-filled scene in Kyiv’s Independence Square, where protesters are gathered tightly around a towering monument to the city’s founders. Reminiscent of a macabre Renaissance painting, Taylor-Lind clearly remembers the moment she took the photograph. “What I didn’t know when I made that picture, was that behind that wall of smoke, snipers had been positioned on rooftops,” she says. “By the time we got through the smoke and started making our way up the hill, the bodies of protesters and wounded protesters were being carried back down.” 

Taylor-Lind could easily have left Ukraine after this experience, but she has returned many times over the last eight years. Ukraine: Photographs from the Frontline spans this whole period, during which she photographed the revolution, the war in Donbas, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the full-scale Russian invasion. Reporting on these events, often for the likes of The Guardian and National Geographic, is a practice that Taylor-Lind considers important, but is also an ethically complex exercise.

Olga and Nikolay Grinik live 50 meters away from a Ukrainian frontline military position in old Avdiivka, Donetsk Oblast. Both their children were born during the war, and they joke about it. “In 2014 we were sitting without electricity for three months because of fighting. Nine months later our daughter Miroslava (right) was born. In 2016 we had no light for a month, and nine months later we got our son Kirill (left). How else you gonna entertain yourself in the darkness? Now we pray there is no electricity outage again,” says Nikolay. The family owns the only horse in frontline Avdiivka – 11-years old Lastochka (Swallow). She contributes to the family budget: on the weekends they give cart rides to kids in downtown Avdiivka. Donbas, Eastern Ukraine. 2018. © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

“Newsgathering can be deeply disturbing,” Taylor-Lind says. “How can we avoid the tropes of documenting people who’ve been affected by violence?” She recalls a refugee named Oksana who, as she prepared to pose for a portrait, asked: “Do you want me to look like a refugee now”? “It was a joke,” Taylor-Lind clarifies, “but it was a very real, painful reminder of the harmful stereotypes that photojournalists perpetuate.”

Ukraine: Photographs from the Frontline presents a wide selection of experiences diligently – images that rile against these harmful stereotypes. A photograph of Olga and Nikolay Grinik and their children, taken in Donbas in 2018, was created just metres from the Ukrainian frontline. And yet, it shows the family in a moment of tenderness, adapting to life in the shadow of war. A portrait of Ukrainian sisters in Poland offers a glimpse of familial solidarity, even as the pair confront their new lives as refugees.

Natalia Lukyanenko (63) watches authorities excavate a mass grave in the grounds of the Church of St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho in Bucha, Kyiv region. Natalia’s son was killed during the Russian occupation of the town. Her son-in-law, Volodymyr Stefaniuk (34), just identified his brother, the 4th body to be removed from the pit- laying here in a body-bag labeled with the number 4. 8 April 2022. Anastasia Taylor-Lind for The Guardian.

The exhibition’s closes with a second image of Yevhen Shulga, who Taylor-Lind photographed again in March last year, eight years after their first encounter. The resulting portrait, taken just weeks after Shulga joined the Ukrainian army, is the exhibition’s most emotive moment. He appears resolute and, oddly, younger than in 2014, though he is now a husband and father. “This is my duty, to protect my country,” the caption reads. “This is a war for justice, freedom, and the very existence of Ukraine as a nation. I’m proud to be a part of this struggle”.

Taylor-Lind and Shulga kept in touch online in the years between their meetings, as the photographer does with many of the individuals she documents. Following their struggles – from near or far – is not easy, nor is processing the horrors she has witnessed first hand. What is it that drives her to continue such difficult work?

“This is how I’ve chosen to live my life,” Taylor-Lind says firmly. Working from London gives her a sense of perspective – space to be grateful for the peace so many in the West take for granted. “Working alongside Ukrainian colleagues reminds me that I always have a choice about whether I go to photograph in Ukraine or not,” she says. “I always have an option to leave. Ukrainian journalists don’t have that choice.”

Yevhen Shulga, Kyiv, March 2022 Yevhen, a member of the Ukrainian Army, eight years on from when he was last photographed by Anastasia Taylor-Lind during the anti-government protests in 2014. ‘This is my duty, to protect my country. This is a war for justice, freedom, and the very existence of Ukraine as a nation. I'm proud to be a part of this struggle.’ Yevhen Shulga. © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.
Lyudmyla and Nelya Tkachenko at a temporary refugee shelter in Poland, March 2022. The impact of the Russian invasion on Ukrainians has been devastating, causing millions to flee the country and leaving millions more internally displaced. Poland, March 2022. © Anastasia Taylor-Lind.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Ukraine: Photographs from the Frontline, is at the Imperial War Museum, London, until 8 May.