Photographer Kieran Kesner traveled to the Ukraine in March, during the height of the country’s conflict, to document it as it unfolded. Though he witnessed violence and devastation, he also had an opportunity to experience life as it was centuries ago: peaceful, agricultural, beautiful.
Kieran states: “While the shots of violent demonstrations are perhaps the most intriguing, I hope people will look at my work and the work of other photographers and journalists in Ukraine and realize that there is so much more to the country, even now, than violence.”
Read on as Kieran shares his unique perspective on the country, the conflict, and why we have to be mindful of how we perceive both.
Curiosity itself isn’t enough for me to travel to new places, especially ones that can be potentially dangerous or pose unknown challenges. Having a concrete goal – usually around getting an inside view of other people’s lives – and then being able to share my perspective and my findings with others gives me a reason to travel.
As a photographer, I am fortunate to have a medium that allows me to share my experiences in a way that reflects exactly how I lived them myself. The reason behind my trip to Ukraine was to gain a better, clearer perspective on what exactly was actually happening there and share that with different audiences. I traveled throughout the country, meeting with people to hear their stories and learn more about their different points of view.
How long were in Ukraine and how did you decide when your trip was over?
I arrived in Ukraine with a one-way ticket and traveled throughout the country for just over two months. Although I had finished my graduation requirements for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in January of this year, I didn’t officially graduate until May. I hadn’t originally anticipated returning for graduation, but I found out that I had earned a number of academic and artistic acknowledgments and was honored to return to New York to receive them.
Did you work with a fixer or a translator while you were traveling? How was this helpful to you?
I often find myself working in countries where I don’t speak the language and Ukraine was no exception. Working with a translator in those cases is incredibly important. It does, however, foster a unique dynamic between myself and the subject of my photographs; one that is different than if I were to just meet and photograph a subject on my own.
Non-verbal communication often creates a bond between people much faster than using language does. I think this is because of the shared struggle both parties face as they try to get their message across accurately and sensitively. When you are trying to communicate with someone using only your hands and facial expressions, you tend to see who that person really is – they have to wear their emotions, their message, their story on their face and in their gestures. Language can often cover these things; the face and body are more emotive vessels.
Lately, I have also been shooting video in addition to making photographs. When working with video, I find it almost imperative to have a translator with me as I am no longer trying to capture an emotion or a story in a single frame, but forming a more fluid narrative using the video camera.
Were the people you met eager to tell their stories? Was anyone skeptical of you and your camera?
Although this was my first time in Ukraine, I had previously lived in the Czech Republic and spent considerable time in neighboring Slovakia and the Balkans. Throughout the region, many people, especially older generations, still live with the fear of a communist regime. Because of this, I find people to be more reserved and often hesitant to interact with strangers. The younger generations in Ukraine today, however, are eager to voice their opinions, especially those whose political views favor the West, or those who want to join with the European Union. They see me as an American and feel as though I am on their side.
Some of your images show volatility and anger, while others show quiet moments and open spaces. Were there times when you felt unsafe?
There were certainly moments when I felt unsafe, but rarely did I feel as though I was a target. There was, however, always a sense that things could worsen at any moment. One day, I was covering a peaceful protest in Odessa; the next day, another protest in the same city turned horribly tragic resulting in the death of 42 pro-Russian activists. On a few occasions, I had to negotiate some close calls, but I was fortunate to not have been injured or directly targeted like some other Westerners.
Ukraine is a large country and the events that defined the revolution in Kiev, or the violence in the East, are contrasted sharply with a sense of normalcy in the Western part of the country. Even in the West, however, you could feel the fear and concern of the Ukrainians around impending war, the support – or lack thereof – from NATO and the U.S, and the free fall of their economy.
How did you gain access to basic training? Were there roadblocks to the story you wanted to tell?
It took nearly a week of contacting a string of individuals before I gained access to the training camp, held in a remote region of western Ukraine.
I remember when I first began developing an interest in photography, I used to look at images of war and think about how I might capture a photo similarly or differently. I’ve since come to realize that the process of making a photograph is complex and depends not only on angle or composition but on context and environment. The real challenge is gaining access to, and the trust of, your subjects so that you can, eventually, take the photographs you envision making.
While the shots of violent demonstrations are perhaps the most intriguing, I hope people will look at my work and the work of other photographers and journalists in Ukraine and realize that there is so much more to the country, even now, than violence. The country is filled with a mix of small towns, modern cities and huge farms. It is not unlikely for folks in rural areas to live off of what they grow in their fields, much like they did a few hundred years ago. It is a country of vast, beautiful landscapes that stretch as far as the eye can see.
When you read about the things that happen in the headlines, you get a quick glimpse – void of much understanding – of what is happening. It is only a snapshot of what the situation is really like. That’s true not only of the Ukraine, but of every place and every conflict and every political demonstration around the world.
That said, I hope that people do look at my work and see the severity of the situation and begin to develop a sense of empathy with the subjects. We are all the same: if this can happen in the Ukraine, it can happen anywhere.
What do you plan to do next?
I do have some projects coming up over the next few months in the United States. I am also planning on flying back to Ukraine in September to photograph the annual Hasidic Jewish pilgrimage that travels to the city of Uman during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In recent years there have been clashes with local right-wing groups but despite the threats, nearly 40,000 Jews completed the journey last year. This year, the numbers are expected to rise and with tensions high in Ukraine already, it should be an incredible event to witness.