The Most Interesting Take on the Ukraine Crisis We've Seen Yet

Whatever the cause of the crash of MH17, it's time we all paid more attention to the conflict in Ukraine. Here's the surprising way one young artist is telling stories from the ground.

Photographer Vanessa Black about being in Ukraine: “Most mornings, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to photograph portraits of men from Kiev’s self-defense [groups] with my large-format camera." (Photo: David Aziz)

Jul 23, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

With a number of foreign crises flaring this summer (in Gaza and in Afghanistan, among other places), events in postrevolution Ukraine seemed to slip from the global radar. That is, until the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last week shifted attention back to its borders. One American millennial, however, has been training her eye on the Ukrainian people for months, artfully documenting the humanity behind the headlines.

Vanessa Black, a 26-year-old New York–based photographer and filmmaker, spent a month in Kiev earlier this year chronicling the lives of young activists for Gen Y audiences. Taking time out from her glossy day job—she directs music videos for artists like B.o.B and helms film projects for fashion houses—Black departed for Kiev in February after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left office. Her timing was fortuitous: The day after her arrival, Russia intervened in Crimea. She spent the following four weeks taking photographs and videos of the postrevolution scene and disseminating them on social media through the #UkraineRising hashtag.

Vanessa Black's portrait of a young man in Ukraine. "Maidan, or Kiev’s Independence Square, was full of young men like this man who were willing to lose everything to defend Ukraine."(Photo: Vanessa Black)

Black’s dispatches are a modern blend of activism and entertainment, with beautiful photography, moving stories, and a musical score contributed by indie bands. They also offer a clue to how one might inspire a generation raised on hashtag activism to make change move from screens to the streets.

In an interview this week with TakePart, Black spoke about her #UkraineRising project and how experiential activism can empower youths globally.

TakePart: Could you have predicted that Ukraine would become a stage for such a tense worldwide conflict?

Vanessa Black: A year ago, none of the people in the Ukraine thought the Ukrainian revolution could ever possibly happen. Life was totally normal. People joke that it’s the next Berlin—it’s a stunning city. Being over there, you learn that the line between civil society and absolute mayhem is much thinner than you think. When the stakes are that high, you focus on what’s important to you and you learn what’s important to fight for. This is something that is innate in humanity that you don’t know you have until you’re threatened.

TakePart: What’s your take on the crisis in the aftermath of the crash?

Black: The frustrating thing is that, even when I was in the Ukraine talking with people about the revolution, it was always like Russia was never guilty. The Russian government skillfully diverts attention by not really answering questions, but then they’ll ask their own questions that challenge the situation. One article I read today was “10 Questions That Russia Has About the Plane Crash.” I was like, “No, you guys know what happened! You know exactly what happened.”

TakePart: Part of your project advocates providing nonlethal support to the Ukrainian people. What does that entail?

Black: Once you start supplying arms, you may as well be shooting those guns. With Ukraine, [the former government] decreased its budget for its military to make it more reliant on Russia’s military. That’s left Ukraine in a terrible situation. You have civilians who want to help so they’re joining their version of the National Guard, which are self-defense groups. But these people aren’t trained. They’re fueled by their desire to help protect Ukraine.

With nonlethal donations, it’s supplying things like bulletproof vests, supply boots, and practical gear for people who don’t have that because the Ukrainian military is very underfunded. Russians are so much better armed. There’s a big propaganda war going on. From the beginning, I was saying that if we want to give any aid to Ukraine without intervening militarily, we need to give money and power to the Ukrainian media to get Ukrainian voices out so the truth can be seen.

TakePart: How did you end up going to the Ukraine in the first place?

Black: I was developing a project on the Arab Spring about what youth can do in the modern age with modern tools. We weren’t getting the funding for it, and I have dear friends in the Ukraine, so I had a place I could go to and tell a story and do it on my own budget.

There was no logic or reason why my team and I should be running around barricades with a bunch of camera gear with camouflaged men. People were somewhat critical of me, saying this story’s over, but I learned to trust my gut on it. When I was there, it was so clear that that’s when the story would come out. The fog of war is over; all of the people who lived through that nightmare were now coming to terms with what they just experienced. Many of them have PTSD, and you’re sitting in tents hearing them talk about what it was like to be on the battlefield or see their friends shot.

TakePart: In addition to shooting videos, you also shot portraits with a large- format camera. That’s a very involved process and doesn’t have the spontaneity of digital photography.

Black: I like to think of it like painting. Even though it’s time-consuming—to load 10 negatives takes 20 minutes and each shot takes about three minutes to set up—I wanted to honor the people I was taking the portrait of by framing it like a painting. I’d set the photo up; then I’d have to reengage with the person to get some kind of moment back out of them, which is an interesting challenge. In the digital age where everything is so disposable, it’s a really beautiful way to honor a moment with a format where you only get one shot.

"For my gallery show, I wanted to blow up the images of barricades to be as close to life scale as possible and bring the experience of standing in front of the barricades home to Americans." (Photo: Natalie Holme)

TakePart: Do you think you got better access to the Ukrainian people than a traditional journalist might because you're an artist?

Black: It was interesting to watch how journalists would interact with people. They would just kind of grab them and get a quick story. People trusted me and invited me in their tents because I’d ask, “What does it feel like to be you right now?” People could tell I was genuinely interested in other experience, and they knew that I wasn’t going to exploit them.

TakePart: How can people inspired by your work take action?

Black: You don’t have to go to the Ukraine to do this. I just happened to get myself freakishly involved in an insane international crisis I had no plan on being so involved in. Whether it’s veterans coming home with posttraumatic stress or our broken educational system or health care system, we have so many things that we should be dealing with in the United States. If you’re inspired by something local, do it in your community. That will have a much bigger impact.