Kieran Kesner spent two months documenting the Ukrainian conflict in intimate, honest and gripping photos
Between March and May of this year, New York-based photographer Kieran Kesner embedded himself within Ukraine, documenting the conflict that has ravaged the country, photographing a region torn apart by corruption and politics. Kesner is au fait with high-pressure environments – he's covered the persecution of Roma gypsies in Eastern Europe, protests by xenophobic pro right extremists and most recently, the ebola outbreak in Liberia. His portfolio from Ukraine is stunning and varied, from candid portraits that reveal a story behind peoples' eyes, to photos taken at the heart of action – images of militia bathed in the smoke of flares.
At the time of writing, pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops have agreed a truce, although further shelling in Mariupol on Saturday suggests that the peace talks have failed to put an end to the fighting.
We spoke to Kesner about his time in Ukraine and the violence and propaganda that has besieged the region.
Dazed: You spent just over two months in Ukraine - what did you notice the people in the country? Angry? Concerned at the lack of future in front of them? Determined to tackle corruption?
Kieran Kesner: In my experience, people in Ukraine are divided into two camps, Pro-Russian or Pro-Western based on where they grew up, how they were raised, or their level of exposure to Western culture or countries. My impression was that Pro-Russians were driven by a comfort in what they know. Alternatively, I found Pro-Westerners more inclined to risk aligning with the West and alienating Russia so they can steer their country away from chronic problems like unemployment, corruption and lack of trust in police and politicians. Many Pro-Westerners point to formerly communist neighbors like Poland as a great example of countries that overcame similar obstacles and are now growing in prosperity. Corruption was a major point of conversation, but so was fear of Russian invasion and rampant media and social media propaganda that fuelled both sides of the debate.
For instance, when I was in Kharkiv, a city only 40km from the Russian border, I documented what began as a peaceful Pro-Western rally fueled by hundreds of Pro-Western supporters. Having read of Kharkiv’s Pro-Russian allegiances, I was surprised to see thousands of older adults as well as families with young children, marching peacefully for the cause of Pro-Western beliefs. However, leading the protests was angry youth, who seemed to be more excited by the prospect of violence and confrontation than by expressing a political point of view.
Was there a particular person that you met in Ukraine that you really connected with, somebody who guided you through your time there, or were you meeting different people day to day?
Kieran Kesner: I was meeting new people everyday, but one individual I met in Kyiv stands out amongst the rest. Jura (below) is a young man who is in his early 20s that I met one day on the outskirts of Kyiv. He introduced himself to me, with his face partially covered by a bandana and his chest covered by a bullet proof vest. We shook hands and I noticed he was carrying a retractable baton, often a deadly weapon which is easily concealable. I met him to learn more about Pravy Sektor, a far right organization he belonged to that was often blamed by Russia for sparking unrest. Despite our language barrier and somewhat difference of beliefs, we bonded over the love of sport and an interest in learning about each other's cultures. We still keep in touch via email, I send a google translated emails in Russian and he responds in English.
Even though it’s a country in the midst of a civil war, were you sad to leave? When do you think the war will end?
Kieran Kesner: There was a real sense of freedom in Ukraine when I was there. A sense of anything goes and you watch my back and I'll watch yours. It's a beautiful thing to have that freedom but it's also scary. Anarchy is never good and it makes you appreciate the freedom and security we take for granted here, living in the west. As I left, I was deeply concerned for what the future would hold for this united country torn apart so needlessly. Many people on both sides of the fight said Ukranians never felt divided before the Maidan Protest in Kyiv that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and caused the infiltration of Russian separatists. Sadly, from Arab Spring to other recent rebellions, we’ve seen this story repeated over and over. It’s usually driven by the greed of a few, the destruction of a country, the death of innocent people and hopes for a democratic future.
Where were you staying and was it safe?
Kieran Kesner: I stayed in hostels most nights where I usually had the entire place to myself due to a steep decline in tourism. Usually, I felt safe. One night, after traveling 9 hours to connect with a friend of a friend of a friend at a military training camp, far from any cell or email connections, in a severely remote region of the country, I was concerned about what I was getting myself into. I didn’t have any place to stay (other than the car I had rented) and wasn’t completely clear on who I was meeting, what their agenda was or whether I’d be safe. I arrived just as the sun was setting. Greeting me at the front gate of the army barracks was a young man and young woman dressed in fatigues. They gave me a tour of this idyllic former summer camp where large horses walked freely amidst masked military men and women. They had already prepared a comfortable place to sleep and a warm meal awaiting my arrival.
Did you see much violence while you were there?
Kieran Kesner: I did see violence but there were many places I visited where things seemed very calm amidst impending war. The time period I was there was soon after the Maidan revolution and just prior to the election of current President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. Violence was sporadic and unorganized and you always had a sense that things could boil over at any minute. People would be walking down the street one minute and the next minute someone would be beaten over the head with a cobblestone. For example, I covered a peaceful protest in Odessa one day, and the following day, after I had left and moved onto another city, a similar protest magnified into the horrific death of 40 Pro-Russian separatists who were locked in a burning building only to burn to death.
What was the everyday life of Ukrainians like? What were they wearing, how were they feeling and what were people doing? Did kids go to school? Did men and women go to war?
Kieran Kesner: Unfortunately, because of the current situation, the world only knows of Ukraine as a violent and dangerous place. The countryside is beautiful. Ukraine is largely wide open landscapes filled with farms and fields of beautiful yellow flowered crops. There is something beautifully simple about the way many live in Ukraine. Old women dress as you might imagine grandmothers from the old country would and the men are strong willed, hardworking, fathers. Ukrainian Orthodoxy encourages the youth to marry young so many are already married with a family by their early 20's. In many ways, everyday life seems simple but suddenly made complex by power struggles and political moves beyond the control of ordinary citizen. Each side is brainwashed by unruly propaganda and men who largely speak the same language and share the same customs as their brothers, but are brutally killing each other for reasons I imagine only Putin understands.