Working in Ukraine has never been more dangerous. In fact, sources state that Eastern Ukraine is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists at present. As you might expect, gaining access to cover events there has also become a challenge in itself for both photographers and journalists. Whether this be taking simple street portraits or filming footage of shootouts with rebel forces, you are in danger of being apprehended by either side, questioned and even detained.
The fact is, nothing in Ukraine is quite what it seems at the moment and those involved within the media are viewed with grave suspicion. There are so many ‘false flag’ incidents being reported on a daily basis with the largest arguably being the flight disaster of MH17 resulting in the death of almost 300 people. However, this only emphasises just how important it is for journalists and photographers to be able to go out there and tell the real story.
Last week I received a letter of accreditation enabling me to work in Ukraine, hopefully unchallenged. It’s by no means a ‘get out of jail’ card or a ‘go anywhere’ pass but it will help to explain what my intentions are.
For those interested, at present, the situation in the East looks a little something like the map below.
At the weekend I managed to get to the HUBBUK 2014 event. For those not in the know, the aim of HUBB is to inspire, inform and connect overland adventure travellers.
HUBB laid on a first class event with a huge presentation schedule, so camping out for the weekend was a great opportunity to test any equipment recently purchased and to mingle with like minded folk. There were many presentations taking place, but for me it had to be the one by Austin Vince that stood out amongst all others. He’s like a cross between the manager from the Phone Shop and Mr Gilbert from The Inbetweeners. He gives no ordinary talk. It’s like watching proper dry stand up comedy. Austin certainly knows how to keep an audience engaged and more importantly, transmit information in a language they understand.
Of course, my main reason for attending was to draw inspiration for my trip to Ukraine by motorcycle next year. Many there are seasoned travellers and this was an ideal opportunity to put the feelers out. I didn’t have to feel for long. Whilst attending a presentation I got talking to Rod Shaw. Rod seemed fascinated in my trip to Ukraine next year so hopefully we may be able to put some plans together between us.
So whilst basking in the sun with a beer in hand, I came across the legendary Ted Simon of Jupiter’s Travels fame. Ted’s wife is Ukrainian (coincidentally!) and his bike is now on display at the Coventry Transport Museum.
Like many photographers I hate spending hours in front of a computer screen. Trawling through numerous images till my eyes hurt I’d sooner be out in the real world interacting with people. But that’s just how it is these days. Hours shooting equals hours editing.
A few days ago I decided to look through some images from my last trip to Ukraine and came across this one below. I like it. I’m not sure why but I do. For those interested, it was taken on the street in Odessa, Ukraine.
For many it’s hard to imagine what life was like in Ukraine before the troubles. But I remember clearly, and especially around this time of year.
The seasonal changes seems to happen quickly in Ukraine. Like some scene from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, the cold snowed stacked streets with six foot icicles are replaced almost overnight with blooming trees and spring flowers. The fur coats and hats disappear and are replaced with short skirts and sunglasses. The sound of knee high boots crunching amongst the snow covered streets rushing towards the metro station is exchanged for the click clack of heels of the many devushka’s rushing towards landmarks to have photos taken for their Vkontakte page.
It’s a great time of year to grab a coffee and people watch. Hitting the streets, I recall going to my favourite coffee seller and practising my Russian phrases with her. And like many Ukrainians, she in turn was keen to practice her english with me. I had made many friends there and gradually started to understand how things work.
One thing I am sure of though is this. Speaking Russian in Ukraine was never a problem for me (or anyone else for that matter) and certainly never justified any kind of invasion from outside forces. The sooner things return to some kind of normality the better.
Upon entering O’Briens Pub, depending on the time, you could be mistaken for thinking that you have walked into the classic bar scene from Star Wars. Being an ex pat bar it seems to have become an attraction for the misfits in Kiev. Ranging from those who have just arrived on the plane to those who have been here far too long and are well past their expiry date. They all gather here like stray animals at the watering hole.
Men stare into the abyss of the bottom of their pint glass and are only too happy to tell you about their lovely Katya who left them high and dry. They’ll tell you about how things were ten years ago when they ran their own businesses back in the UK and decided to abandon their wives and kids back home to start up afresh in Ukraine with the lovely Olga.
You’ll be graced with the stories of how they landed in Ukraine with their half of the divorce settlement to start a new life. And how shortly afterwards their beautiful slavic sex siren drew them into lucrative business deals which never came to fruition. Their tired eyes tell a thousand stories.
I can’t help but think that in hindsight, had many of these westerners been prepared to adjust more to a Ukrainian way of life their stay could have been more productive. Most people ‘live and learn’ but not here. These guys, like gamblers standing around the roulette wheel still think they are in with a chance. Inevitably, many return to their homelands with stories of what ‘could have been’.
O’Briens still has that magnetic pull though for many though. Western comforts such as the ‘all essential’ Sky Sports, good service and english menus means that those already missing home can reap some comfort.
Leaving the pub can have its down side. The Police can often be found lurking outside waiting for those who are, shall we say ‘three sheets to the wind’. Im afraid that the rumour of ‘rich westerners’ still rings true here and the demand to see your documents soon turns into a glorified shake down. Yes indeed, street robbery takes on a very different persona here.
It’s been while since I’ve mentioned a book on here. My book collection is vast with many titles based around Ukraine, Russia and the Former Soviet Union.
My latest read was a kindle purchase called ‘Odessa Dreams: The Dark Heart of Ukraine’s Online Marriage Industry‘ by Shaun Walker. This was a subject which I began to document when I started visiting Ukraine many years ago with my ‘Destination Unknown’ project. The tall leggy beauties parading around the streets of Ukraine have attracted men far and wide in the search for love and marriage. And as you can imagine, with around 3.5 million women more than men, the country still remains at the centre of the marriage industry today.
In Shaun’s book he writes about his experience travelling on an organised excursion arranged for Westerners to find the girl of their dreams. However, as is often the case with many things in Ukraine, nothing is quite what it seems and Shaun does a good job of revealing this in his book.
Although there may be a few exceptions to the rule, Shaun hits the nail on the head when he states ‘It is my humble opinion that lonely men come to this country to quell their own loneliness and use younger women who are in financial misfortune to their own benefits. And young women use these men’s generosity to improve their own lives’.
Up until last year I had to constantly explain to people where Ukraine actually was on the map, as nobody quite knew. Now they all know. Every day the news is filled with stories from the crisis in Ukraine. From shootings to vote rigging it’s all there for the world to see.
What many people in the West struggle with is why it appears that so many Ukrainians don’t actually want to be part of Ukraine. It appears that they are turning their back on their country opting to be part of Russia or seeking some form of independence.
Most people have to struggle and have watched their parents, and grandparents struggle before them. Living hand to mouth is the norm for the majority there. It’s a tedious circle of poverty which many have become tired of. So yes I understand the need for protest and change. Euro Maidan set the ball rolling, and with a bit more foresight could have stabilised the country for all.
The new government in Kiev could have, and more to the point ‘should have’ done more to assure those in the East and South that their cultural needs would be taken into account. Because they are all Ukrainian, regardless of their geographical position within the country or the language they prefer to speak. I personally feel that much of this uprising in the South and East could have been avoided with a bit of basic communication.
The people of Ukraine need to decide their own future but in order to do this they must fully understand what they are actually voting for. And as the social media propaganda wars spiral out of control, it’s hard for many to know what that actually is.
As a photographer, I’ve spent a lot of time on the ground speaking with people face to face. Any future government in Ukraine needs to do the same.