Alexey Furman Interviewed by Vegard Orlando
How did you get involved in documenting the conflict in Ukraine?
It is hard to stay away from documenting a conflict in your own country. Euromaidan revolution started on Kyiv’s Independence Square that is fifteen minutes away from my flat. I covered it from its second day until the day when ex-president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. I started going there solely as a photographer, but the more I was there, the more it felt like my citizen obligation to be in the middle of it. Something like being unable to leave your loved one when he is in need of you. After the active events in Ukraine’s capital ended it felt natural to move to Crimea and then to the East.
What about the conflict do you consider the most important to cover?
You know, I think it is important to understand and have your own place in a huge collective visual recording of an issue, a conflict in this case. At the beginning, when a lot was happening, I was strongly involved in covering news. Looking back, I wish I had time to step back and produce a personal story with a deeper meaning.
The Master’s program at Missouri School of Journalism that I attended in 2014-2015 gave me instrumental knowledge for doing long-term stories, and I want this to be my focus from now on. Nevertheless, I keep an eye on what is going on and often attend and photograph events in Kyiv and other places in Ukraine. For instance, on May 9 this year I photographed Victory Day events in Kyiv that involved some clashes.
How is it to be out there in the conflict, documenting it as it happens?
When you are in the middle of it, I feel like you don’t fully understand what is going on around you. On February 20, 2014, when snipers opened fire at unarmed protesters in downtown Kyiv, I was there photographing it, but I couldn’t completely realize what I witnessed while I was in the field. When I got back to the hotel and saw a video, I couldn’t fight back my tears. It was a horrific scene, and it was almost impossible to believe that just couple hours ago I was in the middle of it.
The same concerns danger. During the Euromaidan revolution one felt a lot safer on Independence Square than at home. It is hard to explain, but sometimes I really feel better when I witness the most important events in my country in person. Obviously, I photograph them, and this is the main reason I am there, but there is some kind of citizen responsibility to it too. Also the feelings that you are documenting, and those who are shown in your photos,
All the things you witness while being out there in the midst of the conlflict, how does that affect you as a photographer?
I rarely photograph someone if I know that by doing it I will harm his or her feelings, that’s just the type of photographer I am. I try to narrow down my influence of reality to a minimum, and if I know that my presence will dramatically change the situation, I will withdraw from it.
There was one situation, a couple of years before the conflict, when I was crying while taking a photograph. A Chernobyl nuclear disaster cleanup worker was looking at the memorial plaque with the names of those who died from the accident, and he was describing these people to his wife that was standing beside him. This moment, the intersection of the past of the present, the dead and the living, was unbelievably touching.
This is quite a standard question but it is always interesting to get to know the story, what got you into photography to begin with?
My father has been a photography enthusiast all his life, and I remember playing around with his camera since I was a little kid. My first teenager love was a photographer, and I asked my mom to get me a DSLR camera for my sixteenth birthday. It was an Olympus E-330, one of the first cameras with a live view. On ISO 1600 you could see thick horizontal stripes of noise going through your shots, something unimaginable nowadays.
Kyiv, Ukraine, December 11, 2013. Euromaidan protesters clash with riot policemen on Insitutska street near Independence Square. Riot policemen attempted to storm the square, but failed. Hundreds of Kyiv citizens came in the middle of the night to support the protesters.
Which is your very favorite picture that you have taken?
I consider the portrait of a crying woman inside Trade House building in Odessa, Ukraine, to be one of the strongest photographs I have ever taken. For me it summarizes the situation in Ukraine as it shows grief a woman with very little context. In fact, sides in political conflicts are secondary. The primary problem is the loss of human life, unarguably the most valuable thing on Earth.
This was the day when the lines of police appeared on the edges of the territory that the protesters were occupying in downtown Kyiv. Everyone knew that something was going to happen, but nobody knew what would happen (some clashes occurred later that day). These two friends decided to take a selfie with policemen in riot gear, guys of their age or even younger that were standing on cold streets for hours.
For me this image shows the nature of humanity. There was a moment, maybe up to twenty seconds, when these human beings forgot that they took sides, and just posed for a group picture together, laughing on the conditions they found themselves in. A lot of media coverage of Euromaidan revolution villanized police, but I think it is an approach that is overly simplistic and even slightly deceitful. This image is slightly more complex than the usual standoff pictures we are accustomed of seeing. It shows that there can be sympathy between the opposing sides, and feelings between human beings, I believe, are much stronger than political affiliations.