Behind Kiev’s barricades: against the odds

Beyond the attractive aesthetics of the fire and ice images that have come out of Ukraine, the current anti-government protests in the Eastern European country are an opportunity for freelance photographers to make their mark in a competitive media landscape dominated by the cult of the breaking news. Yet, as with other clashes, challenges exist

Olivier Laurent — 31 January 2014

KIEV, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: Anti-government protesters clash with police on Hrushevskoho Street near Dynamo stadium on January 24, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. After two months of primarily peaceful anti-government protests in the city center, new laws meant to end the protest movement have sparked violent clashes in recent days.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

KIEV, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: Anti-government protesters clash with police on Hrushevskoho Street near Dynamo stadium on January 24, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. After two months of primarily peaceful anti-government protests in the city center, new laws meant to end the protest movement have sparked violent clashes in recent days.

© Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

“They are the best pictures we’ve seen for a few months now,” says Roger Tooth, head of photography at The Guardian. “We’ve almost had to mete out the number of images we’ve been using, really, because they have been the best pictures we’ve seen almost every single day.”

The protests in Ukraine kicked off on 21 November 2013, after the country’s government put an end to free-trade negotiations with the European Union. Since then, opposition forces have taken to the streets across Ukraine in general and in Kiev in particular. While the protests were covered extensively in December and early January, recent images coming out of the country have led the media to take a more visual approach to the events.

“From a visual standpoint, it probably couldn’t be scripted any better,” says Brendan Hoffman, a photojournalist with Prime Collective. “Smoke, steam, snow, soft light and fire – I believe this story will be remembered primarily in pictures.”

For Hugh Pinney, vice president of editorial at Getty Images, the “very unusual colour combination of fire and ice, which normally applies to volcanos under an ice sheet, have created this weird kind of Mad Max / punk thing with the protesters and the burnt vehicles and barricades,” he tells BJP. “It’s almost getting ridiculously close to what you see in the movies.”

Back in December, adds Pinney, “it was a very different-looking protest we were seeing, even though they took place in the same place, with the same people.” But, he continues, “I don’t think these images have led to increased coverage. I think the protests themselves have achieved that coverage, and you can actually track their progress in the headlines. You can see them bubbling to the surface and quieting down again before bubbling again. The strength of the story and the activity behind the protests are what have driven their predominance in the news.”

The freelancer’s dilemma 

The strength of the story has attracted many photographers. In addition to stringers for news wires such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse, freelancers have taken to Kiev’s streets to document a part of Europe’s history. “I haven’t covered the news in two years,” says Corentin Fohlen, a French photographer. “I had decided to take a step back, and when the protests started in Ukraine in early December, I just couldn’t go. Yet these events still mean a lot to me because the first project I did outside of France was in 2004, when I covered the Orange Revolution, one month after joining Wostok Press agency.”

He adds: “The images coming out of these protests were incredibly powerful, thanks in part to this particular winter light. These sort of details might seem trivial, maybe even out of place, but the life of a freelancer is not that of a staff photographer. We always have to look at the pros and cons before embarking on a new project. We have to decide when to go, whether the financial risks we’re taking are worth it, and whether we will be able to make a living.”

Fohlen boarded a plane for Kiev last Friday and stayed in the country for four days. “It was a last-minute decision,” he tells BJP in an email conversation. “I felt that things were about to change in Ukraine, that history would be made. I like to live these events, to be part of such radical changes. I’m passionate about these notions of uprising and revolution. I went as a freelancer, as this is always the case when I cover news outside of France. And, of course, I had to use my own money to finance this trip, telling newspapers and magazines that I was going and that I would be available for assignments if needed.”

Hoffman, usually a freelancer, covered the protests as a stringer for Getty Images. “I moved to Moscow six months ago, so Ukraine is now in my backyard,” says the American photographer, who used to be based in Washington, DC. “I feel a responsibility to pay attention, but beyond that, there are a variety of reasons I sought to go. The story is interesting, and getting more so every day. Russia has been involved quite centrally in a number of globally important stories recently – from Edward Snowden to Syrian chemical weapons – but this is one of the few that can be told visually. It plays to my strengths as a photographer, so I felt there was a place for me to contribute to the visual history and understanding of this story.”

On a personal level, Hoffman had also just returned from a very frustrating trip for another project and was in “a bit of a funk mentally”. Covering a pure news story was, for Hoffman, a way to “restore a bit of confidence and enjoy the challenges and rewards of photography. This was back in early December, before things got so violent. Also, I needed the money.”

Hoffman has been on the grounds three times since early December, staying for five or six days each time. “Everything happened very quickly,” he says. “It was a matter of hours between returning home from one trip, getting confirmation of this assignment and being back at the airport.” And contrary to other news-related events in recent months, covering the Ukrainian protests has been relatively easy. “Everything is within walking distance,” Hoffman explains. “And the journalists on the ground are good about sharing what they know [about the situation].”

“We always stand together,” adds Fohlen. “I always listen to what my colleagues know about what’s going on. Luck also plays a big part: sometimes you’ll find someone who speaks French or English and helps you translate, but in an event like this one, you don’t need all of that. Everything happens in a small perimeter.”

Maidan Square

This small perimeter is Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s central square, where protesters have built barricades and faced police forces for the past few weeks. “I try to stay as long as possible in Maidan,” says Maxim Dondyuk, a freelance photographer from Ukraine. “It’s hard to cover everything and, as a freelancer, I couldn’t afford to live in a hotel in the centre of Kiev, so that’s why I often stay there for the night, getting warm with coffee.” And while the protests seem easy to cover, the situation in Maidan can quickly take a turn for the worse. “Last week, my helmet stopped a bullet; a few days ago, a flash grenade detonated just next to me, wounding me in the leg,” says Dondyuk. “It still hurts, but I continue to photograph.”

A lot of journalists have been injured and, Hoffman tells BJP, “many feel deliberately targeted. This seems mostly to apply to local journalists, who during the most recent violence were pretty much the only ones there. Some even staged their own protest over it.” Hoffman, himself, hasn’t felt directly threatened, “but depending on whether there’s active confrontation happening, the police could be tossing sound grenades, rocks, firing rubber bullets, shooting tear gas, or spraying water from fire hoses. Protesters are shooting fireworks or throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, or launching them from extremely inaccurate slingshots. It’s obviously up to the photographer to stay out of the way of both sides. Plus, this is all taking place on what is basically a rock-studded skating rink. I think everyone I know has fallen at some point. That can be as big a danger as anything at times.”

Despite the violence, photographers have so far been able to work unhindered. “The areas of action are pretty well defined, so it’s easy to dip in and out,” says Hoffman. “And there’s actually a press centre with English-speaking representatives. They’re even issuing daily press passes. The hardest part is to be there when the action is happening. It’s really cold out, so one has to take breaks to warm up and eat.”

Fohlen was surprised by the leeway he was afforded while covering the protest. “I had total freedom, which is a rare occurrence when controlling the message has become a main stake in any conflict.”

This freedom might explain why more photographers are now converging on Kiev. “In the last days I was there, I saw a lot of freelancers arriving,” says Fohlen. “I guess when such an event takes place three hours away from Europe’s main capital cities, in a country that doesn’t require a visa, you’re bound to see a lot of photographers and journalists, especially those who want to get a taste of the field.”

Harsh realm

But that doesn’t mean they will find success in selling their images, especially since the protests remain a secondary story, explains Tooth of The Guardian, with Syria dominating the news agenda. Fohlen, for example, was lucky enough to receive a commission from the Nouvel Obs newsweekly, while other magazines have just expressed an interest. “But I’m not a good salesman,” says Fohlen. “In this job, you have to be a salesman, accountant, negotiator, archivist, journalist… and the remaining five percent of your time you can be a photographer. So it’s not always easy to get results. Competition is harsh, particularly when you have a lot of talented colleagues.”

That’s why many of them choose to increase their chances of being published by covering an ongoing situation, especially in a transformed media landscape that favours breaking news over contextualisation. “With an intense event that lasts several weeks, the result is that it’ll be covered by the media for a prolonged period, creating more opportunities for a freelancer to be published.”

Visit www.brendanhoffman.comwww.corentinfohlen.com and www.maximdondyuk.com