In the past year and a half, the East Village has grown accustomed to the presence of candles, messages of remembrance and fresh flowers outside 136 Second Avenue, home to the Ukrainian American Youth Foundation. This impromptu memorial has served as a constant reminder of the many lives lost during the November 2013 “Rise up, Ukraine!” anti-government uprisings in Kiev.
In the months leading up to this bloody encounter, Australian photographer Daniel King traveled to the state capital. His intention was to capture in photographs “what it was like to grow up in Kiev for a generation living its last moments of carefree fun.” This week the result of this endeavor, a book of collected photos published by Damiani and titled Daniel King: Ukraine Youth Between Days, was launched at Happy Ending on Broome Street.
For the book, King took up residence in an apartment on Independence Square (where much of demonstrations took place) and with the help of a translator befriended a group of local teenagers, photographing their everyday lives prior to the events that would permanently alter them. Mostly, his images are familiar scenes of young boys and girls in revel rather than revolt, exemplifying the power of photography to hermetically seal a moment in time, which when stripped of context offers up both a reality as much as an illusion. Or perhaps thought of another way, simply a different kind of memorial to a kind of life that could have been.
We caught up with King over the phone earlier today to talk about his experience looking back on his images and why he’s chosen young people as an avenue of exploration through his work.
I feel quite proud of them because I still have quite a strong connection with the subjects I shot there and speak to them constantly. I went there for a reason: because I knew something was happening in that country and that it was going to be this time that you’d never be able to recreate. These kids are the future of their country. I think even more so now it’s a beautiful snapshot in time that really can’t be recreated because the country’s changed so much since I’ve been there, for good and for bad.
Completely, it actually resonates quite a bit with my mom’s story. She’s an immigrant to Australia from Chile and she grew up during the Pinochet revolution, when my grandfather used to run an anti-Pinochet radio station and there were adults revolting. So, when I look at these images there’s a similar feeling of melancholy of what [the subjects of the photos] have gone through afterwards, especially as you can feel their core values in their pictures.
What was your inspiration to choose Ukraine? I know you say you were following the news a lot and got the sense for the way things were changing, but was there a specific instance or thing that acted as a catalyst?
I don’t think it happened overnight, it kind of found me in a certain way. There was one little island in the middle of Kiev called Hydropark, which I’d seen a book on. Taking images of that island and the teens there had been a long-term plan of mine. I didn’t know going that I’d have a book until after I got back, it was just the images from that island that I’d had in mind.
I dunno, in the beginning it was really hard. To be quite honest, I didn’t know when I arrived that Kiev was the sex tourism capital of the world, which became evident pretty quickly when we were street casting. We had to adopt a whole different approach than how we started which was basically, ‘I’m a photographer shooting a project…’ Everyone thought we were there to shoot porn. So yeah, we had to change our approach slightly.
Well, my translator/producer Evgeniy was a good-looking youngish guy and I guess he just gave off the wrong impression so we used his girlfriend who was really sweet, to approach people. It was an interesting social study in how people react differently to males and females. Once the ball started rolling, though, it just became a case of common trust, spending a lot of time with the kids, which shows in the pictures. It’s about hanging, getting to know someone and explaining what I like about photography and the power of a portrait.
For this project, it was about two-thirds film. There are circumstances where digital works out better but the plan was to shoot everything on film and like always, you shoot a small amount of film and use most of those images and shoot a lot of digital and use a small amount of those images. It’s just the way that photography works.
Well, there’s actually one picture I took in the book that if I’d been shooting digital with, I would have got robbed. There was this group of four kids in bathing suits and they were the sketchiest. My translator refused for me to speak to them, they were just like thugs. We sat around for like an hour until they saw us. So, I walked up and took a picture and they grabbed my camera and wanted to see the pictures. But because it was film, they were thrown off a little bit so I was able to get a few pictures of them before getting out of there pretty fast. If it had been digital they would have probably just stolen my camera.
In September last year, I photographed youth in Beirut. Trying to show the beauty in all different youths, in Beirut I was shooting Sunnis and Shiites, in the Hezbollah neighborhood shooting girls and also Syrian refugees swimming at night-time in the ocean. It’s beautiful to use a camera as a way to explore.
Yeah, it’s a way to transcend a lot of different stuff and make people in the world feel the same. Different values and religions sure, but with the age group I’ve been documenting (15-23) it’s like a universal language they all speak, they have a new freedom and are finding ways of coming out – it’s a beautiful time.