15:05 Jun. 2, 2016
‘The protesters would go over to him and chat – as if he was just painting a river'
I studied Soviet politics at college, and the first thing I did when I finished was go to Ukraine. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and I wanted to document what was happening to the proletariat – especially the miners – in the Donbass region, now Ukraine's rustbelt. I stayed with a mining family and followed their lives. It turned into a four-year project.
Ukrainian politics can be quite murky. I kept an eye on it all over the years. In February 2014, it felt like the Euromaidan protests in Kiev's Independence Square, demanding closer integration with Europe, were reaching a peak. Something was going to happen. President Yanukovych had just rejected the EU's package and opted for Russia's deal, which offered bailout money. The people were angry.
When I arrived in Kiev, I was struck by the scale of the protest. The square and a huge boulevard leading up to it had become a massive campsite. The road to the presidential palace was like an apocalyptic vision – how I'd imagine the siege of Stalingrad looked. There were burnt-out cars and buses and huge barricades made from rubble. It had been snowing but there was a thick layer of coal dust, as the protesters had been using coal sacks as sandbags. Anything you touched turned your hands black. Your lungs too. They were burning plastic in bins, anything they could find. You'd sneeze and it was black. Many demonstrators had clearly been there a long time, as the coal dust had worked its way deep into their skin. I was reminded of the miners I'd photographed 20 years earlier.
I saw the painter on the first day, another image-maker. He was painting the entrance to the old Dynamo Kiev stadium, with its classic Greek colonnades now standing amid rubble. It was the antithesis of a beautiful landscape, but it did have its own beauty. I liked the contradiction. Perhaps there's a parallel with what I do: I'm quite classic, I use golden thirds, diagonals, all that. He's also recording an event that he feels is important but framing it to look conventionally beautiful.