Experience

“As a journalist, you are no longer considered just a neutral observer”

Anastasia Taylor-Lind about the Middle East and how it changed her career, why she decided to photograph female soldiers, and what she's been working on

When Anastasia Taylor-Lind turned 16 she signed up for a school photography class where she discovered the work of Don McCullin and ultimately decided that she wanted to become a photographer. “Before I came across his book of pictures from Vietnam, I couldn’t even imagine that events like that were happening somewhere in the world and that there were people who photographed them”, Anastasia recalls.

After high school she entered the University of South Wales (Great Britain) where she took a documentary course established by Magnum’s David Hern. After graduation she worked as an independent photographer. Five years later she joined a program for young photographers with the VII Photo Agency under the guidance of Ron Haviv. In three years she became a full-time member of the agency.

Anastasia Taylor-Lind, 33 years old

Anastasia is an English documentary photographer who is a member of VII Photo. She works for editorial clients such as National Geographic, GEO, Marie Claire, The Sunday Times Magazine, Time, The New York Times, and The Telegraph Magazine. She has received a number of awards, including the Photographer of the Year International Award and the Center Project Award.

It’s fairly hard to become a member of VII Photo. What was in your portfolio when you applied for the mentor program?

I had my story about a PKK women, guerrilla soldiers, which I’d shot from time to time over the course of three years. I also had made a story about my amazing friend, Camilla Naprous, a young woman working with horses for the film industry.

Why did you decide to dedicate one of your first projects to Kurdish female soldiers?

In 2003, before my PKK project, I photographed another group of Kurdish women soldiers called Peshmerga (editor’s note: Pêşmerge means “those who face death”, a militarized group in Iraq’s part of Kurdistan). It was my final university project. The PKK series became its extension. There were a few things that made me realize that I wanted to do this story. I was about ten in my small primary school when I met a girl from Kuwait. She came to join my class during the conflict when Saddam Hussein invaded her country. The first Gulf war was the first conflict I was fully aware of. Her story affected me greatly. During my second year at university I made a series of portraits of Gulf War veterans – British servicemen and women who had developed a disease called the Gulf War Syndrome as a result of being exposed to the chemical weapons during their service.

When the second Gulf War happened in 2003 I already knew that it was something I wanted to photograph. While at the university, I was an officer cadet for the Air Force Reserves. I was also aware of the fact that women were not allowed to serve on the front lines in the British Armed Forces. So when I heard of a group of women in Kurdistan who were allowed to fight at the battlefield I became very impressed. We can’t even begin to imagine Middle Eastern women in a battle. Anyway, I realized that I wanted to meet these incredible girls and shoot a project about them. That was how I initially ended up in the Middle East and fell in love with Kurdistan.


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“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_46.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
},
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_47.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
},
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_48.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_49.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «The PKK Women»”,
“text”: “From series «The PKK Women»”
}

How did you start receiving your photo assignments?

I moved to the Middle East, to Syria after I received a grant. I just got my masters degree when I found out that the Deutsche Bank was offering an award for a photographer graduate from the University of Arts in London in the sum of 8,000 pounds. So I applied and I won it. And in my proposal I said if I get 8,000 pounds I would use the money to move to Syria and set my base as a freelance photographer in the Middle East. Before I relocated to Damascus it was virtually impossible for me to get a project assignment as editors didn’t know me or my work. Once I was in Syria getting work became much easier since it made more financial sense for various publications to hire me than to pay for another photographer’s trip.
I returned to London two and a half years later. Now I shoot for magazines not because of the convenience of my location but because my photos are in demand.

What was your first assignment?

It was an assignment for GEO Germany to shoot a story about zoos in Gaza. It was a really big deal for me since I was trying to get an assignment with them for five years in a row. At the time there were eight small zoos in Gaza managed by wealthy people in their backyards. I had a feeling that a story would be really well-suited for the 6 by 6 medium format film. I managed to convince my photography director to let me shoot on film if I paid for the film myself after the digital post-production fee. Glad I did because the story turned out really good.

I did another interesting assignment for GEO Germany in 2010 in Egypt before the revolution started. The pretext for the story was basically the following: if there was a revolution in Egypt who do you think would lead it? I went to make 15 portraits of several human rights lawyers, internet activists, youth activists. And a year later those exact people became the key figures in the revolution events of Egypt.


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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_20.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
},
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_21.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
},
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_22.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_23.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_24.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_25.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
},
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_26.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”,
“text”: “From series «Gaza Zoos»”
}

Please tell us about your project “Negative Zero”.

It is a project about the decline of population in 19 different countries of Europe. There are three factors that determine the population decline: decrease in birth rate, emigration, and low life expectancy. For example, Ukraine has the lowest male life expectancy in Europe. I’m looking into the birth and death ratio and I have already photographed in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh. When I started the project I thought it would take me six months to a year to complete, now I’m looking at three years, it might take even longer.
I first started thinking about it in 2011 when the world’s population reached 7 billion. There are several governmental programs in the world that aim at reducing birth rates: the one-child policy in China, the voluntarily sterilization in India. On the other hand, Nagorno-Karabakh has the best encouragement program, implemented in 2008, which offers cash payments to the couples for each child they bear to restore the population that suffered a great decrease after the war.

When I heard of a group of women in Kurdistan who were fighting at a battlefield I became really interested. We can’t even begin to imagine the Middle Eastern women on the frontline.

So the depopulation rate and the birth patterns became the areas of interest for me. As well as the role of individual choice of a woman in the above. After all, the falling birth rates is my story, too. I’m 33 and don’t have children yet. I have decided not to at the moment because I move frequently for my work. I’m a part of the statistic.
I was looking closely at birth rates and the way they evolved in Romania. I was looking at children being raised by their grandparents because their parents emigrated to Western Europe for work. I was also looking at women who had received the “Mother Heroine” award under Chauchesku’s rule, a medal of maternity. The birth rate dropped dramatically the year Chauchesku got killed because contraception and abortion became legal and now women could make their own choices. In Serbia, I looked at the depopulation rate in rural areas where factories had closed with the collapse of communism and people left the region because there were no jobs. Some schools only had two or three pupils when before there were hundreds of kids. Those were all different stories which were related to one theme.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_50.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series Negative Zero”,
“text”: “From series Negative Zero”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_51.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series Negative Zero”,
“text”: “From series Negative Zero”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_52.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series Negative Zero”,
“text”: “From series Negative Zero”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_13.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_14.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_15.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_16.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_17.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_18.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_19.jpg”,
“alt”: “From series National Womb”,
“text”: “From series National Womb”
}

Did you initially come to Ukraine to work on this project?

I came to Ukraine in the winter looking to research the death rates. I had plans to visit the Eastern regions to find out about the palliative care there (editor’s note: palliative care is a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to care for people with serious illnesses). I ended not going because I began photographing the Maidan events that became a part of my first book Black Square which, essentially, is also about death.

Your book received great feedback among professionals. Please tell us more about it.

My book was published by British publisher GOST Books, and only 750 copies are available.
It is a series of formal portraits made in a makeshift photo-studio that we set up by the barricades at Maidan in February of 2014. We set it up every day and photographed with the medium format color film using reflector lighting. The first series consisted mostly of male fighters. The second one almost entirely of women who arrived to mourn those killed over the course of the riot.

There were so many other brilliant photojournalists on Maidan. I’m not used to working in the presence of other photographers; therefore, it made me more aware of the fact that I was just a passerby with a camera so I started thinking about my small part in the collective recording of the Maidan history. I had to think what I could contribute to the collective documentation. I decided to photograph in such a way that, despite the fire and black smoke from the tires, you could see people’s faces, what they were wearing, their handmade body armor that they put together to protect themselves from the sniper shots, their improvised weapons. I used a black backdrop to match the mood of the location. When I left Kyiv on the 29th of February I thought I had photographed the end of the tremulous events in Ukraine. Little did I know, it was just the beginning.


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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_01.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
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“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_02.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_03.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_04.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_05.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_06.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_07.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_08.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_09.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_10.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_11.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/anastasia_12.jpg”,
“alt”: “From book Black Square”,
“text”: “From book Black Square”
}

Conflict is the subject of many of your projects. Do you consider your job dangerous?

I don’t photograph conflict itself. Usually it’s the post-conflict or pre-conflict events. Needless to say, the risk is always there. Numerous photographers and journalists die every year doing their job. Sometimes I think that if you end up being a documentary photographer, sooner or later someone you know would get killed. My 24 years old assistant had a friend who died during an assignment at a war zone.
The nature of war has changed. More and more often journalists are being targeted or murdered because they are just that, journalists. There is no such thing as being considered just a neutral observer any more if you’re a journalist. You are no longer immune to death.

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