Photographer Discusses Experience Documenting the Ukrainian Conflict

Wil Sands hopes his photographs can illustrate the nuances of crisis.

By Isaac Easton

Last Wednesday at an I-House event titled “Waiting for Mother Russia,” photographer Wil Sands presented a series of photos he took of early days of the Ukrainian crisis. The presentation focused on the period he was there between January and October 2014.

At the beginning of the talk, Sands stated that he is most interested in images that present narratives. The talk centered on the pictures he had taken and the stories that go with them.

One such photograph was of a balaclava-clad man named Serge. When the picture was taken the conflict had reached a point where separatists, who wanted the Eastern part of the country to join with Russia, were fighting against Ukrainian nationalists, who wanted Ukraine to remain independent. Though born in Russia, Serge didn’t hesitate to join the Ukrainian nationalist faction when it started offering money to new recruits.

Through Serge’s story Sands hopes to demonstrate that ideological and ethnographic differences have not been the only fact driving the conflict; there have been other, less obvious forces at work.

By taking photos like this one, Sands hopes to provide the world with a more nuanced view of Ukraine’s conflict. As he sees it, coverage of the Ukraine conflict has been subject to the simplistic ideological trappings of both the Western and Eastern media. Western media outlets support the nationalist party, and the Eastern media—run by the Kremlin—supports the separatists. Neither one pursues the nuances of the conflict, like Serge’s decision to join the Nationalists, while both try to advance ideological agendas with roots in the Cold War.

“The return to Cold War rhetoric has been overwhelming. There is a tendency, at least in this conflict and other conflicts I’ve covered, to try and find the good guys and the bad guys. The reality is—at least in this conflict and other conflicts I’ve covered—is that that just doesn’t exist. There are no good guys and bad guys in war. There are moments where there are good guys and bad guys. And obviously there are forces that you can identify more easily with. But the black and white just doesn’t work in trying to understand what’s going on.”