Everyone wants to change the world. Vanessa Black is actually doing it. The NYC based filmmaker set off to Kiev, Ukraine to shoot the crisis, and she came home with much more than just photographs.
What prompted you to go be a part of the revolution in Ukraine?
Vanessa Black: I was working on a project in Egypt that was going to be geared towards young people as a way to better understand what had happened there, but I had been watching what had been going on in Kiev because I have dear friends that live there and I spent some time living there as well, and I knew that it was a city that I could go to and do this project in, so I adapted it to the Ukrainian Revolution. I bought a flight after reading about the sniper attacks and I was on a plane 4 days later.
I didn’t expect…
Vanessa Black: I don’t think I realized the scale of it. I mean you see pictures online and you see video clips but then when you’re actually in it it’s such a different experience because you’re in the thick of it. You see how grand and devastating the urban battle field really is. I spent time around grenades, guns and all kinds of homemade weapons. Most of my days were spent interviewing some pretty gnarly looking guys who were decompressing a war that took place in their own city. I don’t think I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.
So you didn’t know you were going to get so involved?
Vanessa Black: (Laughs) No I had no clue that I was going to get so involved. I think I knew going into it that I was going to tell a story but I don’t think I realized how in it I was going to be. The crisis in Crimea broke out a few days after I arrived. So what was going to be a revolution story turned into a war story.
America should respond by…
Vanessa Black: I think it’s hard to respond in the States because media doesn’t really convey what’s it feel like to be there so it’s hard to relate to. I want people to pay attention to what’s going on outside of their immediate world. This isn’t about some political conflict going on somewhere else in the world, it’s about our fellow mankind and what they’re struggling with right now and it’s important for all of us to be aware. We live in such a globalized society that they’re not just the Ukrainians on the other side of the world, they’re in our face, they’re part of us, and we should know about that.
Youth in Ukraine versus youth in America…
Vanessa Black: The youth in Ukraine have been faced with an extraordinary crisis so there’s a completely different mindset, they care a lot and they’re a lot more like our grandparents than we are. They believe in patriotism and nationalism. They have to fight for their freedom and that’s not something we can relate to because we’re so privileged to have this luxury of freedom. We don’t even really recognize it.
You talk a lot about the use of social media. How did social media play a role in your documenting?
Vanessa Black: I was trying to reach young kids, and all of my friends spend all day long on social media whether it’s Instagram or Twitter. I knew that I was already in my friend’s hands, so why not use it as a tool? No matter how many followers I have, they’re looking at what I’m posting, and I wanted to bring attention to what was going on over there. I was getting into everyone’s pockets essentially. I wanted to explain to my friends and convey in English what it’s like to be in that situation
And you created a hashtag?
Vanessa Black: Yeah, so I created a hashtag called #UkraineRising and started tagging all of my posts in English, Russia and Ukrainian so that people all over the world could access the information.
After what you’ve witnessed and experienced in Ukraine, do you look at social media differently? Do you use it differently?
Vanessa Black: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like if I’m going to use social media I want to use it for a purpose, I think it has a function and I don’t think we should waste it and just be spamming our friends with bullshit. I think it’s an opportunity to use and express your voice. This is an unbelievable moment in history where you can have access to millions of people with the click of a button. I think it’s a tool that’s under used and I think we’re just beginning to understand how we can use it for good.
Readjusting to being back in America
Vanessa Black: Well, the first day I was super aggressively pissed off at everyone (laughs). I wanted to just punch everyone in the face. We’re so blasé here, and so unimpassioned and it is so celebrated in our culture. It would be great if we were more passionate about anything. I think if people start caring more about their futures and their dreams, they might feel like they have a purpose. Maybe then we’d start caring about everything else. But yeah, it’s a shock being back, I kind of just want to hit everybody, just smack some sense into them. But you can’t blame people. It’s this backwards culture we keep being served in media and advertising.
As an American, my hopes for Ukraine are
Vanessa Black: I hope that the people of Ukraine are accurately represented in the elections that are coming up, and that their voices are heard and that the polls aren’t skewed, the 97% of the referendum votes in Crimea aren’t accurate. I hope that the things people are fighting for -fighting against corruption and for better lives - I hope they get those things because they lost a lot to get there.
One thing Americans should know about the crisis in Ukraine right now is
Vanessa Black: That it’s a really big deal and it’s a huge conflict between the United States and Russia. It’s going to devalue Russia as a global superpower and it’s making NATO relevant again. The crisis is restoring feelings that we had after World War II. We cannot forget what our grandparents went through to give us this security that we take for granted.
You’ve just slapped huge photos from Ukraine all over the NYC, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Vanessa Black: When I got back I was really disappointed to hear how many young people didn’t know what had happened or what was going on over there. I was planning on doing a gallery show, but then I thought, what the hell, go big or go home, so I decided to do an urban gallery for New Yorkers about a revolution that was created by everyday people doing extraordinary things. I wanted it to be a gallery for the people, not in some sterile, white-walled gallery, it should be for everyone to see. It’s important.
What does the saying on the posters mean?
The slogan says “Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava!” It means “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!” 103 people were killed, between 150 and 500 people are still missing and just under 1800 people are injured. That slogan was a greeting. You’d go to someone and they’d say “Slava Ukraini!” And you’d reply, “Heroyam Slava!” In the middle of the Independence Square people would say “Slava Ukraini!” to massive crowds, and the crowd would reply, “Heroyam slava!”. Sometimes there would be thousands and thousands of people chanting, and it would just be booming through the square. It was the most incredible sound.
Any last thoughts?
Vanessa Black: Power to the individual. We can do insane things, believe in yourself. All of those clichés are clichés because they’re true.