Braving Ukraine’s notorious subzero temperatures last February, German photographer Robin Hinsch trudged through the blackened sludge and bloodstains left in Kiev’s riot-torn main square, the Maidan, to profile the faces behind the anti-government protests that culminated in the overthrow of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“I started going there on my own in 2010 after reading about the election of Yanukovych,” said Hinsch. ”I thought it would be interesting to be there during the beginning and end of an era,” he said.
But the old era never really ended, nor has a new one begun. What was left, according to Hinsch, was a political and ideological vacuum, uncertainty and chaos in a nation seen as a key geopolitical asset for Russia and the Western World.
This chaotic energy is clearly seen through the eye of Hinsch’s lenses in his newly released photo series “Black Snow.” Here, Hinsch takes us through the emotional forces that fueled the combustion of one of Europe’s most notable revolutions.
“I shouldn’t even say this but I used a simple plastic panorama camera and a Cannon 5D. And with these, I more or less developed this dark, not so clear light on things. It was all a very confusing, surreal feeling. Sometimes I would ask myself, ‘Oh man, is this real?’”
Hinsch’s reality before Kiev was a bit more predictable than this self-assigned task. Hinsch, who has followed more left-wing movements, said he found Kiev’s protesters to be extremely right-wing, even while they behaved similarly to the Internet-savvy Occupy Wall Street types. The rhetoric was not always the same. Some protesters were tattooed with swastikas and some were very open about their anti-Semitism, Hinsch said.
“Sometimes it was scary. … You would be sitting at a cafe next to a really nice man, talking to him over one hour, when he would all of a sudden say, ‘It wouldn’t be a problem if all the Jews in Ukraine were killed’ ... and afterwards he would offer me a coffee or a cigarette.”
But some protesters or members of the self-defense units were never straightforward about their political tendencies. Both pro-government and anti-government rioters used confusion and mayhem as a weapon. One photograph illustrates this uncertainty: a portrait of a man from the Maidan Self Defense force at the Hrushevskoho Street barricade.
Masked, and with one piercing blue eye uncovered, he stares defiantly at the camera. Covered in paramilitary paraphernalia, he is also carrying a Bible. One might ask, who is this protester?
“It was one of those waiting days, and I thought he was one of the members of the right sector but he said he wasn’t,” Hinsch said. “But there were others with swastikas. It was all part of a confusion strategy.”
A state of delirium during a state of siege. Every photographic moment in “Black Snow” has its own dreamlike aura. It’s not always a heavy moment. As we become oversaturated with the linear narrative of photojournalism during news coverage of such events, Hinsch decides to photograph a historical event through moments of pause and inaction. One photo, of a barricade near the parliament, took 26 days to shoot. In a photograph taken through a fish tank, self-defense units are shown taking a break. And finally, there is what Hinsch calls the “White Angel” of the series, a woman just passing by, having a cup of tea in the Maidan.
“Most women who were hanging out there were serving food and drinks, something that was very traditional there,” said Hinsch.
“With all the ‘aggressive stories, she was there, like the white angel. Not serving anyone else, she was just there.”
- Helena Cavendish de Moura for CNN