Sunday, 14 October 2018

In Conversation With Anastasia Taylor-Lind

“Should I squirt before I wipe?” It’s a fair question. I’m in a white panel van racing across northern France to the Photoreporter festival in St Brieuc, northwest France. The journey was estimated at seven to eight hours; the journey would eventually take fifteen and a half. The driver hasn’t used the Garmin sat nav before, or any kind of sat nav before. The driver hasn’t driven for a while, or owned a car for five years. The driver is VII agency photographer, Anastasia Taylor Lind (ATL).

We meet at 6.45am as the mist lifts over Brixton where fishmongers slap their cod stock over ice on Atlantic Road and overhead trains thrust tired commuters towards their shirt-and-tie-required jobs. The van (yet to be named but ATL is sure it’s a women) was purchased for £5,000, with extra costs such as insurance taking the total to nearer £7,000. It will transport her the 8,000 or so miles she expects to drive across eastern Europe for the first part of her new project, Negative Zero, about fertility rates and population decline in Europe. Before she heads east, we continue west; fifteen and a half hours west.

ATL talks about photography a lot but knows it’s now time for her to take some more photographs, she needs to take them. Her last significant project, Siberian Super Models, was a few years ago; a self-initiated reportage (part funded by the Telegraph and GEO magazine) still ended up costing ATL around €8,000 as she was obliged to travel first class along with the international model scouts scouring the route of the Trans Siberian railway for the next face worth 35728000 Rubles. Siberian Super Models was published worldwide and received critical success achieving first prize in the Feature Picture Story Freelance/Agency category at the Pictures of the Year International awards and a finalist in Arts and Culture category at the Sony WPO awards. The reportage adheres to ATL’s interest in documenting the lives of women who live isolated from male society; an interest that has seen ATL document Women of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) Guerrillas and Women of the Cossack Resurgence, a reportage where she got to frequently indulge in her love of horse riding. 

©Anastasia Taylor-Lind

I first witnessed ATL giving a presentation about the Cossack women for the Royal Photographic Society in 2010 and immediately assumed this horse-appreciating, double-barrelled delight was posh; it was a chippy assumption I often make about someone who is a success. ATL isn’t posh, in fact she only had one name for the first 18 years of her life, her unconventional family of travelling stock eschewed convention and gave their newborn girl just one name, a surname, Anastasia; she can be forgiven for making up time by now having three names.

En route to the Eurotunnel crossing at Folkestone, we pull in for some stomach fuel. Jade, who has four stars on her badge, is our designated McServer. The bacon is missing from my muffin and a coke is served instead of a coffee; that’s four-star service for you. We grumble past Jade, head back towards the van and observe a Romanian family boiling pans of water on the roof of their current hatchback home. It looks quite luxurious in comparison to ATL’s own upbringing, which was delivered without electricity, running water and mostly spent with her parents clip-clopping by horse and cart across southwest England looking for odd-job opportunities.

Driving onto the brightly painted train that will take us under the Channel, we’re reminded too late not to leave our pets at home alone. ATL manoeuvres the van into position and we jump out of the front and into the back, resisting the temptation to close the curtains and rock the van from side to side to provoke the stoic middle-aged, middle-class couple sat in the vehicle behind peering at maps over half-moon spectacles.

The back of the 2006 Peugeot van has one coat hanger and an electric blanket-smothered bed; there are enough baby wipes and photographic film to service ATL until Christmas. There’s Heinz tomato ketchup and Heinz baked beans; Earl Grey tea and dry cartons of noodles; a fluffy rug and six books including Painted Bird (Kosinki, Jerzy); HHHH (Laurent Binet); one on fertility decline and, I’m delighted to report, a copy of the collected Dench Diaries (Peter Dench). As we ejaculate from the tunnel to the tunes of Johnny Cash, ATL fidgets her Lee jeans into a comfy position, raises her neat, dark, slightly wonky eyebrows, fixes her Swedish-inspired blue eyes on the road and her Negative Zero European adventure begins, sort of; the sat nav initially blinks the location of Croydon Ikea before adjusting to a foreign field.

Munching a sour Starburst sweet, ATL explains her experience of hostile environment training and ways to extract yourself from the van if we plummet from the bridge we are driving across; I diligently write this down and am now afraid of bridges. Joining us in the van on our Commonwealth Expeditionary Force across France is VII agency snapper, Donald Weber. His exhibition War Sand, about the D-Day landing beaches, is being exhibited at the Photoreporter festival; between his frequent naps, we’re entertained by Don’s D-Day trivia. Arriving at the Photoreporter festival, ATL parks the van and points the bonnet eastwards in preparation of her odyssey. “Should I squirt before I wipe?” The vans windscreen jet wash is so feeble it doesn’t matter but I suggest, that yes, she should.

Back in the cosy confines of my London flat, I watch ATL plot her Negative Zero route online and follow with enthusiasm the posts of her editing contact sheets in London and Bangkok. Square-format film photography defines ATL’s practice, from depressing the shutter to editing the contact sheets with a coffee in the kitchen. It’s an approach she refused to deviate from when money was tight and when National Geographic magazine expressed an interest in her work but not in the square format for their preferred, double page spreads. Eventually, Nat Geo came around to the square and commissioned ATL to shoot a two month long, 200 rolls of film feature along the Yangtze river in China. 

On 21 November 2013: the cabinet of the then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandons an agreement on closer trade ties with the European Union, instead seeking closer co-operation with Russia. Small protests escalate dramatically into 2014. Ukraine has the lowest life expectancy for men in Europe and is a crucial destination for ATL and her Negative Zero project. She arrives in Kiev, a city in chaos, and struggles to find a way to photograph among so many other photographers. She eventually decides on a unique approach: to assemble a pop-up street portrait studio with a black backdrop to photograph the photographers covering the conflict, then the rebel fighters, who the photographers increasingly come to resemble through their dress. After witnessing the bloodiest day of violence on the 20 February 2014, ATL begins to photograph the female mourners who arrive in their thousands, portraits that are more affecting than any from the frontline. Zhanna and Oksana carry red roses; Olia, Galina and Lolita red carnations; Katerina holds white tulips; Hanna cradles red tulips and Valentina holds a box of bread. The women’s eyes are defiantly moist, picked out by a golden reflector bouncing light into the darkness, the tears are matched by ATL’s own.

ATL is constantly in transit and travels so she can do what she enjoys most about travel, coming home. Arriving home from Ukraine, she was offered the opportunity to publish her portraits made in Kiev as a book; five months later, Maidan - Portraits From The Black Square is published by GOST. I’m first in the queue at the Frontline Club in west London to purchase a signed copy. ATL’s sun-streaked hair is tied up loosely in a bun. I request the thicker of her signature pens, a signature that is surprisingly neat for someone home schooled until nine years old. If ATL hadn’t found a book by Don McCullin while studying for her A Levels, I may not have this book in my hands. Over wine, we remember our trip across northern France and I ask about the van. ATL has had to sell it to fund the Maidan book project. Fixers, translators, film, food, accommodation have all taken their toll and driven her bank account down to a derisory negative zero.

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