Photographer Tommy Sussex didn't want to shoot civil unrest during his first trip to Ukraine in 2013. Still at uni, the Bristol native just wanted to see how people his age lived overseas.
Feeling a connection to the young Ukrainians he met, he returned last year to continue what was then a very loose series. Then timing and circumstance stepped in, and he found himself in the midst of a revolution. Adamant that he wasn't a journalist his subjects didn't hesitate to bring him into their lives, resulting in an intimate photo series.
The work from both trips form his latest book, Our Sincere Tolls, out through Melbourne's Bloom Publishing.
VICE picked his brains about documenting historical moments.
VICE: What sparked your fascination with Ukraine?
Tommy Sussex: I was in my second year of Uni, and me and a few mates were running a photo blog open to submissions while we were setting up gallery exhibitions in Bristol. We were getting work from Australia, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. It was well received and we made a bunch of friends online. We ended up taking an exhibition to Poland that then went onto Ukraine. It was here where I was hoping to put together images for my final project.
Was photographing the riots a pure coincidence?
The first time I went was in November 2013, which was before anything had kicked off, but people were out for the EU trade decision. So I caught the very first part of the student protests, but they were really chilled out, just a few hundred people marching peacefully. A lot of people I talked to expressed discontent with Ukraine's restrictions and its impact on their lifestyles.
That trade agreement definitely represented a brighter future for guys of a similar age to me over there. I left the weekend when the decision was made by Yanukovych, which has now turned into a civil war and it's crazy thinking that was only a year and a bit ago.
Returning in 2014, were you apprehensive about being in such an unstable environment?
I'm not going to lie, I was shitting myself. The footage coming in the days before I left showed things were really starting to escalate. A lot of barricades and fire.
How did you find the attitude towards photographers from locals?
I'd picked up a bit of pigeon Ukrainian and always made it clear I wasn't a journalist. People were forthcoming and proud about having their portrait taken. And as far as the protests, they wanted as much coverage as possible. They wanted the world to see them.
What are you hoping people will take away from the publication?
When I went out there, I was trying to just document without any kind of loaded meaning—the classic neutral stance of just letting the pictures speak. But I spent a lot of time with guys and we'd go out to drink and chat and it kind of informed the edit of what I shot. By the end of the trip, I was very pro what the protests had achieved, and I think my neutrality had shifted.
I guess you could say I shared in the positivity of overthrowing Yanukovych. It's very hard to not share that enthusiasm and sense of achievement, even as an outsider.
What do you think will happen next for Ukraine?
It's a complex situation, but it's something I think has reverberated throughout Europe. I have friends in Poland who say people are training, people are starting to militarise, and that they're covering their arses just in case the conflict moves west. I don't know what's going to happen, but it's definitely an important time for East and West.
Our Sincere Tolls is available through Bloom Publishing.
Interviewed by Ben Thomson. Follow him on Instagram: @benjamin_thomson