When you ask a 19 year-old Ukrainian girl in the middle of the Crimean Crisis what message she would send to the world, you don’t expect her to say, “Don’t be afraid of your own voice because you can do anything.”
Vanessa Black had no idea what she’d encounter when she spontaneously bought a plane ticket to Kiev in 2014, but she knew some higher force was calling her to capture the stories of everyday Ukranian people that were not being told by the national news. What she couldn’t imagine was that her journey would bring her face-to-face with regular individuals, enduring the most incredible loss and uncertainty.
With BLKFLMS, Black hopes to be a catalyst for change, whether it’s bringing voices to the faceless protesters in the Crimea or raising awareness for climate change around the world. Black sat down with IVY Magazine to talk about her experience in Ukraine, her new short film Kid Warrior, and how she’s hoping to change to face of modern media.
IVY: What’s your goal with your photography and filmmaking?
I’ve always been interested in youth movements. In college, my favorite classes in history were always about kids who were taking their future into their own hands — whether it was the Berlin Wall falling or college kids protesting Vietnam or even the Civil Rights movement. I’ve always loved seeing kids standing up for what they believe in, so I look for projects that showcase them.
IVY: What brought you to Kiev when the Crimean Crisis broke out?
The day I bought the ticket was the day I heard that the president of Ukraine had fled. I called my mom and told her I was doing something crazy, and I was shocked how supportive she was. I’ll never forget what she told me: “I have this feeling that you have to be there right now.”
Then I bought the ticket.
IVY: Can you describe one of the greatest challenges you faced while you were there?
I had zero contacts in the news when I got there, so I didn’t know how to get the word out about my project. I think what ultimately made me different from other news outlets was that I was able to tell a story in an extremely personal way.
It became clear in a very visceral kind of way how deeply emotional the conflict was. Citizens watched as all these untrained boys were drafted to fight one of the most powerful armies in the world.
IVY: You talk about the need to make news more about the people and less about statistics. How you are accomplishing this?
We live in The Age of Disconnection where people are less and less in tune with one another. They’re less in touch with their own communities, and they’re less in touch with the people in the headlines. When I went to Ukraine, it was fascinating feeling so connected to the people I met. You learn that the anonymous protester in the headlines is actually a grandmother throwing stones at special forces or a college girl stitching wounds. When you meet these people, you realize what an extraordinary mosaic of stories isn’t conveyed in that word “protester.”
Now, we’re so bombarded with news, it’s hard to focus on any one thing or person. I believe we need that connection to inspire action for any crisis, whether it’s Climate Change, Ebola, or the Migration Crisis in Europe.
IVY: Who were the most memorable people you met when you were in Ukraine?
The girls my age were definitely the most memorable. It was just so interesting to see what humans are capable of when they’re threatened. The women were more about providing aid and support and cooking or cleaning wounds, but for boys, it was about suiting up. Seeing those stereotypes and how impactful they were first hand was so surreal. It was crazy for me to come home and turn on the lights.
I remember there was this one camp of guys from Kalush, which a city in Ukraine, who took me under their wing. Those guys were so supportive and funny.
There was one day I remember specifically when they called me again and again and again. Honestly, I thought they were pranking me. Then I got a call from my editor, and she said I needed to come right away. When I got there, the guys had me jump into a van, and we headed to these Russian banks. I watched as they proceeded to spray paint and protest people at the banks, as a way of publicly telling Ukrainians to take their money out of Russian banks because they were funding Russia in the war.
I was the only photographer there with them, so I was the only one capturing the moment. There’s a lot of trust there—it was my job to get there story out there.
IVY: Why do you feel particularly attracted to film and photography as a documentary medium?
I think media is a powerful tool for relating human experience across different backgrounds. It helps us to transcend boundaries and relate what it is to be human. It’s like poetry between people.
Film, in particular, helps to capture vulnerability. When you can see the other side of a situation, it makes you feel less alone and less vulnerable. When you’re exposed to someone else’s perspective, you somehow feel less insecure about your own. With video, I love stories about real people and everyday heroes.
IVY: What are some of your new projects?
I started BLKFLMS as way to use media to activate, inspire, and empower kids to look in their own communities and figure out how to make a difference. Over the last year, I have been doing a lot more work with companies and organizations around the idea of youth activism and Climate Change.
Recently, I did a short film called Kid Warrior, which has gotten a lot of positive media coverage. The film follows this inspiring teenage activist, who I met at the U.N. at Peace Day. He’s on front lines of climate change and talking about what he does and his perspective about what we’re facing as a global community.
It’s been amazing to see the impact. Before we did the project, his nonprofit had 50 satellite groups, and now there are over 300 all over the world in over 40 countries. With that ton of media, different experts are weighing in, and now we’re pushing out a whole slate of new media.
IVY: What does a modern-day superhero look like?
Not everything’s perfect, and not everyone’s perfect. Our goal should be to be passionate and be willing to put that passion towards something good.
All the media we see is so unrealistic. I’ve seen it make people feel bad and insecure. It can hurt the relationships we have with ourselves and the relationships we have with others. The idea of superhero who might save us all is awesome, but also I believe that we don’t necessarily need a “superhero.” We can be our own superhero if we find our own inner strength.