On the last weekend of February, just days after Russian armed forces entered Ukrainian territory, crowds of protestors gathered in cities around the world. From Berlin to Warsaw, New York to London, a sea of blue and yellow could be seen in central squares and outside parliaments. Thousands of people came together in London’s Trafalgar Square, where the mood was sombre and yet defiant.
New Zealand-born photographer Rebecca Zephyr Thomas, who has spent the last two decades documenting London’s subcultures (from club kids to political activists), attended the protest to speak out against Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade, and to show her support for the Ukrainian people.
“It was a real mix of emotions,” she reflects over the phone a few days later. “There was a woman carrying a sign with a cheeky but aggressively anti-Putin message, and she was openly sobbing. There were many children, too. The first person I photographed was a young child holding a sign saying, ‘Putin, don’t kill my grandparents’.”
“The first person I photographed was a young child holding a sign saying, ‘Putin, don’t kill my grandparents’”
Her images from the day capture the shifting mood, with portraits that uplift and celebrate her subjects. Alongside the strong Ukrainian presence at the London protest, there was notable representation from those whose own countries have experienced political upheaval or war in recent years, such as Hong Kong and Syria. “As a documentary photographer, it’s not about you,” Thomas says. “It’s about the people whose lives have been affected, and you have to be respectful of that.”
These ethics are paramount in her work, explaining that she will always ask before taking a portrait. This is evident in the resulting images: her subjects look directly to the lens, captured in a defiant gesture of resistance. Thomas takes us into the throng, finding individuals and their unique stories amidst the roar and power of the crowd. “It’s about honouring their experience. I see taking pictures of people as an act of service to them. I want them to look heroic. You’re connecting with them at that moment.”
“It’s about honouring their experience. I see taking pictures of people as an act of service to them”
As Thomas explains, it is all too easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of war and fast-changing, destructive world events. “I personally can start to feel really sad and lacking in faith in humanity, but if you go down that road you’re not really of use to anyone.” At any protest, each person will have their own personal reason for attending, and most important of all is to simply show up and show your support. “You’re doing something just by being there. It’s more important than ever right now.”
Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor
All images courtesy Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
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