Ukraine protests, 2014: Giorgio Bianchi’s prizewinning photography

Maidan Nezalezhnosti – or Independence Square – is the central square of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. The scene of mass popular protest since the birth of the country’s independence movement in the late 1980s, in November 2013 it became the focal point of Euromaidan, a wave of demonstrations against the decision by the president, Viktor Yanukovych, to pull out of a deal aimed at closer integration with the EU. Amid increasingly violent crackdowns, the movement – and its demands – escalated. For most of the tens of thousands of protesters who took over the square and government buildings around it, the toppling of a brutal and corrupt government became the goal.

In bitter fighting in and around the square in February 2014, up to 110 people, including 18 police officers, lost their lives. On 21 February, the Maidan movement pledged full armed conflict if Yanukovych did not immediately resign; he and several senior government officials subsequently fled the country. But the broadly pro-European government that took their place has since faced mounting pro-Russian unrest, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and a bitter rebellion in eastern and southern Ukraine that continues today. Ukraine maintains that some 8,500 Russian regular troops are helping pro-Russian rebels, a claim Moscow denies. In all, more than 4,800 people have been killed since the rebels took control of parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions last April. Many more civilians have been displaced.

Italian photographer Giorgio Bianchi’s remarkable pictures, which this week won the Terry O’Neill photography award, were taken on Maidan Nezalezhnosti between 16 February and early March. “I was able to capture clashes that recall, in the manner both of attack and defence, a type of conflict reminiscent of the medieval dark ages,” he says. “Everything was wrapped in a persistent blanket of smoke rising from tyres being burned to prevent the advance of the Ukrainian president’s feared Berkut special forces. Both sides fought to gain, or regain, mere inches of ground … I witnessed the destruction of the barricades by the police, and their subsequent rebuilding, even higher and stronger than before, by demonstrators ... who swarmed and rallied like ants defending their nest. By the end of 20 February, the clash of sticks, iron bars and truncheons on shields gave way to the sharp, rhythmic reports of snipers’ rifles.”

Bianchi’s work, along with the other shortlisted entries, is at the Strand Gallery, London WC2, until 1 February.

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