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I grew up horsedrawn, so my parents lived in a boat, Wacken, like a boat up gypsy wagon with a canvas covering that was pulled by Alcohol Blue, and they were moving from the east coast of the UK to the southwest, mostly with the apple picking season.
That's photographer Anastasia Tigerland. She's probably best known for her assignments in conflict zones Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, Myanmar. To have someone raised in a horse drawn wagon end up as a photographer documenting wars. I'm Peter Glenn and you're listening to Overheard at National Geographic. And for more than a year, you've heard me introduce this as a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo. A lot of those conversations are about scientific expeditions or other interesting questions we're chasing after.
But some of the astonishing stories we hear are about our contributors and their personal journeys. So today, we've got something a little different. We're going to meet one of the people we send out to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. I recently sat down with Anastasia and she describes how as a college student, she traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan and embedded with a unit of female Peshmerga soldiers and how one photo she took on that trip altered the course of her life.
But before any of that, there was her unique childhood and the revelation about her family that forever changed the way she viewed storytelling.
I grew up horsedrawn, so my parents lived in a boat wagon like a boat up gypsy wagon with a canvas covering that was pulled by our cart horse blue, and they were moving from the east coast of the UK to the southwest, mostly with the apple picking season.
And I was born on the road in a small village. Krech laid in the hospital, not in the care of you know, if you ask my dad when he was still alive, that's probably how he would have told the story.
But no, I was my I was born in the hospital, but my parents took me back to the caravan.
So we were camped on Crickley Common, which is a patch of common land, which is where travelling people can legally stop and stay in travelling people is actually a term in Britain, right?
So does that mean there are several different communities that travel in the UK?
There's gypsies and there's Irish travellers and there's what was known as New Age travellers, so that people who were traditionally settled, people who would adapt to that way of life, they would typically be travelling in trucks sort of with motorized motor.
Exactly. But gypsies and Irish travellers. And then I was born in 1981. Even then, communities would be moving around the country. And there are different versions of the story and my family.
But the way my dad told it was that his grandfather was a gypsy and he grew up settled in the east end of London and went home. And my mum decided that they wanted to start a family.
They bought a job, lot of a horse, a cart, the harness for the horse from a gypsy camp in Hackney.
Neither of them knew how to drive a horse, but the guys that they bought it off showed them. And then they headed out from London on the road.
This is like the city of London. Yeah. City with with roads and, you know, modern London. They're driving out in a horse cart. Yeah. At that time in nineteen eighty eight they they started out.
Yeah. And this is like working class inner city London, OK. Which is where my dad grew up. So yeah. They, they didn't want to have that life anymore.
My dad didn't want to have that life and he had this sort of like romantic dream of what it would be like to live on the road, kind of like a wind in the willows toad of Toad Hall sets out in a gypsy caravan.
He doesn't really know what he's doing. I suppose it was a bit similar. Only my dad wasn't a posh aristocrat. He was a working class guy from the inner city.
And obviously your mum went along with this. But I mean, was she is enamored with this sort of Wind in the Willows dream. Gypsy dream is your dad.
My mum had been a dancer, which is how they met. She'd been dancing in London. So she doesn't come from this community at all. And as I said, like, we don't really know if we do have gypsy heritage in our family. My grandma, until she died, said we do not have any gypsies in our family. And my dad always said we did.
So I don't know. I guess it's about storytelling as well. You know, like I don't know what the real story is, but now it doesn't matter. It's part of my heritage.
OK, so what how old were you when you guys stopped travelling?
So we bought the field, I think, when I was three or four. But we'd still travel with the wagon in the summers and go to the horse fairs. And I started school when I was like proper school and I was nine. Until then, I was sort of home schooled, OK?
And then I lived in the field until I was thirteen. So you can imagine like getting electricity and running hot water for the first time and it's kind of amazing.
MTV Oh boy.
And they were cool with that. I mean, you'd had this life without all those things at this point.
And then suddenly, yeah, we moved, my parents got divorced and me and my mum and my brother moved. Actually, we my dad stayed living in the field in the caravan until about ten years before he died.
And two years ago when he died, we buried him in the field. We took him back to his body, back to the field on the back of a horse and cart. Yeah. And me and my brother dug the grave ourselves by hand with the tools that he had with spades and shovels and yeah, had the had a small funeral ceremony there with the horse and the car watching over.
Well, while. Your dad seems like such a large figure. I mean, I can tell, you know, we started the conversation, you immediately sort of like, what was he like?
What was his what was his personality like?
He he was a storyteller. He could tell really, really good stories. He he wasn't great at reading or writing, but he was a great oral storyteller. So I grew up on stories about traveling his travels all over the world. And that's really what inspired me to become a journalist.
So you have this really, you know, in many ways unique childhood. Yeah.
And your father obviously is a big influence as far as storytelling. How do you become how do you find your way into journalism?
Yeah, well, I really had no exposure to journalism as a kid because we had no TV. My parents didn't take newspapers, really. So it wasn't like I was consuming or being exposed to journalism in any way. Certainly not news journalism, but my granddad bought a subscription to National Geographic every Christmas as a Christmas present for the family. So we had. Not to you, delivered every month. Wow. And I don't have running water and electricity, but you have National Geographic.
Yeah, yeah. Please let the record show that we did not I didn't know that before.
And I didn't really think about the photographs too much. I was so absorbed by the people in the photographs and what people were doing. So I didn't really think consciously about this job as a photographer. Right. To be honest. Like mine and my brother's favorites were those pullouts with a diagram of dinosaurs and stuff like that. So we just put them out and stuck them on our bedroom wall in the caravan.
It was great, as did I. So as the kids across. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Those are great. But we read a lot of books and we read a lot of poetry as well at bedtime stories. My mom read bedtime stories and poetry as well at night. And so I decided when I was quite young that I wanted to be a war poet, you know, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, like these old British canons of war photography, sorry, war poetry.
I thought that would be.
A career that I would like. And then when I was 16 and in high school, there was a photography class which I took just I just thought, oh, that might be interesting.
And when I was studying photography, I came across a book of photographs by Don McCullin about the Vietnam War. Right.
Famous British war photographer.
Yeah. And those pictures looked really familiar to me. They were sort of black and white, grainy, contrasty, a lot of pictures of young Marines sort of tending to each other when they were wounded.
Very dramatic, perhaps romantic, too. And the pictures reminded me of these sort of the this the First World War poetry that I knew. And I didn't know that there was someone whose job it was to photograph those things. And I guess in some unconscious way, I must have also thought, well, that's going to be easier than writing poems about this.
So a little.
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When I was 16. Yeah. And how did your hippie parents feel about their daughters or.
My mom freaked out, but my dad was from the beginning, he was like, that would be a great career. You should absolutely do that. And he always, always supported me.
So when I was 22 and I told you I went to Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time, he was super proud. He convinced my grandma to lend me a thousand pounds in cash. I had 20 pound notes that I put in plastic bags under the soles of my boots. So I had 500 pounds in each boot. And I crossed the border from Turkey to do a reportage about the Peshmerga women soldiers who were fighting with the coalition forces. Then not knowing that it's customary.
I mean, I hadn't really been anywhere at that point. I never been to the Middle East not knowing that it's customary to take your shoes off and leave them outside the house. So I arrived in Dohuk and the first house and had to leave all the money I had in the world hidden in my boots for the foreign affairs. I guess you're not born knowing these things, right? I mean. So as you go along. Yeah.
How did that assignment come about? I mean, you say you haven't you had no experience. You know, you're sort of like, you know, you're self-financing, it sounds like. Yeah.
But I mean, so how do you even enter that world for the first time?
Well, I was still at university, so we had to make a photo project as our final final piece for our degree. Right. And so I'd heard about the Peshmerga soldiers and there had women's units. And I just thought, God, I want I want to meet them. And my dad had traveled through Kurdistan in the late 70s with no money.
And he always told these amazing stories and bedtime stories. I mean, half of them might have been true for me, may not then, but it didn't matter.
He always said, if you go to Kurdistan, you'll never be hungry, you'll never be lonely.
You'll never be in need of anywhere to stay. And while my mom and everyone else was really worried about me making this trip, my dad wasn't at all. He was like, I know you're going to be fine.
They're so well. I mean, and, you know, I didn't end up being that war photographer that I sort of intended to be when I was sixteen.
But I'm definitely not like a combat photographer. But lots of my work touches on war and post-conflict and the civilian experience of that. Well, let me ask you this.
So when you get there, when you when you're arriving, you meet them at the border and they take you into this world. Right. This world that you want to see, you know, with your camera. But you're like you're totally green here, right? I mean, you're still a student.
So how did you I mean, did you just start shooting everything you saw? How did you have a strategy for how you were going to tell a story?
Did you have a conception of of of how to tell a photo story?
I knew how to make pictures, but I didn't have a really great handle on how to tell a photo story. So I just knew and it's I was kind of right. You just go somewhere. You live with the people that you're photographing and you photograph everything that they do. And it could be really boring things like people brushing their teeth. But you can tell so much about someone's life just by the way they brush their teeth. If they run it under the tap, if they have a cup of water, if they brush their teeth outside or inside.
So I was stationed with a small unit of women, Peshmerga on an army base outside of Sulaymaniyah at checkpoint. And then I just slept there with them and photographed them manning the checkpoint and cooking dinner.
And overall, the photo story that I made was not very resolved.
I mean, it's the 10000 hours thing, right? I sort of knew that.
But because I didn't know what I was doing, I just photographed everything. And at the end of it, the photo story. Yeah, it didn't really hold together in the way it should. But I made one picture of a woman called Gosia, Jafar Gocher Jafar, who who was holding a Kalashnikov.
And while she manned this checkpoint in the middle of a road and I entered into a photography competition that was run by The Guardian. It was the first time I'd ever entered a photo competition and I won the whole bloody thing. So I got first prize. No one had ever heard of me. David Bailey, this really famous English portrait photographer, was one of the judges and he liked my poetry to the famous picture of Che Guevara by Alberto Quarter. And I got 5000 pounds, which was more money than I ever had in my life.
And I got a commission from the Guardian magazine to go back to Kurdistan and photograph the PKK women soldiers. So. I only needed to make one good pitch. Wow. And it started everything for me.
So when you when you arrived in, like you go back with your guardian money to to do to do more like did you know, having sort of thought about your photography from the from the the book that you saw, but not ever having been in a place like that.
What did you think of what was happening in Iraq at that time?
And did you you know, what was your first sort of experience with with actual fighting?
So I guess the world doesn't look like it does in photographs. Right. And war certainly doesn't really look like it does in photographs. And that's why I wanted to see that for myself. And it wasn't like a Wilfred Owen poem and it wasn't like a Don McCullin photograph. And for the most part, now I know that war doesn't really look very much like war. It looks pretty ordinary.
And people continue, for the most part, doing the things that they do everywhere else.
Um, the feeling of war photography or war reporting in general is that as soon as war arrives in a place, people don't become themselves anymore in war stories like I might be Anastasiya Daniel's sister and a Nat Geo photographer and Eleanor's daughter now. But if war shows up in Stonington, where I live, I will be a civilian or a combatant or a separatist or collateral damage.
The label that outsiders see. Yeah. See people in those places. Yeah. Lose your identities.
And how do we report on people who are affected by conflict in a way that doesn't bother them that much?
Because when people become so exorcised, I mean, I really think the purpose of telling war stories in that way or the the purpose that it serves is to make us believe that war could never happen to us. Like it's always something that happens somewhere else to other people and places that don't look like our homes.
And that's not true. It could just as easily happen to me living in London. So when did you have this this epiphany that like the war photography that you saw in books, was sort of different than what you were seeing when you were actually in a real war zone in 2011?
When I went to Libya for sure. And then a few years later, I covered the Euromaidan revolution that became very, very violent very quickly on one day when almost 60 people were shot by snipers in Maidan Square. And I just became really uncomfortable with my sort of Maidan Square when.
Sorry. So in 2014, the the Maidan Euromaidan revolution overthrew President Yanukovych. He eventually fled Ukraine, but there were months of protests that brought trade ties closer to Russia and away from Europe.
And there was a popular uprising in Ukraine.
And those slowly those protests became more violence. And they culminated in the worst day of violence when snipers killed a lot of people very, very quickly. And the following day, Yanukovych fled to Russia. A few days after that, Russia annexed Crimea. And then very soon after that, a war started in the east of the country. So that summer, with a production grant from National Geographic, I went east. I'd been working on a project about population decline in Europe.
And I had always intended to go to Donetsk, which is in the east of Ukraine.
And yeah, at that time, the front line was still shifting quite a lot. And. I just I was just really frightened, I guess so you'd already been to Libya. You've been to Iraq.
Yeah, but this situation was different, so I just couldn't justify the I couldn't justify to myself why it mattered that I made pictures like that.
Like of I photographed a man called Michali who was lying in a hospital bed. He'd been they'd been heavy shelling in his town and he'd tried to get to the basement that hadn't managed to close the door in time. And he'd lost a leg. He was lying in hospital. He'd had his leg amputated. The doctors showed us and I made his picture and asked what happened to him.
They were accused of refugees queuing for food in a monastery.
I photographed them women carrying bags, wearing headscarves, like all these tropes of photojournalism. And I just felt that the pictures I was making were doing more harm than good. I couldn't justify making those pictures.
Why? Because I felt that, though, that I mean that me but also all of us as photojournalists were.
Were fueling wars. I mean, I always I wanted to become a photographer because I saw photography as part of a solution to violence. I was 16 when I decided I wanted to be a photographer and I was naive.
I assumed that wars happened because nobody knew that what was happening. And if if you just took pictures and they did know, then why on earth would anyone let that happen?
Right. And of course, that's not true. And the media and photography is a cog in the war machine as well.
You mean like in voyeur sense? Yeah. And also used to justify all sorts of things used to justify military advances from one side or another.
I mean, I still haven't figured all this stuff out in my head, but at that moment I just had this visceral feeling that I couldn't make those pictures and I left and I left photojournalism entirely as well.
Actually, I applied for a fellowship, a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.
And I went and spent a year at the university not making any pictures at all, but looking at the way we tell war stories.
The way we tell war stories and fiction and nonfiction and. Yeah, trying to figure out a way to do that more responsibly and less sensation sensationally, and I don't of course, I don't have all the answers, but that yeah, that shape the way I photograph and I've been photographing in Ukraine for six years now.
So what are the pictures you take now? What are those like?
What's your approach now if you're not going to be taking sort of, you know, the gritty frontline kind of things, what do you turn your camera toward, I suppose, experiences of ordinary people, daily, daily life experiences of ordinary people, the way people keep living, even in conflict zones, looking a lot like the challenges to infrastructure. When a front line divides a community, it doesn't just mean that there's landmines and roadblocks.
It also means that the maternity department of a hospital may be separated from the main department of the hospital as it is in Dufka from Donetsk. So how civilians navigate that space once it's coughed up and the and the sort of the the innovative ways that people learn to live, despite all of those challenges, the way young people still remain living along the front lines and find different ways to raise their kids.
For example, I I've been all this time I've been working with a Ukrainian journalist called Alice, this observer who's from Donetsk. And so some of the reporting we've done is around the stories that parents tell their children about what shelling is.
And we found that some parents would tell their children that's that's just the sound of the neighbors moving their furniture around upstairs or others to keep them from being frightened.
Almost kind of like stories your dad would say in a really extended sense. Right.
Or this one, this is this is the sort of thing my dad would have said. It's just an a cloud exploding in the sky. And this this particular mother, when her child asked her, but why was the cloud exploding? She said, because it was a very angry cloud with a little bit of the time we have left.
I wanted to mention something you posted on Instagram. You had this post about, you know, had this you know, you have books that your father had, I guess, giving you. Yeah. And then seeded with all these little Post-it notes.
Yeah. Well, what was the what was that? I mean, where did what was this something.
He he just always did it and I never paid any attention. So he would especially with books about war photography because he really was proud of the fact that I wanted to be a war photographer.
Really. Yeah. So he would buy me autobiographies and books of war photography and he would write a note in them.
Like to Anastasiya at Christmas or whatever. I don't know what note you have that I posted. Yeah, I've got it here. I was going to. Yeah, I wanted you to, actually. You would. You read this.
So this is a picture of of the of a book that opened to a page and there's a yellow sticky note right in the middle. And then I guess it's his handwriting with a with a message. Would you read that?
Yeah. So it's a book called Get the Picture by John Jean-Maurice, who was a famous photo editor.
And my dad's underlined a sentence on page 213 in which John Jean-Maurice says, I got an unexpected break. So Dad's underlined that in red pen and he's put a Post-it note underneath. It says, it's the rule. Everybody in the early days of their career gets a lucky break or to always have the courage to take them and have faith in yourself and your ability to succeed. These breaks have your name on them. You have attracted them to you trust.
Yes, so how do you how do you know he was a good dad to her? Yeah, he was a good dad in some ways and he was a bad dad in some ways. And of course, you don't get to choose your parents. Right.
But if I had got to choose him, I would have done because of everything I learned from him being my dad, you know, all the good things and the bad things, too. I mean, it makes us who we are.
All right. Well, thank you for showing me that. Yeah. Anastasia, thank you for being here. My pleasure.
To see more of Anastasia's work, including the photo that changed her life, as well as photos from an assignment that we did together writing Arabian horses in Yemen, check out the links in our schnooks, the right there in your podcast at. This episode of National Geographic over her is produced by Davar Ardalan with help from Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter, our editors Robert McCleskey and Ibby Caputo.
Our fact checker is Michelle Harris Huntingdale.
She composed our theme music and engineers our episodes. This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnston is the director of Visuals and Immersive Experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic editorial director. And I'm your host, Peter Quinn. Thanks for listening and see you all next week. Geico and National Geographic are working together to make your life a lot easier. Get a quote with Geico mentioned your Nat Geo affiliation and you could get a special discount on Geico is already low rates, does it?
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