Maidan events like history sped up, says photographer Eugen Kukla

Eugen Kukla, photo: Ian Willoughby

Photographer Eugen Kukla made several visits to Ukraine during the Maidan protests in Kiev in late 2013 and early 2014, documenting events that shook the country and getting close to several key players. Here in Prague he is a kind of man about town whose black-and-white photos from all kinds of arts and social events (and his favourite pub) have won him a large and devoted following on Facebook.

Eugen Kukla, photo: Ian Willoughby
When we spoke, I first asked Kukla to describe his experiences in Ukraine.

“It was fascinating for me as a witness to see a historical and sociological process which normally takes place over a very long period of time… and to see it forming in front of you, right in front of you.

“I would say it’s like Joachim Barrande standing in front of the Barrande Rocks [Prague's Barrandov] and seeing how all these layers are deforming and going up and down and tilting.

“Normally you have to have a great deal of imagination as a geologist or historian or sociologist to imagine that movement.

“And suddenly you are there and you see all these layers going up and down and so on. I don’t think it happens often. It was a great, great event – suddenly in a very short period you see how the society is moving.

“Politically moving. Moving in a direction which some people call civic society or mature democratic society. From some protoplasm where all the elements were there but it hasn’t been ripe.

“Then suddenly it’s almost like in quantitative physics and you see that things are changing totally. That was a prime motivation for me to go there.

“Another reason was to meet people in the process, concrete people, which is also a very fascinating thing.”

I saw from your photos that you had access to quite important people there. How was that possible?

“[Laughs] There is always an element of chance, a great deal of chance, which helps in such things.

Maidan protests, Kiev, Ukraine, December 12, 2013, photo: Eugen Kukla
“I think one of the key elements was that during the hot times of the Maidan, right before the building that was the original headquarters of the Ukrainian trade unions was burned down, it had been the Maidan revolution headquarters…

“And in order to get in you had to have a makeshift press card which was issued on a daily basis. Of course. I was issued with several such press cards and I eventually had a good idea to have one of them laminated.

“With this card laminated it was so easy for me to get access anywhere I wanted. To the Poroshenko headquarters, to the Yatsenyuk headquarters.

“And probably the more press cards you got, the more acceptable you became for them. Eventually I never had a problem to get anywhere. But everything starts with this. Once I showed them my revolutionary press card, doors opened for me [laughs].”

Did being Czech help you? Did they have a positive attitude towards Czechs?

“Oh, yes. Yes. A very nice attitude to me, mostly. I know only two places in the world with an exceptionally positive approach to people with a Czech passport.

“Of course there are many other places where you feel absolutely fine, but these two countries are Ukraine and Israel. So I think a Czech passport in Ukraine works very well.

“And I’ve heard, I haven’t been there, it allegedly also works in the separatist regions [laughs]. Like in Israel you’re OK with a Czech passport also on the West Bank, for example.”

You are extremely active on Facebook and I see that you have something like 4,000 friends. You’re continually putting up photos on Facebook. Does that also inspire your photography – knowing that you have this quite large audience?

Václav Havel, photo: Eugen Kukla
“Definitely. It’s very important to me. I hope that my activities don’t look like some kind of megalomania. Perhaps it has some features of it – psychologists should know more about it than I do.

“But the good thing about this is that I have huge feedback. Whenever I go and I’m amidst something interesting going on and I send information about it, I get lets of feedback from, let’s say, my audience.

“You wouldn’t believe how much energy it gives to you. And the feedback is instant.”

In your photos I often see quite important people in relatively informal situations. Do you ever encounter any resistance from people saying “not now” or “please don’t post this one”?

“Probably my advantage is that I’m visible. I have lots of hair everywhere and I’m stout, or fat perhaps, and many people who see me once don’t forget me.

“I may look a bit familiar and I’m not a person of conflict, or at least I try not to be. They may judge, unknowingly judge, that I am safe for them. So usually I get anywhere I want to.

“Or sometimes what happens if there’s an event of a miscellaneous nature is that the obstacles are greater than at events of real importance [laughs]. Then I get there easier.”

Of all the people you’ve photographed, including important people, who has made the biggest impression on you? Or is there anybody who stands out as an interesting subject?

“I remember the Dalai Lama. His holiness. He was there just days before Václav Havel died. I happened to be very close to him and there’s really something about this person – there’s some kind of personal aura.”

It’s not just the smile? There’s more than the smile?

“Yes. There is something more than the smile.”

I saw on the internet a photo of you with John Hurt. Tell us the story of you and John Hurt, the great English actor.

John Hurt, photo: Eugen Kukla
“It’s connected with two friends of mine, regular beer drinkers at our favourite beer place. Kamil Tabačík and David Černý [not the sculptor]. Kamil once told us, you know who that guy is over there? He was in the pub, but sipping wine…”

This was in [Kukla’s regular pub] Konvikt?

“This was in Konvikt. And there was a modest, silent guy sitting there and Kamil said, do you know who that is? We said, we don’t have an idea. He said, it’s John Hurt, it’s the Elephant Man.

“We thought Kamil was joking, but he wasn’t. So the next day we invited him to the regular’s table.

“David Černý also runs his own website called Miluju Prahu, I Love Prague, which is quite popular, and he had the idea that when we have such a nice person… because he was a really nice person – as often happens, people of real importance tend to me modest and nice.

“David Černý said, let’s make a tour of Prague for him. We took one cameraman, we had our cameras and David was showing him the mysteries of the Prague solstice and Charles Bridge. We visited the Svatý Jiljí [Saint Giles] church. I was taking pictures and it was so, so nice.

“One of the highlights was we took him to Václav Havel’s Theatre on the Balustrade. Everything was going really spontaneously. He was fascinated by the atmosphere and the technicians allowed us to get into the main hall of the theatre.

“John Hurt then got on stage and instantly started to recite Jabberwocky. Imagine this. I think Václav Havel was really, really happy, somewhere in the heavens, watching what was going on there. It was such a series of precious moments.”