The brave woman who symbolises Ukraine: Mark Neville’s best photograph

This was taken in May last year in Myrnohrad, an industrial town 50 miles from Donetsk, a stronghold of the illegal Russian occupation in eastern Ukraine. Then, as now, fears of a Russian invasion were high. While much of the west thinks the threat of conflict started only a few weeks ago, it’s been the reality for Ukrainians for almost a decade.

I was walking around Myrnohrad taking photos with a big portable flash and a plate camera when I saw this woman sit down and light a cigarette. She looked so confident and self-absorbed. I speak a little Russian, so I told her I was taking pictures of ordinary life across Ukraine and asked if she would pose. She agreed without hesitation.

Normally, when you ask people to pose they do just that – pose – and become self-conscious. But for this woman, it was as if I wasn’t there. It was perfect: she was completely in her thoughts. I love the blue case in her lap, though I never found out what was in it. Maybe it’s a lease for an apartment. Maybe it’s divorce papers. Whatever it is, it felt like she was on a mission.

To me, she is a great symbol for Ukraine, a country that is now my home. I suspected that she had been through some tough journeys but remained resilient, brave and generous. It’s difficult to get shots this candid and the photograph was nearly used as the cover of my new book, Stop Tanks With Books. It’s a series of photographs from across the country intended to help westerners empathise with Ukrainians. Falsehoods propagated by the Kremlin have come to define how the rest of the world sees Ukraine. The idea that all Ukrainians are fascists is complete nonsense. Those myths only exist to help foment the inertia that has left the country abandoned in the face of Russian aggression for years.

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My own relationship with Ukraine began in 2015 when I was invited to visit by a military…

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