Natalia Antonova writes:
Brent Stirton’s portrait of Maria, a sex worker and drug addict living in the town of Krivy Rih in Ukraine, has been making the rounds lately. Earlier this year, Stirton won a world press photo award for the shot, which is part of a larger series on life with HIV in Ukraine. At the time the photo was taken, Maria said that she was not infected. How she is doing today is anyone’s guess.
Ukrainian friends of mine routinely tense up whenever the picture is mentioned. “Great, another hooker story coming out of Ukraine,” Olesya, a painter, told me over the weekend when the photograph was featured prominently on the Daily Mail website. “Once again, I have to remind my English friends – no we’re not all drug-addicted hookers. But thanks for asking!”
It’s the dramatic, powerful shots that win world press photo awards, of course. A picture of a middling happy Ukrainian family would probably not do the trick. Still, Ukraine is routinely associated with the sex industry, various horrors related to the drugs trade and the criminal underworld enough as it is. I understand people who are getting “Ukraine horror fatigue”, especially since most foreigners who travel there for a holiday find it to be a comparatively laid-back country, or so I hear.
But oddly enough, the more I look at Maria, the more I like her. At first, I thought there was something Nietzschean about the photograph. When you gaze long into Maria’s eyes, Maria’s eyes seem also to gaze into you. They deliver a warning – on the dangers of drug addiction and Ukraine’s largely unglamorous and dangerous sex industry – and her gaze is clear, calm and knowing. These are the eyes of a woman who has hit rock bottom and may not come back up but the gaze suggests she is not, at this moment, afraid … Godspeed, Maria.
Photograph: Brent Stirton/Getty