Waiting for Mother Russia: An Interview with Wil Sands

By Patrick Reilly

February 10th, 2016

On February 10th, Global Voices Interview Editor Patrick Reilly spoke with photographer Wil Sands before he presented his recent photo exhibition, “Waiting for Mother Russia,” at the University of Chicago’s International House. In addition to covering the recent war in Ukraine, Mr. Sands has reported on a variety of social justice issues, including the prison abolition movement in Spain, the recent racial unrest in Baltimore, and, as the recipient of a 2012 grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, corruption and poverty in Equatorial Guinea. This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.

Global Voices: You've come here for an exhibition of your photo series, “Waiting for Mother Russia,” about the conflict in Ukraine. What was the most challenging part of covering this story?

Wil Sands: The most challenging part of covering this story was probably the language, quite honestly. Given that I don't speak either Ukrainian or Russian, that makes it much more difficult to operate. Obviously with fixers and translators, you can change some of that, but just for general orientation, it's difficult to get around not speaking the language.

Global Voices: Before Ukraine, you covered Equatorial Guinea's political and economic challenges for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. In his new book Blood Oil, recent Global Voices guest Leif Wenar uses that country's president, Teodoro Obiang, to illustrate the disastrous effects of the West's oil imports. Do you think ending oil exports would improve the lives of the Equatorial Guineans you met?

Sands: No. Just an outright prohibition on exports, no. I think that the process that needs to happen in Equatorial Guinea is not exclusively linked to oil. Obviously, that bolsters the regime's power, but I also think that there is the potential to use those resources for other things. I think that the international community has to be much more outspoken in their critique of the Obiang regime than they've been up until now. That would actually probably be much more effective than just a prohibition on oil exports.

Global Voices: Your website says that you got involved in the prison abolition movement after moving to Barcelona. Was there something about Spain's justice system that inspired you to join this movement?

Sands: Actually, I was involved in prison abolition work before I moved to Spain. In Spain, it changed somewhat, given that I was much closer to the criminal justice system because of friends that were caught up in different political repression cases. So it made this a much more personal topic.

Global Voices: Do Catalonian independence supporters have a harder time in the Spanish criminal justice system?

Sands: For a long time before I was a journalist, I spent a lot of time in anti-authoritarian circles and radical political circles, so actually, most of my friends didn't have anything to do with the independence movement. It had more to do with anarchist politics and anti-anarchist political repression than the independence movement.

Global Voices: How would you compare the prison abolition movements in Spain to those here in the United States?

Sands: I think that here, it's far more advanced in terms of the development, the discourse, and the critique of the criminal justice system. I think that's in large part because of the fact that the United States is the largest incarcerator in the world and also because, as a result of that, within civil society there's been much more liberty in conversation about prison reform and prison abolition.

Global Voices: At this point in your career, you've covered Spain, Equatorial Guinea, Ukraine, the United States—?

Sands: I've done some work in Greece, France, and Sierra Leone. I think that's the sum of it.

Global Voices: So what's next for you? Do you see yourself specializing in a particular region or country anytime soon?

Sands: I'd like to keep working in Ukraine. And I'm now working on a project in West Baltimore about the murder of Freddie Gray and the protests and riots that erupted afterwards. That's a long-term project, and quite honestly right now, that's my focus. I’m between that and eventually, at some point, getting back to Ukraine. Eastern Europe is definitely a part of the world that I'd like to concentrate on in the future. And I'd also like to work more in the United States because I haven't been here in a long, long time. Visually, it's great to work in a place where you understand the context.

Global Voices: In the journalism you have done, which picture or scene do you remember the most?

Sands: Each story has its own special place for your artistic or journalistic development. I'm obviously right now most invested in the work that I'm doing in Baltimore, and it's the first time I actually feel like the work that I'm doing is potentially having its own impact on the broader discourse around racial inequity and police violence.