He laughs when people ask about his name. “It is my real name. Why would it not be?” says the gray-haired Robert Burns. The namesake of a great Scottish bard who lived 200 years ago, theis modern-day Burns has been a photographer and a fine art printer for more than 55 years.
“That guy lived more than 200 years ago and I am only 100 years old,” jokes Burns, who is actually in his 70s.
He comes to Ukraine on a charity mission, as well as to shoot around.
“Every time I come here I learn more about Ukraine and I can say this is a great country,” Burns says. His fourth visit was in November.
“I am in a lovely part of my life when I do what I want to do,” he says quietly, wrapping up his tobacco into a cigarette. He says he has earned a good pension and it is a special joy for him to do things for free – which he feels is an oddity in this part of the world.
“The only thing you can’t understand here in Ukraine is that one can do something just for the love of doing it,” he says.
On his last trip, Burns traveled to the village of Malyn in Zhytomyr Oblast to photograph a children’s hospital with British fundraiser Jim Gillies. The man has been taking care of Ukraine’s hospitals for 15 years, raising nearly $30,000 for themin total. “I decided to go with him and document what he was doing. He is a man with a big heart,” Burns explains.
A United Kingdom citizen, Burns was shocked by what he saw in Ukraine’s hospitals, particularly by poverty and corruption. “You have to be dying in Ukraine before they give you medicine from the state,” he says.
He has a total of 300 rolls of film from Ukraine from the past four years, all waiting to be edited. Burns only went digital this year, and alongside a new digital camera, he still carries his trusted Leica – a small single lens reflex camera that uses a semi-automatic moving mirror that permits the photographer to see what will be captured on film.
Pavlo Pashchenko, a Ukrainian photo journalist of more than 30 years, says that Burns is not just a high-class professional, but a “philosophical” photographer. He shoots everywhere and all the time. He would “have to become blind” to take a break.
The only thing you can’t understand here in Ukraine is that one can do something just for the love of doing it.
– Robert Burns, photographer and a fine art printer
“He has a very childish and fresh outlook on Ukraine and that distinguishes him from everybody else,” says Pashchenko. Click on www.robertburnsphotography.co.uk to see for yourself.
Although Burns is yet to decide what he is going to do with his Ukrainian archive, he says one thing he has to do is to demonstrate the difference in lifestyle in Ukraine and in Britain. “I should show people from the UK the other life,” he says.
Burns has learned a lot about Ukraine, and likes to comment on its politics and economy. With every visit, he tries to increase his network of useful contacts, stays in touch with some charity organizations like the Lions Club and fellow artists.
But work was not the initial reason that brought him here. “If you ask how one gets here – there is always a beautiful woman,” he laughs. He’s not an exception. Once, having a holiday on Crete, he met a lovely Ukrainian family – and, “of course, the daughter was beautiful.”
He followed his new friends to Ukraine in 2007, and the woman became his friend. “Friends – that is the best way to be with women. It is at least safe. I’ve been married twice and that was trouble,” he says. But what captured his heart was the country. “I love Ukraine,” he says in broken Russian.
But he did not give up the love of his life, either: “My love is about observation, about looking at things. I love seeing. I just love looking at people. People are important.”
The more famous Robert Burns is Scotland’s national poet, who lived between 1759 and 1796. His contribution to literature is so important that his birthday on Jan. 25 is a cause for celebration universally, not just in his native land. The celebration often culminates in the ritual cutting of the ubiquitous haggis, a national Scottish food, to the sound of the Ode to a Haggis, one of Burns’ most famous poems. His other poem, Auld Lang Syne, accompanies New Year festivities. This year’s Kyiv Lions Club Burns Night celebration will be March 31.
Kyiv Post staff writer Daryna Shevchenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org