This year Bulent Kilic’s powerful, assured work — made most recently in the aftermath of the deadly coal mine collapse in Soma and earlier amid the political unrest in his native Turkey and the turmoil in Ukraine — brought him wide attention and established him as a force to watch on the news wires. TIME talked to Kilic about his pictures and his formative years — and discovered a bold young photographer whose compassion and integrity are as strong as his imagery.
Bulent Kilic was born 35 years ago in the Eastern Turkish province now known as Tunceli—an area dominated by Alawite Kurds and haunted by the memory of the Dersim Massacre, a mid-1930s Turkish military campaign against the region’s minority groups that claimed the lives of thousands and displaced many more. When Kilic was just five-years-old his father, a teacher, relocated the family to Istanbul. There, living in the city’s Uskudar district, “opposite a famous mosque, from where prayers rung out loudly,” Kilic says he was awakened to the fact that “he had entered an entirely different world.”
Kilic studied journalism and photography at the University of Ege during which time he became a correspondent and a journalist for the socialist newspaper Evrensel, taking, developing and printing his own pictures. By 2003 he had aspirations to work in mainstream media; but two years later, after meeting with a foreign photo agency and realizing “that my real dream was through this path,” he joined AFP as a stringer.
Kilic, like most photojournalists who work for news agencies, has covered his fair share of sport, fashion, conflict, and politics over the past decade, mostly in his native Turkey while major stories unfolded elsewhere. “We can’t excel in all of these [disciplines] but we can adapt to a few, ” Kilic says. “The benefit of shooting sports is that you become faster at processing what you see, your reflexes improve.”
Things changed dramatically for him in 2011, when AFP assigned him to northern Syria, to cover the civil war.
“When they started to shoot artillery into Idlib [in northwestern Syria] I quickly realized that I wasn’t ready for this experience,” Kilic says. “It was like a game of roulette, with artillery dropping left, right and center around us.”
During 2012 and 2013, Kilic visited Syria seven more times and, although he felt more prepared, he says the conditions remained extremely difficult. “There are no laws, the situation in those lands is like the movie Mad Max,” he says. “Civilians are forced to migrate from one spot to another while they are attacked by inhumane murderers.” Kilic found making photographs of those displaced in large cities and in the refugee camps distressing, while the kidnap and murder of a fellow photojournalist Olivier Voisin affected him deeply, but he kept working.
Kilic’s compassion for his subjects is evident. Earlier this year he covered the unrest in Kiev and says he felt a connection with the activists: “The solidarity in the communal squares, the 24 hours of tea and food preparations and the kindness and sincerity of the people really touched me.” He says he also felt their loss.
Beyond his powerful photographs from the barricades, Kilic also focused on quieter moments—heavily etched portraits of the protesters that reveal the emotional weight of their struggle. Of a picture he made of a protestor who threw a molotov cocktail, for example, he says that “it is important to see the portrait, because the facial expression is strong enough to give you the story.”
As many photographers moved to Crimea, Kilic chose instead to return to Turkey.
“The events in Turkey are complicated and I had to make time for my own country,” he says. “Sometimes a photo that you spend months trying to capture in a foreign country can be found a few miles away from your own home.” Kilic’s arrival in early March coincided with the death of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year-old teenager who died of injuries he sustained amid the 2013 demonstrations when he was hit by a police tear-gas canister while buying bread for his family. Kilic covered the funeral and the surrounding unrest. As the Turkish government closed down YouTube and Twitter and international condemnation over censorship within the country grew, Kilic documented election rallies — photographing with the same confident, sure eye that marked his work in Ukraine.
“The national and international agencies in Turkey have an important job to do,” he says. “Censorship is our country’s biggest problem.”
Kilic’s most recent work documents the horrific explosion and collapse of the Soma coal mine in the western Turkish province of Manisa, which killed more than 300 miners. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in Turkish history, with many saying it highlighted Turkey’s abysmal work-safety record. Emotions in the crowds who gathered at the scene of the explosion were high, Kilic says. “People were shouting and crying as miners, most of them already dead, were carried out by emergency staff,” he adds. “They were poor workers, neglected by the government.”
In the wake of the catastrophe, much of the public’s anger has been directed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose reaction to the disaster was widely seen as abrasive and insensitive.
“It is important how you take a picture,” Kilic notes. “It is also important what kind of a person you are and how you choose to live your life.”
Bulent Kilic is a photographer for AFP based in Istanbul.
Phil Bicker is a senior photo editor at TIME.