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Yelena Yemchuk
Courtesy of the artist

These pre-war photos show the freedoms Ukrainians are fighting for

Yelena Yemchuk’s portraits of her home country chronicle the ‘incredible’ and non-conformist youth culture flourishing before the war

Ten years before the fall of the Soviet Union, an 11-year-old Yelena Yemchuk and her parents lifted the Iron Curtain and fled Kyiv, Ukraine, for so-called enemy territory – “grey” Philadelphia in the United States. For security reasons, they couldn’t tell anyone they were leaving. “I remember getting off the plane and being like, what the fuck? Why did you bring me here?” Yemchuk, now in her early fifties, recalls over a Zoom call from New York City, where she lives. “Leaving the Soviet Union at that time, especially to go to the US, you were a traitor. You could never come back. I was old enough to understand that was it. I  was never going to see my grandma again.”

The experience of being an only child and resettling in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language was traumatic. Later, she described it as “the end of my childhood”. It would be another decade, in January 1992, until Yemchuk was able to see her beloved country and her grandma again after Ukraine declared independence in August 1991. The last bastions of the Soviet Union fell just months later in December. Although the country was in flux and “complete mayhem”, Yemchuk remembers, “The minute I could go back, I was on the first plane.”

Over the next two decades, between going to college, getting married, having children, and working as a fashion photographer for Dazed, AnOther, Vogue, and others, Yemchuk returned to Ukraine as much as she could, capturing the fragments of a life she left behind and using the camera to recalibrate her stolen Ukrainian youth.

In 2005, she began making her first book shot in Ukraine, Gidropark, a portrait of what she described to The New Yorker as “a Soviet version of Coney Island”, where she had spent childhood summers. A few years after its publication in 2011, Odesa was calling out to her. “I went to Odesa with a couple of friends, and I freaked out,” she recalls. “I was like, this place is insane! I was running around with my camera. I couldn’t stop taking pictures. I fell in love with it.”

Finally, in 2013, she returned to find “the heart of the project” that would become known simply as Odesa, a visual ode to the city, its people, and its places. A selection of the photographs is currently on show alongside the debut of her film Malanka – “part science fiction, part emotional mystery”, starring Anna Domoshyana and Ebon Moss-Bachrach – at New York City’s Ukrainian Museum until 15 April. 

‘I knew Odesa was a project I needed to do, and the urgency with which I needed to shoot it was real’ – Yelena Yemchuk

Since its independence, Ukraine had made great strides away from the shadow of its Soviet past. But that progress was plunged into uncertainty when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. “At that point, I had been going to Ukraine every year, and it was blossoming,” says Yemchuk. “The youth was incredible, (they had a) non-conformist way of being and a (sense of) freedom.”

Yemchuk’s Odesa project was placed on hold because of the volatility of the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation, but in 2015, she returned to Ukraine with the determination to “shoot everything”. “I knew right then and there that I was staying, and I was going to work because I needed to tell the story of the people in that city,” she says. “Young people, old people, interiors, exteriors, everything. That’s how it began. And I went back maybe nine times between 2015 and 2019. I had a full life there – an amazing life.”

Completely engrossed in the Ukrainians’ ways of living, thinking, and creating, Yemchuk was wholeheartedly embraced by her people and touched by their kindness. “I’m pretty much still in touch with every single person,” she says. “They were so incredibly open to me.” Odesa was mostly created mostly through chance encounters and curiosity. “We would look in the paper, and stuff would be going on all the time,” Yemchuk says. “Or we’d be shooting, and the next day one of the guys would want to introduce us to other people, or they’d be carrying one icon from one church to another, so we’d go there.” 

Looking at the photographs with the devastating knowledge of what Ukrainians would awake to on 23 February 2022, the sense of something lurking just beyond Yemchuk’s frames is hard to shake. Just a few years after Yemchuk took her last picture for Odesa, the freedom Ukrainians enjoyed – and that which Yemchuk generously documented – has disappeared. “I knew Odesa was a project I needed to do”, recalls Yemchuk, “and the urgency with which I needed to shoot it, the need, and desire to go back every three months was real now when I look at it, I think, fuck, there must have been an element (of concern that it would change), especially in the beginning.”

Yemchuk’s most recent film, Malanka, follows an otherworldly woman and a local man as they search for each other in Ukraine's Carpathian Mountains during the Pagan festival of Malanka (Ukrainian New Year’s Eve) in which it’s believed that good and bad spirits descend upon Earth every 13 January. The film is haunting, tapping into the folklore of the festival as time swells, recedes, and stops.

While it was shot and edited by the time the war began, with hindsight, Malanka feels like an omen of what was coming. “When I think about the war, of not being able to get out, coming in and not leaving”, says Yemchuk, “I look at (the film) differently – of being lost in this unsettling place and having to get out, of trying to get out.”

Alongside Malanka, the photographs from Odesa – fleeting moments of lives lived – take on new meaning through the lens of war. “This is a reminder to show what they’re fighting for,” she says. “It’s really important for people to see what life was (before the war) because we’re so bombarded now with images of war. My photographs aren’t sugar-coated. Ukraine is not a perfect place by any means, but it’s a place with its own identity and its own life, and they have a right to have the fucking life they want.”

For Yemchuk, these photographs from the recent past are a prophecy for Ukraine’s future. “We’re not ending on this war,” she asserts. “There’s going to be a rebuild, and it’s going to be better than ever. The Ukrainians are positive. I don’t know where they get that energy from, but it’s real. I’m very proud to be Ukrainian right now.”

Yelena Yemchuk at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City runs until 15 April 2023

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