Born in Ukraine, in a small town on the border with Hungary, photographer Jules Slütsky describes her hometown as an “interesting place to grow up. At the time it was still part of the USSR, Russian was still the dominant language, it was really common for people to speak up to three languages. I grew up speaking Ukrainian, Hungarian (my father’s side) and Russian.” Now firmly based in Brooklyn, New York, Jules’ series So You Speak Russian? is an exploration of her past and how identity is shaped by immigration.
The series, which is documentarian in its nature, is also an incredibly personal search for self and home. Photographed over the course of five years, So You Speak Russian? features Jules’ family members, strangers and interiors. It’s this latter element which helps establish a narrative and such a strong sense of place within the work, the faded walls, and collections of objects denoting to a Ukraine still recovering from Soviet rule.
“This project was a long time coming,” Jules tells It’s Nice That, “I photographed varieties of this project when I was back in college but it was never right. It was after school I realised that in order to make this body of work I had to go home to Ukraine and shoot it there.” The process of creating the series, in which Jules took a physical journey back to her place of birth, also allowed her to emotionally process a difficult time in her life, using photography as a form of catharsis.
“I always felt displaced growing up as an immigrant in New York, my family was very poor, I was teased constantly, it was really challenging being a kid,” she recalls. “I think this project describes my process of searching for a sense of home and belonging. I had to go back to my roots, to rediscover my family’s history and in a way to relive certain parts of my childhood.” In doing so, Jules establishes not only a sense of herself, but an identity for Ukraine, a country so often associated with Eastern European stereotypes or confused with other countries altogether.
“The reason I chose the title was because it’s always the first question people ask me after hearing I’m from Ukraine. There’s still a lot of confusion and miseducation about the country and politically it’s always been a mess, now even more than ever,” Jules adds on this point. In turn, So You Speak Russian? is both a journey of discovery and deja vu in which Jules relives moments which have already happened in order to uncover unknown truths about her home country and herself.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.