Blending fiction and reality, Julie Poly’s new series presents the colourful characters of the Ukrainian railway

Inspired by her job working as a conductor, the Kiev-based photographer rode the Eastern and Western trains for a total of three years for the project.

20 April 2020
Reading Time
4 minute read

Between 2017-19, the Kiev-based photographer Julie Poly rode the railway trains of Eastern and Western Ukraine. Moving between Kharkiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Truskavets and the region of Kiev, Julie documented the passengers onboard to compile her new series and book, titled Ukrzaliznytsia (available to pre-order on 23 April). But this isn’t your usual type of documentary project, instead, she’s fused an organic mix of candid shots with staged, lavishly decorated and colourfully styled arrangements.

Describing herself as a “small town girl”, Julie was born in Stakhanov, Lugansk. At the age of 10, she began attending a film photography club and soon enough photography was her full-time hobby. “When I was growing up, I dreamt about art school,” she tells It’s Nice That, “but as with typical Ukrainian family views on life, my parents were not very happy about it – so they said that I should go to Railway Academy.” This was to ensure that Julie would always have employment security and the budding photographer packed up to Kharkiv – here, she was studying at the academy and worked as a photographer, all the while working as a conductor on the trains during the summer. “Of course, working at the railway is not really my story, so I continued with my hobby and took photos everyday.”

It was during the end of her education at the railway academy that Julie more or less became a full-time photographer. She was, however, working regularly alongside her studies and by the end of her education was able to land a studio. Shooting often, Julie received commissions for fashion magazines such as Vogue, L’Officiel, Harper’s Bazaar, Dazed and i-D which came after she'd moved to Kiev. Describing her work as a combination of both documentary and staged photography, her resulting images portray a bright, colourful, ironic and somewhat grotesque depiction of everyday life in Ukraine. “I care about the concept, and I carefully think through the idea and the narrative,” she explains on her aesthetic.

GalleryJulie Poly: Ukrzaliznytsia

Photography is something that Julie put all her efforts into, exemplified by the fact that, during her time in Kharkiv at photography school, she was asked out on dates but would politely decline due to the fact that she didn’t want to miss anything in her photo club. At this club, the attendees ranged from children to seniors, and they’d meet each weekend to discuss photographs, share their criticisms and gain inspiration. Alongside this influential part of her life, Julie cites Nan Goldin, Martin Parr along with plenty others as her main points of reference – plus photo critic and philosopher Susan Sontag and her works On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. “I love her approach to photo analysis and her way of thinking; I feel like she influenced me a lot,” adds Julie.

As for this most recent series, it spawned from the photographer’s own observations and experiences of daily life. First and foremost, it’s influenced by the summer she’d spent working as a conductor while in her first year at the railway academy. “The project depicts certain types of Ukrainian passengers, as well as the stereotypes about them,” she says, pointing to surrealist influences that aims to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction. “This way, everyone who sees the photos or a book can become a sort-of insider on the train trip.”

Within the book, we can expect to find a charming mix of still lives that feature “cozy” train interiors and various traditional Ukrainian patterns and fabrics. Elsewhere, Julie’s photographed “random passengers” in the stations and on the trains, but mostly, the pictures are staged. “The characters are based on real people, however they are shown in my signature style,” she adds. Each shot has been carefully selected and beholds an important story, accompanied by poems that are based on true stories heard on the trains.

Julie selects one photo in particular to highlight, one of a wedding on the train. “I decided to finish the book with the wedding for two reasons. One, is because of its ironic stereotype that all Ukrainian girls want to many foreign guys (you can see the bride with a groom from Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar) – that’s why in the train there is an international wedding.” She finally goes on to explain how the book was put together with an internal team, working with London-based Ben Ditto of Ditto Press and a text written by an editor from the US: “I feel like this way I’ve built a bridge that unites different countries and nations,” concludes Julie.

GalleryJulie Poly: Ukrzaliznytsia

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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