Yelena Yemchuk’s photo series Odesa documents a Ukrainian city undergoing momentous change
With the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces in March of this year, Yelena Yemchuk’s series has a new-found urgency and relevance for its poignant depiction of the strength, character and beauty of one of Ukraine’s most culturally-rich and unique places. Now, the series has compiled in an eponymously titled book.
It was at some point in the early 2000s that photographer Yelena Yemchuk first travelled to the Ukrainian city of Odesa. Throughout her childhood, the place had been shrouded in a beguiling mysticism, known for its thriving sub-culture and unique edge. This is a sense of wonderment that still exists for the photographer, palpable in her voice as we begin our conversation and she reminisces on her earliest perceptions of the place. “I’ve always been fascinated by it. When I was a little kid it was like ‘oh my god you’re from Odesa’, which meant they were either gangsters or artists – just proper characters. It had this amazing reputation, even throughout the Soviet Union days.” At the start of the century, many of the youth populations of post-Soviet nations were craving escape, immigrating to and idealising places like America and the UK. But in Odesa, Yelena explains, people had no intention of leaving. “No one wanted to go anywhere. Everyone was excited to be there, and was turning back to their own culture and heritage” she recalls, “I felt like Ukraine was finally standing on its own, forging its own identity.”
Born in Ukraine, Yelena spent most of her early childhood in the country before she and her family emigrated to Philadelphia when she was aged eleven. At a time when the Soviet Union was still unified, with strict policies on leaving to Western nations, such a move meant the possibility of never being able to see your loved ones or home nation again – a particularly “tough” fact to grapple with as a child Yelena recalls. Throughout her teenage years and into her twenties, Yelena describes feeling deeply drawn and intangibly connected to her place of birth: “I never really let go of my roots, which a lot of immigrant kids do,” says the photographer, “I fell into the category of the ones that are kind of uprooted forever.”
Once out of school in the mid-90s – after studying fine art and graphic design before finally landing on photography – Yelena started travelling back to Ukraine. Here she predominantly photographed her grandma and slowly came to the realisation that her work (even the projects outside of Ukraine) had always been heavily inspired by her childhood and heritage. “People would say ‘your work looks so Eastern European’, and I didn’t really understand what they were saying until I really started going there and photographing it,” she says. “My work has always been a little surreal and whimsical – very much of the place.”
After her first trip to Odesa, Yelena instantly knew that she wanted to develop a long-term series focussing on the city. However, in the preceding years a number of things prevented her return, like the “full on heartbreak” of her grandmother passing, which kept her in Kyiv, and later starting a family in America. It was only in 2013, alongside a close friend, that Yelena made it back to Odesa. Photographing solidly for ten days, she was endlessly inspired and began the early drafting of a project: “I knew I wanted to shoot in colour and I knew I was interested in youth culture, because everything at that point was changing so drastically, in the most amazing way,” she says.
Scheduled for 2014, the project was then thrown into disarray by Russia’s invasion of Donetsk and annexation of Crimea. An act that sent shockwaves through Ukraine and its diasporic community. “How could someone just take a piece of a country, and everyone else in the world be okay with it” says Yelena. The events set a worryingly recognisable precedent: “I sensed a very nervous energy”, she recalls, “I heard from a lot of my friends based in Odesa and other journalist friends that there were all these kids joining the armed forces and the navy.” It was this fact that compelled Yelena to revisit the city that summer with her young family – a move many, including her mother, tried to dissuade her from doing. Contacting a fellow journalist in the city, she gained access to the military academy, and the project initially began with capturing the young soldiers and the navy cadets. But it soon turned, Yelena expands, “into a depiction of the city and all the people who lived there at the time”.
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Yelena Yemchuk: Odesa (Copyright © Yelena Yemchuk, 2022)
By 2018 the threat of war had somewhat faded into the background in Odesa, and its people, as Yelena remembers, started going back to some semblance of day-to-day life in the vibrant city. This is perhaps where the most interesting and stark contradiction of the book arises; the underlying layer of simmering tension that arises between the unsettling photos of young teenagers dressed in military gear, and those of uncaring hedonism, young love and peaceful childhood exploration. In response to some who have said the book has something of a romanticised edge to it, Yelena explains that “yes, the book has a lot of joy, and freedom in it, [but] when I look at those photos now, I just see it as very honest. Yes there is a love, and an affinity for Ukrainians, but it’s because I’m in awe of the strength and power of the people.”
At this point it feels impossible to continue our conversation without addressing current events in Ukraine, an unquestionably distressing topic for the photographer. “It was a strange thing, because the book was meant to come out pre-pandemic,” she says, “and then all this stuff happened with the publisher retiring and Covid.” When Yelena then later began working with Gost, her current publisher, there were no concrete signs of war, and the book was ready and edited by November 2021. And so, when the war broke out, many concerns were raised for the photographer, and she grappled with the question of publishing it. So she decided to turn to the people she knew still in the city and “they all sort of unanimously said ‘You have to put this out now. People have to know who we are, not the war, they need to see what we are and who we are fighting for’.” Seeing it, in hindsight, as a way for her to help in one of the only ways she could, Yelena understands how vital it was that she published the book: “I almost feel like it’s more important now than it was three years ago.”
Understandably, the recent invasion has given Yelena a new perspective on the book, and certain images in particular: “the intimate ones, the ones with the friends that I made, people that have become very close to me.” Two such photos feature her friend and “number one muse” Anya. One is a close-up portrait of her face, that, due to the intensity of its composition and the indecipherable expression on her face, gives a lasting, somewhat eerie impression. The other shows her from behind in a fur coat, surrounded by a frantic flock of seagulls. Being in regular contact with Anya, Yelena discovers that she has decided to stay in Ukraine, travelling to the western part of the country to volunteer. “She has been unbelievably brave, but she also has a heart of gold,” Yelena says with clear emotion in her voice, “when I look at her face… I just think she’s incredible.”
Odesa is a series that not only illuminates the authenticity of a place that has been so marred and singularly defined by conflict, but also the people who live there, their individual spirit and their stories. “The relationships I made there with the people have just become so deep,” Yelena concludes, “I feel very honoured to know them.”
Yelena Yemchuk: Odesa (Copyright © Yelena Yemchuk, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.