Friday, April 19

‘Everywhere I looked, it was like a Fellini movie’ … the youth of Odessa, photographed before the invasion | Photography

YElena Yemchuk was 11 years old in 1981, when her family emigrated to the US from Ukraine. “I understood enough to know I’d never see anyone there again,” she writes in the short, evocative afterword to her new photobook of her, Odessa. “My heart broke. That was the end of my childhood.”

Yemchuk’s parents grew up in the aftermath of the second world war and lived though the Soviet era, which they assumed would also define and constrict the lives of their children if they remained in Kyiv. Ten years after they left, though, the unimaginable happened and, in the dizzying aftermath of perestroika, Ukraine declared independence. On returning there in 2003, Yemchuk traveled to Odesa for the first time and experienced at first hand the wonderful “chaos of a new nation”. She recalls going to the beach and “everywhere I looked it was like a Fellini movie – beautiful kids having a birthday party, a crazy woman walking with a pink balloon, a girl dressed as a mermaid. I had brought three rolls of film and, after five minutes, I had to run back and get more.” At that moment, she says, “my photographic language was born.”

‘A wild place, so mysterious and beautiful’… from Odesa by Yelena Yemchuk.

The images in her book were shot on several return visits to the city between 2014 and 2019, in the wake of mass protests against the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the first Russian separatist attacks in Donbas near the eastern border with Russia. They are a vivid glimpse of the vibrant youth culture of Odessa, a city that Yemchuk describes as “unlike any other – a wild place, so free and open, mysterious and beautiful.” But they also capture the sense of being caught between an uncertain past and a fragile present.

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When we spoke, Odesa had thus far escaped the carnage visited on other Ukrainian cities, but was under sporadic missile attack from Russian warships in the Black Sea. Since the outbreak of war it has been transformed into a fortress, its streets almost deserted and eerily silent. A port of historic and strategic importance, Odessa is currently a city in limbo. Yemchuk grows tearful as she speaks of the fate that may await it. “The Ukrainian people are not going to give in,” she says. “They have tasted freedom and they are never going to go back to how it was before, but Putin cannot handle the fact that they want nothing to do with Russia.”

From Odessa, © Yelena Yemchuk
Photograph: © Yelena Yemchuk

In many ways, then, her photobook is an ode to a heady, youthful freedom that may yet prove to be short-lived, her camera catching the city’s vibrant character in intimate portraits, atmospheric interiors and snatched moments. Although her subjects have inevitably absorbed some aspects of western youth culture – tattoos, trainers, skateboards – they exude a bohemian otherness that is the very antithesis of hipsterism.

“There was a lack of self-consciousness and openness there that is immediately apparent,” she elaborates. “As a photographer, you are drawn to these kids for who they are, the way they freely express themselves. It was so soulful there that it made me think of how so many cities have become so similar in the last 30 years or so, but not Odessa – it just feels wonderfully out of time.”

Yemchuk’s interest in photography began when her father gave her a camera as a 14th birthday present. She went on to study at Parson School of Design in New York before becoming a video director and painter. In 2011 she published her first photobook of her, hydro park, which was shot in and around a recreational space on the Dnieper River in Kyiv, where she had spent summers as a child. The book established a personal style, a merging of the dreamlike and the realist, that was markedly different from her previous fashion photography of her. Odesa builds on and deepens that approach. “In terms of composition, I wanted my photographs to be cinematic,” she says, “so as to capture the colours, the light, the strangeness and the ethereal, dreamlike connection I had with the city and its people.”

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'Who knows what has happened to them' … one of the military cadets photographed by Yemchuk.
‘Who knows what has happened to them’ … one of the military cadets photographed by Yemchuk.

In 2015, Yemchuk realized that many young people in Odesa were joining the army in response to the annexation of Crimea the previous year, and soon after she was granted access to the youth training program in the Odesa Military Academy. “Back then, I still did not know what the project was going to be, but it soon grew into photos of the city, not just the military school.”

Some of the most poignant portraits in her book are of the youngest recruits: an angelic, smiling girl in an outsized uniform; young boys whose stern expressions cannot mask their callowness. “Many of them told me, ‘We have no choice, we just have to do what we can to defend our country,’” she says. Now, of course, those portraits possess an even more poignant undertow. “It is six or seven years later,” she continues, “so there is a 90% chance that they are fighting in the war. Who knows what has happened to them?

The book is punctuated by texts from the Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky, including one that attests to Odessa’s complex identity by citing its hybrid dialect, which is neither Russian, Ukrainian nor Yiddish but has elements of all three. Kaminsky describes it as “a city of immigrants built by immigrants for immigrants”, which may in part explain the particular character that Yemchuk was so drawn to, and inspired by. Her initial excitement about the project has now been replaced by a sense of uncertainty.

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Loss of innocence … a young girl in uniform.
Loss of innocence … a young girl in uniform. Photograph: © Yelena Yemchuk

“Photography is an agreement between me and the subject and, in one way, it’s the last thing I want for the book to come out now,” she explains. “But I also think it is important to put a human face on a place that is constantly being presented as war-torn. I hope my images show a city that is so far away and so different, but so recognizable, too. What I am trying to say is, ‘These are young people and this is their country and their lives. It is important to see that, to know what may be lost.’”

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