Photographing Odesa, a Ukrainian city unlike any other
For four years, Yelena Yemchuk captured the city and its unique charm and beauty.
From Odesa © Yelena Yemchuk
"It's been a strange journey," says photographer Yelena Yemchuk, relaying the backstory of her tender new monograph, Odesa. Informed by childhood intrigue, in 2015, she began a three-year project photographing teenagers entering the Odesa Military Academy. Returning a year later to direct something unrelated, she realised she wasn't done and shot further portraits of the 16 and 17-year-olds she met, with a plan to release a mammoth-sized book that year. Initial delays followed by the pandemic and her then publisher's retirement meant the new, revised GOST book was only ready at the start of 2022. A month before it was due to be printed, Putin began his devastating attack on Ukraine.
"I just thought, what's the point?" she asks. Concerned the release might be inappropriate, she called friends in Ukraine. "They were like, 'Are you fucking crazy. This is the time you need to show us, to show the pictures of us, how we are, who we are. Right now, what we're seeing is horrible. You need to show what we are like in life.' It was very important for me to hear it from them that this was okay."
Yelena grew up in Kyiv, emigrating to America with her parents in 1981 at the age of 11. Based in New York for several decades, her practice extends beyond photography to painting and film. Her fashion work, imbued with a distinct type of femininity, has seen collaborations with models like Guinevere van Seenus and Lara Stone. Odesa is her fourth book, following last year's Mabel, Betty, & Bette, 2017's Anna, and her 2011 study of a Kyiv amusement park, Gidropark. "I've been photographing in Ukraine for so many years. It's part of who I am as an artist," she says. "I feel very comfortable there, and the people feel my comfort. I think it's going to be very important for me to go back as soon as possible."
As a child, Yelena never went to Odesa. "It was one of those places I've always heard people talking about my parents' friends that were from Odesa were always such characters, and it seemed like such a cool place," she says, describing the new project's earliest genesis. "When I finally made it, it was the dream that I imagined. A magical, strange and wild place that, especially nowadays, you don't see — everything has become kind of the same. With Odesa, it's not like you're seeing something you've never seen before — it has that European vibe — but there's a different soul. This spirit in the way they live and how they love life so much."
Having left Ukraine under Leonid Brezhnev's rule, it wasn't until the 90s that Yelena was able to return, and only in 2003 did she eventually make it to Odesa. A decade later, she went back, overwhelmed with a desire to create work but unsure what to explore. Following Putin's invasion and ultimate annexing of Crimea in 2014, she began hearing about teenagers being invited to join the Odesa Military Academy and decided this would be her next book. "It was a documentation of a time that started with the uncertainty of a looming darkness. I shot from 2015 to 2019, and it went the opposite almost; things were getting better. It didn't register – it still doesn't – that Russia would invade [again]. It was like, 'Okay, this is something that's looming, but this is our life, and we're living our life'."
The book is an intimate account of that time, featuring kids in camouflage and women at the beach, families outside colourful motels and close-ups of McDonalds cups. "I feel very lucky that I have this ability to communicate with people, where they're willing to share," she says. Yelena made a lot of friends over those four years, and one in particular, Ania, became "a huge part of everything" that she's been doing since. "Her face, her everything, is so Odesa. When you see her, she looks like this wild David Bowie kind of creature, but when she starts speaking, she's 100% Odesa. It's this fast-talking, jokes all the time, but super intellectual."
"My pictures are not sugarcoated," she adds, aware of the potential response. "I'm not saying, 'this the best'. They're very true to what is going on there, and how I see it. Sometimes it's very romantic – because I feel very much in love with Ukraine – when I look at the pictures, I see this is the way it is. To me, it's the most beautiful thing ever. There's just something there that I love and appreciate, and I just wanted to share, especially right now."
‘Odesa’ by Yelena Yemchuk is published by GOST and available in late May
Images courtesy of GOST