Yelena Yemchuk’s Odesa: A floating dreamland

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Following the Russian intrusion of Crimea in 2014, Yemchuk spent five yrs travelling to Odesa to document young people volunteering to join the army. Her upcoming photobook is a reminder of the love and lives of the young Ukrainian people now faced with war

“People have said that in my work, I tend to romanticise my country, ” states Yelena Yemchuk. “When you look at the photographs that I take in Ukraine… everything has a small halo of beauty close to it. Even if it’s simply a dirty jacket lying on a lawn with a cigarette stubbed on it. ” 

Yemchuk was created and raised in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, which at the time of writing is facing the full power of Vladimir Putin’s hostile army. The photographer is no stranger to the collateral damage of dictatorships. At the age of eleven, during the later years of Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year rule from the Soviet Union, Yemchuk’s mom and dad emigrated to the United States, leaving behind everything and everyone these people knew.  

After graduating from the ArtCenter College associated with Design in Pasadena, California, Yemchuk began translating her relationship with Ukraine to photography, a process that grew to become more focused during her regular trips back. Yemchuk very first visited Odesa in the year 2003, and immediately felt a connection with the city and its residents. “That was when I discovered my language, ” she says. “We were in the beach and I had 3 or 4 rolls of film within my pocket. Five minutes later, I was running back to get the rest of my film. It was like one of those amazing dreams exactly where everywhere you look there is a photograph, everywhere you appear there’s something going on, some thing magical happening. ” 

Ten years would pass before Yemchuk visited again, in 2013. “It felt like Odesa [was] its own flying dreamland… I needed to catch it right there and then, ” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to capture, I was just shooting and hanging out and experiencing the town. ”

Then, in 2014, Russia launched its first invasion of Ukraine. “I told my husband, ‘I need to go to Ukraine’, ” states Yemchuk. “I needed to inform the story of this city… I needed to capture this since it is going on. It was an emotional response. ”

For Ukrainian people, 2014 huge the start of the current conflict, when Russian-backed separatists took up arms in the Donbas region of the country, along Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia. This followed months of Euromaidan protests in Kyiv against the pro-Russia rule of then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, whose usage of deadly force against protesters quickly escalated the clash.  

By March 2014, Putin had ordered the particular annexation of Crimea – a peninsula of Ukraine – and hundreds of civilians around the country were destroyed in clashes between followers of both sides. Inside Odesa, a city along with complicated historical ties in order to Russia and Ukraine, this kind of confrontations left 48 individuals dead. In the aftermath, the particular Odesa Military Academy started welcoming young recruits.  

Between 2015 and 2019, Yemchuk made repeated excursions there, documenting the sixteen and 17-year-olds and their particular daily lives. “I noticed from friends that the younger generation were volunteering to join the army, ” she states. “It’s almost like they knew that [the 2022 invasion] was going to happen… they sensed they were being invaded, they needed to protect themselves. ” 

“Now, when I look at it, of course , I’m like, ‘Where the hell is this man right now? ’, ‘Where are these claims girl? ’ And my heart is breaking for where they could be”

Yelena Yemchuk

The resulting book, Odesa, is published by Gost this spring. “I wanted to document the encounters of these children going away to fight, but We quickly felt like the people needed more context. Therefore i began to shoot everything, ” Yemchuk writes in it.  

Her images have an ethereal quality, underpinned by a feeling of curiosity and wonder. The subjects are often present in nature or culture: spiritual processions, dense vegetation, light; their faces claustrophobically cocooned, inquisitive, brooding and hopeful. “I fell in love with it: with the city, the smell in the air, the people, their lives, their ability to love almost everything and everyone. I fell in love with Odesa like you would certainly with a person, ” the lady explains.

The book was designed before Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022. “Now, when I look at it, of course , I’m like, ‘Where the hell is this guy at the moment? ’, ‘Where is this girl? ’ And my heart is breaking for where they could be, ” says Yemchuk.  

When asked issue has changed the way she perceives the photos, she is adamant: “I don’t think I want to go back and change anything due to the fact, for me, this book still appears as it stands. [It captures] the people of Odesa. And I want to show them the way in which I saw them there and then… because [the war] doesn’t change who they actually are. ”   

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Log Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the positioning of Online Editor. She studied English Literature plus History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by a good MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University associated with London. Her work continues to be published by titles such as the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Publication.

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