These Captivating Photos Are An Ode To The Young Women Of Ukraine

Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
"Ukrainian women are so resilient and so very strong and I see that more than ever now with the war. The power of withstanding such atrocities and still being positive is very much a trademark I associate with the women of Ukraine," says 52-year-old photographer Yelena Yemchuk. She’s discussing the ideas and feelings behind her expansive project and photobook Odesa, a visual love letter to the Ukrainian city of Odesa and its people, presented through portraits the artist has taken since 2015. 
Ukrainian herself, Yemchuk was born and raised in Kyiv before the fall of the Soviet Union. "When I think of my childhood, it is filled with beautiful memories of nature, fields and forests, my grandmother and my cousin, snowy walks in Park Shevchenko and attending ballet performances at the opera house with my aunt. I was a very happy kid," she recalls. She adds how strong the women in her life were when she was growing up. "My grandmother, my aunt, my cousin… They really shaped me at that young age and I think I am very much who I am today because of them." When she was 11 years old, Yemchuk was told by her parents that they’d be immigrating to America. "They said that we would never be returning to Ukraine, and that was the end of my childhood."
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Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
"Because of the structure of the Soviet Union, once you left you couldn’t come back and that was very clear to me," she explains. "I think that the shock of being torn away from everything I knew and loved as an adolescent is something that has stayed with me forever. No one could have predicted that years later the Soviet Union would collapse and we would be able to see each other again." 

One moment you are going for coffee with a friend and the next bombs are falling around you. It's incomprehensible for most of us to understand.

YELENA YEMCHUK
Yemchuk was in her 20s by the time she was able to return to Ukraine and she did so with pure excitement. "A lot of my immigrant friends that came to America around the same age as me acclimated very quickly but I, on the other hand, just couldn’t for whatever reason. I’ve never felt myself to be anything else but Ukrainian. There has always been a pull for me towards being home, and home has always been Ukraine." 
Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
Having found her way into photography — after battling her parents, who did not believe it was a worthy job for a girl — Yemchuk began taking regular trips back to Ukraine to reconnect with the country after being away. "I started photographing in Ukraine seriously in 1997, I think. I would come every year to see my grandmother and take pictures," she remembers. "Then, between 2015 and 2018 I worked on a project that became my first book, Gidropark, and after that I was looking to start a new one. After visiting Odesa in 2003 I fell in love with the city and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I just kept wanting to go back and so I did. I finally returned and started shooting there in 2015." 
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Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
The pictures in Odesa reveal a cast of characters who make up this complex and beautiful city. Travelling around and getting to know people, Yemchuk would take pictures whenever a moment struck her, meeting her subjects in all different ways. "A lot of them I didn’t even know until I took their portraits," she says, "and then some became close friends over the multiple trips I took to Odesa. I am in touch with them all. There is such a feeling of amazing love for each other and a love for life that I experienced in the years that I worked on this project. I am honoured to be able to share this documentation of the beautiful spirit of the people of Odesa before the war." 
Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
Yemchuk points out some particular pictures, keen to tell the stories of the women in them. "This is Anna Domashyna and she is currently in Ukraine," she says about a beautiful image of a young woman wrapped up in a dark hat and coat, concrete high-rises in the background. It looks like an exceptionally cold day. "After I photographed Anna for the Odesa book we became friends and we have since worked on two films together, shot in Ukraine — her being the lead in both." 
Then there’s a dreamy, sun-soaked image of two young women amid reeds and blades of grass; one of them is smiling, the other appears to be lost in reverie. "In this picture are Polina Matskevich and Hanna Brizhata. They are musicians and they are in Berlin at the moment. I saw a picture of them and I wanted to photograph them for the Odesa book." Remembering the time she took the picture, she says: "It was a beautiful early evening light and I picked this place I had walked by many times because it just felt perfect for them. I felt like this image really captured their shared energy, which is very free and very soulful." This is how Yemchuk looks back on every one of her images. Every picture has a story; each one reveals a brief but beautiful encounter between photographer and subject.
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Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.

Now based in Brooklyn, New York, Yemchuk is looking towards releasing the second edition of the Odesa photobook after the first edition sold out in record time. It’s unsurprising, given how affective and impactful her visual stories are — spending time with them is like reading letters, or a book rich in imagery. Her photographs move people; they’re tender and subtle, and they reveal a small but significant constellation of the many human stories that have since been unfolding against the backdrop of war. As a viewer one can’t help but wonder about the people in the pictures, where they are now and if they are safe and finding joy. 

Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
Photographed by Yelena Yemchuk.
Ultimately, Yemchuk says, she hopes that people will understand from this book "how unbelievably horrible war is in general, and in the case of Ukraine, how peacefully people were living before, in this beautiful country that finally had its own strong identity." Ukraine was "blossoming" in the last 10 years, she says, and then it all came to a halt. "One moment you are going for coffee with a friend and the next bombs are falling around you. It’s incomprehensible for most of us to understand. How can something like this be happening in 2022?"
It’s been six months since Russian tanks began rolling into Ukraine and Ukrainians are still fighting for their freedom. "A lot of them are losing their lives or have been displaced or torn away from their loved ones. It’s so horrible but when I speak to them — the ones still living in Ukraine and the ones that are now refugees across Europe — they all say the same thing: 'We will win! We will prevail'," says Yemchuk. "It’s very beautiful, brave and positive. That’s Ukrainians."
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