When Yelena Yemchuk was 11 years old she left Kyiv with her family for a new life in the US, knowing she might never see the country of her birth again.
A decade later, in 1991, Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union and Yemchuk started to visit her grandparents in Ukraine. So began a photographic love affair with her homeland.
In 2015, Yemchuk started documenting Odesa and the young people from its military academy, widening her project out to give their lives more context. The result is a four-year series and a book, Odesa, a visual ode to the city.
The book’s publication, by the London-based GOST, is all the more poignant as the war continues in Ukraine. The western city of Odesa has been subjected to periodic attacks by Russia in an effort to control the Black Sea coast.
In the extract below from Odesa, Yemchuk writes about her bond to the city – and why Ukraine will always live in her imagination.
Time is different in Odesa. It’s a city outside of time.
Odesa has always been a mystery to me. As a child growing up in Kyiv I travelled to the Black Sea with my parents, but never to Odesa. But even then I was fascinated by its reputation as a free place during Soviet times. A city of acceptance but also of danger. A place of jokes and characters, populated by outlaws and intellectuals.
In 2003 I visited the city for the first time and fell in love with it immediately. Indeed, there was a wildness about Odesa. But also a ‘forgottenness,’ like it had rolled off the back of the cart of modernity. I felt like I had been shown a secret place. Like someone took me around a corner, pulled back a curtain and said, "Here look, look at this enchanted city. Believe in it, it’s real. You can be in it. Try to capture its magic. If you keep your eyes and your heart open, you just might be allowed to see."
When I was young, Kyiv was sleepier than the bustling metropolis it is today. My memories of childhood are happy: playing games with my cousin Ira in the moss-covered forests; the smell of potatoes frying in my grandmother’s communal kitchen; trips to the opera and ballet with my Aunt Mika and Uncle Fafik; birches and willows swaying outside our apartment building; stealing strawberries from the neighbour’s garden.
In 1980 my parents told me we were immigrating to America. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it with anyone outside the family. We were going beyond the Iron Curtain – saying goodbye meant we were never allowed to return. I understood enough to know I’d never see anyone there again: not my friends, not my cousins, not my great love – my grandmother Shura. We left in 1981 and my heart broke. That was the end of my childhood.
Ten years later, perestroika surprised us all. Ukraine announced its independence, and we were finally allowed to visit. The chaos of a new nation greeted me, but I didn’t care because I was so grateful to see my family. By 1996, I was making regular trips to Kyiv. Spending my days taking pictures, my evenings with my grandmother. The country was in the crazy throes of growing pains and identity crisis. It was from this time and place that my photographic language and ideas were born.
In 2015 I finally made it back to Odesa. The year before, Russia had invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea. There was fighting on the Eastern border of Ukraine and I went to take pictures of the 16 and 17-year-old boys and girls at the Odesa Military Academy. I wanted to document the faces of these children going off to fight, but I quickly felt like the faces needed more context. So, I began to shoot everything. The book Odesa is that story.
For me, Odesa is both nostalgic and new. Whereas Kyiv holds both my happy childhood and the trauma of leaving; Odesa is entirely romantic. My soul feels vivid there. My ability to see expands, dilates. Odesa, my dream city.
All images from the series Odesa by Yelena Yemchuk published by GOST Books at £45
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