A Photographer’s Love Letter to Odesa

Yelena Yemchuk’s series on the Ukrainian city began with a romantic fascination with youth culture, but quickly turned into a chronicle of a pivotal moment in history.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, 2015–19

Odesa is a city of immigrants . . .  In the city of immigrants, people who live in memory as if it is the present moment, the language resists time. Time doesn’t exist. In Odesa it is always Biblical time. The world is created and then we go eat apples. —Ilya Kaminsky, “Of the Language of Odesa”

Nasha. A word that in Russian means “ours” or “belonging to us.” When directed at another person, “ty nasha” is a sign of recognition, as in, “you’re one of us.” In 2008, I traveled to Odesa, the port city legendary for its writers, humor, gangsters, and flourishing secular Jewish community in a region that had historically been hostile to Jews. My mother emigrated from Kyiv to the US in the 1970s and met my Russian-Jewish father in Crimea shortly beforre he, too, emigrated. I was born in the United States, but the former Soviet Union was as much a part of my psyche, if not more so, than the place where I grew up. I’d traveled to Kyiv with my mother once before this trip to Odesa, but this was my first return to her homeland on my own. Eager to distinguish myself from my travel companions, I lit up when one of our local hosts overheard me speaking Russian and exclaimed, “Ah! Ty nasha!” But as the night wore on, and the party moved from restaurant to seedy bar to even seedier underground club, until we eventually tumbled out onto Primorsky Boulevard with the early morning sun beginning to streak the sky, I realized I wasn’t sure I did belong. We were the same age, we spoke the same language, but I had the privilege of a kind of innocence that they did not. I had grown up too far away—geopolitically and culturally. It would take time before this place and its people ceased being a dreamscape for my nostalgia and revealed themselves in all their nuance and intricate reality.

Photographer Yelena Yemchuk is a native of Ukraine and yet she herself was no less struck by the mystery of Odesa. Born in Kyiv, she emigrated to the United States with her family in 1981, when she was eleven years old. Emigration meant, she had assumed, saying goodbye to Ukraine forever. But the fall of the Soviet Union suddenly opened the borders for travel. Yemchuk found herself taking regular trips to Kyiv. “The country was in the crazy throes of growing pains and identity crisis,” she writes in the poignant afterword to her new photobook Odesa, recently published by GOST Books in the UK. She first visited Odesa in 2003 and found herself utterly mesmerized: “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.’” Yemchuk brings to bear the knowing intimacy of someone from within, alongside the wonder of an outsider, in her remarkable photographs.

Originally slated to be published in 2020 and postponed by the pandemic, the images in the book were taken over the course of several trips to Odesa between 2014 and 2019. Yemchuk was obsessed with the city’s youth, their wildness, and their sense of possibility. What began as romantic fascination to live their coming of age as Ukrainians, denied to her, quickly turned into a chronicle of a pivotal historical moment. In 2014, in the wake of pro-Western protests in Maidan and the overthrow of then President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia purported to be coming to the aid of Russian separatists as justification for full-scale invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea. Under the same pretext, in late 2014, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine’s eastern border in the Donbas. Yemchuk felt compelled to take portraits of the teenagers who were then beginning to volunteer for the army and training 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. This book is that story,” she writes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, with Odesa under threat of missile attacks, has—to her utter disbelief—added another layer to that story. Most recently, on May 2, 2022, a fourteen-year-old boy was reported killed and a seventeen-year-old girl wounded in the bombing of a dormitory in Odesa, as Russian air raids also destroyed the city’s airport runway.

It is nearly impossible to look at these photographs without considering current events. In several close-up portraits, we see young people with bloodshot, world-weary, or distant eyes. This is a generation born after the fall of the Soviet Union, a time when the newly independent Ukraine was just beginning to relish its identity, its language, its freedom. Yet they seem haunted, unable to shake the past. “When you look at these faces, they have so much history in their look,” Yemchuk tells me. “You’re looking in the eyes of somebody who’s lived a much longer life. I’m attracted to that depth. When they’re willing to share that with you, it is the most beautiful thing.” Yemchuk herself is familiar with the experience of honing a new identity under the shadows of the past. One set of her great-grandparents were aristocrats killed by the Red Army, the other were killed in a massacre at Babi Yar, during the Holocaust. “How do you not give that to your children? It’s just engrained in you.”

Despite that grim pall, the photographs also evince the vitality of a people who embrace pleasure precisely because they have known tragedy. This is the heart of Yemchuk’s obsession in a book she calls a love letter to the city—she insists on showcasing duality, whimsy alongside dissolution. “I don’t try to hide from the darkness, it isn’t shocking. There’s a darkness you accept as part of life. There’s history . . . hanging over it.” But, she adds, “There’s humor in the work as well. Surrealism, almost, absurdity . . . a nostalgic romanticism.” Indeed, many of the photographs feature an array of patterns and earthy colors that appear faded—Soviet-era bedsheets and wallpaper, domestic scenes in seeming disrepair. Yet these scenes are interwoven with others of women, in decadent costume, who stare into the camera with defiant confidence. These can seem brash, theatrical, but juxtaposed with a coquettish smile is a young girl in military uniform.

All photographs by Yelena Yemchuk from <em>Odesa</em>, 2015–19 (GOST Books, 2022)<br />
Courtesy the artist”>
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All photographs by Yelena Yemchuk from Odesa, 2015–19 (GOST Books, 2022)
Courtesy the artist

Yemchuk says the city has always felt like a Fellini film. In one photograph, an elderly trio appear to be doing water aerobics with their heads emerging up from the water through multicolored inflatable pool floats wedged under a metal pole against the pool wall. They look like they could suffocate but instead they hang suspended in time. Eroticism throughout heightens the carnivalesque atmosphere. In one of the most striking photographs, a voluptuous woman lies sprawled out in the nude on a picnic blanket, head thrown back, eating a cherry as the fruit tumbles out of a pink plastic bag. She lies in a field with an apartment building, or the remains of one, in backdrop. How she got here or why is irrelevant. The moment is hers to indulge. “And then there is March again, and the world is alive again, also, for you. Because you are a part of it, and you cannot escape it, that world which is all about us, and who would want to escape it anyway, this wonder, this astonishment?” writes Ilya Kaminsky, a fellow Ukrainian émigré to the US whose poetry in the book engages the photographs in a disarming conversation. And yet where to find that wonder now, amid war, with the future still so unclear? “I always see light,” she insists. “The fact that people love their homeland, their people, their neighbors. They love this life, with its weirdness, with its darkness, with its humor. They love it and it’s theirs. That to me is incredible.”

Yelena Yemchuk’s book Odesa was published by GOST Books in May 2022.