Yelena Yemchuk’s photo series Odesa documents a Ukrainian city undergoing momentous change

After her first trip to Odesa, Yelena instantly knew that she wanted to develop a long-term series focussing on the city. However, in the preceding years a number of things prevented her return, like the “full on heartbreak” of her grandmother passing, which kept her in Kyiv, and later starting a family in America. It was only in 2013, alongside a close friend, that Yelena made it back to Odesa. Photographing solidly for ten days, she was endlessly inspired and began the early drafting of a project: “I knew I wanted to shoot in colour and I knew I was interested in youth culture, because everything at that point was changing so drastically, in the most amazing way,” she says.
Once out of school in the mid-90s – after studying fine art and graphic design before finally landing on photography – Yelena started travelling back to Ukraine. Here she predominantly photographed her grandma and slowly came to the realisation that her work (even the projects outside of Ukraine) had always been heavily inspired by her childhood and heritage. “People would say ‘your work looks so Eastern European’, and I didn’t really understand what they were saying until I really started going there and photographing it,” she says. “My work has always been a little surreal and whimsical – very much of the place.”
Scheduled for 2014, the project was then thrown into disarray by Russia’s invasion of Donetsk and annexation of Crimea. An act that sent shockwaves through Ukraine and its diasporic community. “How could someone just take a piece of a country, and everyone else in the world be okay with it” says Yelena. The events set a worryingly recognisable precedent: “I sensed a very nervous energy”, she recalls, “I heard from a lot of my friends based in Odesa and other journalist friends that there were all these kids joining the armed forces and the navy.” It was this fact that compelled Yelena to revisit the city that summer with her young family – a move many, including her mother, tried to dissuade her from doing. Contacting a fellow journalist in the city, she gained access to the military academy, and the project initially began with capturing the young soldiers and the navy cadets. But it soon turned, Yelena expands, “into a depiction of the city and all the people who lived there at the time”.

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