At age 11, photographer and artist Yelena Yemchuk immigrated to the US from Ukraine while it was part of the Soviet Union. Her family could not tell anyone they were leaving. With Ukraine’s independence looking unlikely, Yelena and her family believed they would never be allowed to return. “It was such a traumatic event for me,” Yelena says. “I didn’t realize how connected I was to the years that I spent there, how important it was for me as a person, and how important it was for me as an artist.”
Ukraine did announce its independence ten years later, and Yelena returned to visit Kyiv around the same time she began taking photos. Her photography and identity are undoubtedly linked. This year, she released two books—Odesa and УYY (an acronym for Україна Yelena Yemchuk)—both expressions of her love for Ukraine.
Arriving at the beach in Odesa for the first time in 2003, Yelena was absolutely smitten. “I put two rolls or three rolls of film in my pocket, we started walking down the beach, and five minutes later I was running back to where we were sitting to get more film. Everywhere I looked, there was a photograph,” Yelena says.
Yelena began photographing Odesa years later, the summer after Russia annexed Crimea. It was a strange time to be in the city, another hub on the Black Sea. Yelena’s mother feared for her safety. Yelena couldn’t be kept away.
“I wanted to photograph the kids that were going into the army. That was where the project started, even though it was not about that at all—it was really about the city,” Yelena says. She captured everything she could from 2015 to 2019, beginning at the Odesa Military Academy.
She sought to capture every angle and face of this “place outside of time:” the wildness, the excitement, the jokers and intellectuals. Ukraine changed a lot during the four years she shot in Odesa—hope, independence, and freedom were blossoming. It felt to Yelena and her friends like conflict was in the rear view mirror.
The book arrived in late May, in the midst of the war between Ukraine and Russia—a particularly intense, dragging time in Yelena’s life, and for everyone else living and working in and around Ukraine, like Nissa Kinzhalina. “[Odesa] became so much more powerful now because it is the story of a place before the war,” Yelena says. She wishes it could have been published without the context.
Her second 2022 book, УYY, includes Yelena’s paintings, executed in her distinct, self-taught style, alongside outtakes from her trips over the years to Kyiv, Odesa, and Western Ukraine, where she shot an upcoming project about Malanka, an old pagan festival that takes place on the New Year according to the Julian Calendar.
“УYY really became a poem of my life, and a collage of an artist’s mind,” Yelena says. “It is a very special, very personal combination of everything that I do.” The book made the shortlist for the Paris Photo–Aperture PhotoBook Awards 2022.
УYY only fails to incorporate Yelena’s love for film. She is in the middle of making a trilogy of films with her friend Anya in Ukraine. “They’re surrealist films about loss of identity, and maybe have a lot to do with my never belonging psychologically to anywhere that I’ve been, except when I get back to Ukraine,” Yelena says.
The second film in the trilogy takes place during Malanka. It will premiere January 12 at the Ukrainian Museum in New York, surrounded by the photos from Odesa. Malanka’s photo book will arrive in 2023 or 2024, so Yelena can take a breather and, if the situation improves, hopefully return to Ukraine. “I really just want to go back and help rebuild and do whatever I need to do, as a human and also as an artist, to help,” Yelena says. She misses her home, her friends.