Yelena Yemchuk’s ode to Odesa

There’s an image towards the beginning of Yelena Yemchuk’s new photo book, Odesa, of two young people. One leans on the shoulder of another more upright, more alert person, whose sleeveless shirt reads: ‘Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere’.

That’s the sentiment that the book leaves you with. Ukraine’s third largest city, Odesa is by no means remote. But as Yemchuk suggests, it has the feeling of a faraway time and place, even if the images in the book were made only a few years ago.

All images from Odesa © Yelena Yemchuk

Yemchuk, whose photography has been published in the pages of the world’s biggest fashion magazines, grew up in Kyiv. Her family moved from Ukraine to the US in the early 1980s when she was 11, a journey they would have to keep secret as they ventured beyond the Iron Curtain. They couldn’t turn back, and it wasn’t until the 1990s, when she was in her 20s and Ukraine declared independence, that she started visiting her home country again.

“During that time, I was becoming a photographer,” she explains. She began to see how her ideas and aesthetics were rooted in her childhood in her home country, and found her creative identity was emerging as an independent Ukraine was finding its own cultural identity. “I finished art school and was finding my individual language as an artist. And during that time, Ukraine was becoming an independent country after being part of the Soviet Union for so long. It was a very turbulent and at the same time exciting time.”

Yemchuk has made plenty of work in Kyiv, including the images that went into her 2011 book, Gidropark. But she found herself drawn back to Odesa, having grown up fascinated by the aura of freedom it had in Soviet times – a place she always saw as wild and romantic, ever since her first visit in 2003. She only began to turn her lens to the city and its people over ten years later, in 2015, yet the city she was greeted by hadn’t changed all that much. “To me it’s very much the same,” she says. “Odesa exists outside of time.”

She took her camera to Odesa with a view to photographing the young people at the Odesa Military Academy, against a backdrop of an emergent war after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea the year before, in 2014. Yet she found herself wanting to reflect the lives of the people beyond the military, and expanded the project to create a broader portrait of Odesa.


“Some people I didn’t know at all and stopped on the street and asked to take their picture,” she explains. “Some were friends of friends. Others I would see a picture of and ask to meet and take their picture.” Whoever she was photographing, very little staging was involved. Occasionally she would take them to a part of the beach or a field she liked, otherwise most images were taken where they both happened to be in that moment.

The portraits are tonally varied. Blissful scenes of youthful abandon are contrasted by young people who are carefully poised, whether in ballerina attire or military uniform. Solemn expressions or bleary eyed stares sit in dialogue with clear displays of pride, joy and love.

The making of Odesa was especially memorable for Yemchuk, a process she describes as “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a photographer. This project is very special to me, and the time I spent in Odesa and the people I met and became friends with are forever in my heart”.

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has given the images even greater resonance. Yemchuk says the way in which the world interacts with images and footage of war has changed immeasurably. “I think we live in a time of mass information, with this ability to see things immediately while the events are happening,” she explains.

“There is a lot of very powerful imagery coming out and a lot of devastating and heartbreaking photographs. It’s important for us to see what’s happening and do what we can to stop these wars from happening,” she says.

“The loss of innocent lives, these horrible injustices have to end not just in Ukraine but everywhere. And it’s also important to see who these people were and are before this war, this invasion. How precious and happy and free their lives were. The war doesn’t change who they are and to me it’s very important to show them the way I saw them,” she says, “happy and full of life.”

Odesa by Yelena Yemchuk is published by Gost;