As a child, Kyiv-born Yelena Yemchuk saw Odessa as a distant dream, an unattainable destination wrapped in romance and mystery. She had traveled with her parents to the Black Sea but never to Odessa, which, during the Soviet era, was known as “a free place … a place of jokes and characters, populated by outlaws and intellectuals,” writes the photographer in an afterword to her book Odesa 2015–2019 published by Gost Books and released in May 2022 while Ukraine was at war.
Yemchuk was eleven when she left her country with her parents for the United States. It was 1981, and Ukraine was still under the Soviet yoke. Ten years later, to everyone’s great surprise, the USSR had collapsed and the country declared independence. Yemchuk was able once again to travel home and see her family. She began to make regular trips to Kyiv where she liked to spend her days taking pictures and chatting with her grandmother. This was when her photographic language took shape, amid a tug-of-war over Ukrainian identity. Yemchuk discovered Odessa for the first time in 2003.
Years passed and Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. In 2015, Yelena Yemchuk noticed that young people were increasingly joining the army. She returned to Odessa to photograph sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds at the Odesa Military Academy, many of whom are now probably fighting to defend their country. Once these portraits were taken, the photographer realized that the faces deserved to be contextualized, to be immersed in the city. She then began to photograph everything, the city of Odessa, its population, the smallest details.
Over the course of five years, she captured the city that she considers both “nostalgic and new.” In a way, she writes, this is her “dream city.” Combining intimate portraits, scenes of everyday life, and interiors, Yelena Yemchuk depicts a timeless city, full of melancholy. The words of poet Ilya Kaminsky poignantly comment on the photographs: “Odesa is a city of immigrants, built by immigrants for immigrants. What is the common language of all immigrants? It is a language through which soul moves a body moves through time.” A language that can only be photographed.
Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, published by Gost Books, 176 pp., £45.