Yelena Yemchuk – Odesa

Growing up in the capital city of Kyiv in the late 1970s, Yelena Yemchuk felt inexplicably drawn to Odesa, a city recognized for its independence and defiance to Soviet control. Visiting for the first time in 2003, decades after immigrating to America in 1981, Yemchuk returned in 2015 with the objective of developing a photographic project centered on the city. Initially concentrating on portraits of teenagers enrolled in the Odesa Military Academy, her project expanded as she felt compelled to photograph everything. Yemchuk’s work coincided with the 2014 conflict in the Donbas region, involving the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed forces, tensions that eventually spread throughout the entire region. The lingering effects of the conflict cast a long shadow, leading to the publication of Odesa (Gost Books, 2022), its release timed just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 22, 2022.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

In her desire to picture everything, Yemchuk includes a diverse array of images, from the repeated motif of dogs exploring a vacant lot to everyday scenes of still lifes of pickled tomatoes, vases of flowers, pieces of bread, and dandelion seeds. The collection also includes the faces of the teenagers of Odesa, who stare back at the camera with a haunting sense of anticipation.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

What these teenagers are thinking is anyone’s guess, but perhaps there are hints labeled on the clothing that they wear and the tattoos that mark their bodies. The word ‘Hell’ is one, ‘Why not’ is another. There is also the poetic nihilism of the shirt worn by a young girl, ‘Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere.’ When I think of this ‘everything’ I think of Yemchuk’s desire to confront the context of these slogans and tattooed words, to picture the unreadable expressions of each sitter, to render permanent all that seems fleeting, all that will eventually disappear, against the looming shadow of war and destruction that seeks to obliterate all traces.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

I am drawn to these moments in history when a photographer attempts to document one thing but inadvertently pictures another. One of the lessons of Yemchuk’s images is that the medium of photography possesses an uncanny ability to inadvertently document the involuntary and the unforeseen, recording moments that fall outside the photographer’s initial scope, picturing transient expressions and details, revealing untold narratives of the war not included in any official record.

In the streets of Odesa, there is a palpable sense of untimeliness — an encounter with “forgottenness,” as Yemchuk describes it, as if the city had somehow “rolled off the cart of modernity.” Perhaps this character can be attributed to Odesa’s identity as a city shaped by immigrants. The writer Ilya Kaminsky remarks how the very language spoken in the city assumes a unique form. “The people of Odesa don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian or Yiddish,” Kaminsky writes. “They speak the dialect via which they speak Yiddish through Russian, Ukrainian through Russian, Bulgarian through Russian, and so on.” The language of Odesa is a language that is spoken through the voice of others.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

Kaminsky describes how this indirect path of language influences the speaker’s own perception of time.

“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 as body moves through time. In Odesa we don’t speak in a language, we speak through it. The language of Odesa, unlike English or German doesn’t have complicated tenses or structures. There is no ‘I had had seen’ [sic] or ‘What might you have done.’ In our city we change easily from past to present tense to future tense. In the city of immigrants, people who live in memory as 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. The past is used for the future, and the future for the past. Our language defines our sense of time. Our language is a wall on which lost dogs sleep.” 

You can understand how time might feel different in Odesa. Consider the swimmer pictured standing at the edge of a concrete embankment, hands held behind their back with tense awareness, lost in thought, perhaps working up the courage to make the leap while another swimmer sleeps next to him. It is as if both figures were trapped in time.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

Consider as well Yemchuk’s child angel, clothed in silver garland and a blue dress, with a radiant halo crowning her head. Yellow flowers lie at her feet and her eyes are closed as if she was sleepwalking in the industrial ruins of the city. There is a dreamlike ordinariness to these photographs that speaks to moments of reverie and lost time. The image needs no writing because it adopts the language of the city as a language of dreams. To cite Kaminsky’s words again: “Our language is a wall on which lost dogs sleep.”

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

The dominant motif is the tightly-framed portrait. In their staging and style, her portraits resemble the great photographic work of Alexander Rodchenko, specifically his use of the upward-tilted angle of the extreme close-up. While there is a potential risk that some of these portraits might overly idealize Yemchuk’s sitters, and by default, inadvertently glorify the images of war, this reading quickly collapses when we realize that those who are pictured in Yemchuk’s book are only teenagers and children. It is possible that some of these subjects were later called up for military duty, and there appears to be a hint of future service and potential sacrifice in certain images, notably the one depicting the boy with a helmet. It is as if her photographs foreshadowed what was to come.

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

In my conversation with a Ukrainian friend about the current situation in Odesa, he revealed that the city is currently embroiled in debates over the removal of Russian monuments and discussions over what language should be spoken in the city. “Those who have spoken Russian all of their life,” my friend remarked, “are now switching to Ukrainian, at least in their public social networks.” He added that the Russian myths that had once sustained Odesa are no longer able to stand, yet because its citizens have built their identity around it, sometimes it is difficult to adjust to this new reality. He told me that those who are still living in Odesa are questioning how much of their culture is built on Russian lies — lies which are founded on hate, racism, slavery and discrimination. “The suffering of the ‘great and mysterious Russian soul,’” my friend reminded me, “is nothing else than just a way of life through suffering and pain, which they also try to bring upon everyone else.”

Looking at Yemchuk’s photographs in 2024, eight years after they were made, begs the question: where are her subjects now? Yemchuk does not tell you of their fate. She refrains from revealing whether these children were deployed to the front or stayed in Odesa. We do not know whether they lived or died. In contrast to the cities of Luhansk or Mariupol, Odesa has not experienced comparable devastation despite continuous shelling by Russian forces. Yemchuk’s photobook can only offer a fleeting glimpse of life in Odesa, showcasing the city as it appears through her camera, despite the medium’s limitations in delivering a more comprehensive story, description, or understanding of the war. 

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

When I look at Yemchuk’s photobook, I am reminded of an account by the writer George Saunders about the poet Anna Akhmatova. During the period known as the Yezhov terror, which marked the height of the Stalinist purges, Akhmatova’s husband was shot and her son was arrested and thrown into prison. One day, she stood outside the prison in Leningrad with hundreds of other women in similar situations. Despite the harsh Russian winter, with their mouths turning blue from the cold, they endured the daily routine of waiting for hours in a large open yard, only to receive the recurring response, “Today, and every day, there will be no news.” Yet, every day, they kept returning. 

At one point, a woman recognized Akhmatova as a famous poet and approached her, asking in a whisper: 

“Poet, can you write this?” 

Akhmatova thought about it for a second and responded: 

“I can.”

Yelena Yemchuk, Odesa, (Gost Books, 2022)

Yelena Yemchuk


Gost Books, 2022

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Andrew Witt. Images © Yelena Yemchuk.)

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