Portrait of the Village: A British Search for Family Roots in Ukraine

Photographer Catherine Losing came to Ukraine a few years ago to explore her family's history. The result of her journey was a film and a series of photographs. The author told Bird in Flight how this project helped her reconcile with the past.
Catherine Losing

British photographer and filmmaker based in London. Collaborated with YSL, MoMA, British Vogue, Polaroid, Lacoste. Exhibited works in Europe and the USA. Her film "Village Portrait," shot in Ukraine, was showcased at the Sheffield International Film Festival, and her photo project of the same name took second place in the Association of Photography Awards competition (2021).

— My grandfather’s family lived in Ukraine until the 1940s. We actually didn’t know where my grandfather had been born until a few years ago. He grew up in a Black Sea German community, but we only had the German, colonial name for the village and there was another one with the same name in Moldova. After some research, I finally found the correct village in Odesa Oblast. It’s called Tsybulivka nowadays. Weirdly, the next day I saw an ad on Instagram for an artist’s residency in Ukraine and thought it must be fate. Or my iPhone listening in and sending me targeted ads.

The artist’s residency I applied for was a 6-week scheme ran by The British Council Ukraine called SWAP UK/Ukraine. I was placed at the Museum of Odesa Modern Art, as I’d shown an interest in the area. The team at the museum were great, not only did they help with research and creating my projects, they set me up with a studio and were also happy to host my 1-year-old son and partner. I spent a lot of time researching and creating still life photographs in my make-shift studio at the museum. We enjoyed a lot of time just hanging out as a family in Odesa, too. We absolutely loved it, such a great city and beach.

We travelled to the village where my family had lived a few times. It felt weirdly familiar to be in the village. No one in my family had been back since the 1940s. My grandfather was captured by the Nazis when they invaded in World War II. Being a German speaking teenage boy, he was conscripted and sent to fight in Stalingrad. They’d shot his uncle for trying to hide him. The rest of his family, my great-grandparents and his sisters, were captured a few months later by the Soviets and sent to a Gulag in Siberia.

After hearing so many heartbreaking stories about the place, I didn’t expect it to feel good to be there. My grandfather had said he liked living in North Lincolnshire (where I was born) because it reminded him of home. I felt the same, it was such a familiar landscape to the fen lands I grew up in and the people who lived there were so welcoming.

After hearing so many heartbreaking stories about the place, I didn’t expect it to feel good to be there.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the worst of history repeating itself since the full scale Russian invasion. My son is always asking me when we can go back to the beach in Odesa. I’ve told him we’ll be back to see our friends and the beach as soon as it is safe.

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