Self Comes First: How to Love Yourself When Everything Goes Wrong
Born in Luhansk, Ievgeniia is a psychologist by training and an artist by trade. She creates multimedia projects about the body acceptance culture. Since 2022, she has been the visionary behind the Art House Koss online gallery of contemporary art. Ievgeniia lives and works in Kyiv.
— I work at the confluence of documentary and art, defining what I do as a ‘postperformance’. In the case of a performance, the work of art would be the artist’s actions observed in real-time. Meanwhile, for postperformance, it’s the materials that document the activity. The Way We Are Now lets subjects freely express themselves, while all I do is capture it in my photos and interviews.
Before the war, my projects promoted the idea that life is art. During Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine, however, my focus shifted from the general to the details, and I started studying how exactly Ukrainians lived through the war and its effects on them and their relationship with themselves and their bodies.
As I see it, the war forced people to think about survival rather than comfort. It was not a one-time choice but a part of the ongoing adaptation to the threats and deteriorating living conditions, which won’t cease for as long as the war continues. I feel that people get out of touch with themselves in such situations. I set myself to enable Ukrainians to get in touch with themselves again (for those radically changed by the war) or just pause, exhale, and take a closer look at themselves. I wanted to empower people to celebrate life and how they are now.
This project is primarily for me and about me, and only then for the rest. I had quite a few surgeries. For one, I had a piece of titanium installed in my shoulder, to which I owe my ability to use my right hand. Also, my body changed significantly because of various diseases, like the prolactinoma I’m still dealing with. This one made me gain and lose twenty or more kilos at a time. I can maintain a healthy weight only when the tumour is stable.
Before I came up with my own format, I had personal nude photo shoots with other photographers during various periods when I looked hot or not so much and in all kinds of emotional states. I wish I met an artist who would be empathic and conscious enough of where they drove the conversation. I wish they knew how to create an atmosphere of absolute security, comfort, and acceptance. This is what I’ve always found wanting, and this is what I am trying to give my models. I also photograph myself because I believe I deserve acceptance and attention as much as everyone else.
I also photograph myself because I believe I deserve acceptance and attention as much as everyone else.
I met most of my models for the second time during their photo shoots, but now we are friends. They were referred to me or approached me after seeing my format’s ads on social media. They wanted to talk, reflect on themselves, and document the change they were going through during the war or whatever they had already experienced.
The interview about one’s relationship with their body is a prelude to our actual contact. I use it to explore our common ground and see if the model will open up. Then I proofread the interview’s transcript and develop a conceptual photo shoot based on it.
I photograph my models at their place because their domestic life enhances and highlights their stories and adds more symbolism to the whole thing. Besides, people feel more relaxed and comfortable when photographed in a familiar environment.
Half of my models still were a bit shy and took some time to get used to me being around. The other half was quick to undress and unselfconscious overall from the start. So far, I have only one man in this project, and he is proof of males being much more relaxed about nudity, as demonstrated by my pre-war projects. I mean those who are interested in nude photo shoots, naturally. In the end, however, everybody felt at ease, and I count it among the most important things in the entire thing.
In most photo shoots, I see the model in a variety of colour schemes that reflect the changes in their mood tone. I like to overstate the vagueness of the moment or, on the contrary, highlight the instant as much as possible. Also, I use the angle to convey character. I do effects to alter the space myself with all kinds of household items, e.g., a piece of tissue, fabric, or cardboard, a spectacle lens, a pen cap, a prism, or whatever.
Your consciousness may repress any memories if they are unimportant, painful or too many. Your body, however, remembers every breath you take. It will also remember the war that can take away anything from you. The only thing that stays with you till the end is your body. So, remember it while it remembers you. I offer such an opportunity to those who I photograph.
— I am 34, and I teach at school. I started watching my body on the 24th of February because of stress. This is how I noticed the shock I was going through. I realized that some things started working differently. Some places felt painful, others tense. First, I saw my body as a vehicle for my head that follows the news. However, eventually, I put my mind to living and caring for myself.
First, I saw my body as a vehicle for my head that follows the news. However, eventually, I put my mind to living and caring for myself.
I study art history, and choreography is one of the best parts of it for me. One thing is looking at it as a historian, and a whole other when I also visit corporeality laboratories, take butoh dance classes or pursue other body awareness-related practices.
At the same time, I also discovered I could actually enjoy virtual sex. Naturally, I want to have some hope or guarantee that it won’t be limited to virtual things and can become the start of something bigger. This is how my gallery of book illustrations and kitten pictures came to include nude photos of myself.
— My life was uprooted already, so the only thing I felt when the Russian invasion started was astonishment. It’s the 21st century, we have progressed so far as to make neuroprosthetics, and someone starts lobbying around rockets in the very centre of Europe.
In 2016, I had surgery to remove a tumour in my spinal cord. The tumour was benign and was discovered by chance. The surgery was just as random, by the looks of it. I started getting severe pain afterwards. In January 2017, I was discharged from the hospital and had to take painkillers until June 2019.
I have lived through all of that, and now I feel great. I like everything. After all of that, however, I stopped seeing misery as misery. I started to return to life and realized I’ll never be the way I was. Any trauma, whether psychological or physical, changes you for good. It was the pain that made me pay attention to myself.
Any trauma, whether psychological or physical, changes you for good.
— After the 24th of February, I started eating through the stress and lost my appetite for any activity. It continued for two months. Then I realized I had to collect myself. After all, my body is still mine, even if unhealthy. In general, I feel I am beautiful in any state. I owe that to my father. Ever since I was little, he told me I was gorgeous and that he loved me. Although I always feel beautiful, it’s somewhat complicated.
Photography is about capturing the moment. I want to capture what I let myself become. It wasn’t a random thing, after all. My body now is the result of my conscious actions. The war and the resulting stress greatly impacted everything, and I could have reacted differently as a mature person, even if I didn’t. So I took responsibility for myself. I recognize it and try to make peace with it while recovering.
It wasn’t a random thing, after all. My body now is the result of my conscious actions.
— When the war began, we left Kyiv, and I realized everything I had achieved and nurtured was gone. So I put on my trousers and a jumper — not thinking about how expensive or not they were — and went to the country. For a month, my mother-in-law and I lived together. It made me realize I gave away a lot of energy but got nothing in return. Perhaps, this is why I put on this protection — I mean weight, of course.
I realized that I didn’t love myself all this time. This was due to my fear of recognizing in front of others that I accept myself as I am. Many didn’t take me seriously, so I tried to please everybody. Now I’m fat, I’m big — who would like that? Over the last few months, I started thinking about it and realized this road leads nowhere. Only when I love and accept myself will I be able to initiate quality change in myself, working on myself on other levels, my health included.
Many didn’t take me seriously, so I tried to please everybody. Now I’m fat, I’m big — who would like that?
If I love myself, I want to care for myself, protect myself, think about my health, and set boundaries. Now everything is great. I’m not bored by myself, always finding a way to occupy myself with something.
— I am a sexologist, mother of three, and explorer of consciousness, folklore, ethnolinguistics, literature, and myths. Recently, my consciousness and my body discovered each other. I had that weird feeling — what if tomorrow I am no more? What would they write on my headstone? ‘Here lies Katia, she struggled with herself’? When the war began, I lost two of my three jobs. It undermined my financial well-being but freed up some time. In such a situation, you discover yourself as another weird person you hardly know in your life. It turned out I had needs and feelings and could become tired and want things.
I looked at the ruined houses and thought the body was a continuation of our thoughts, a place where our consciousness dwells. It lets us feel. It allows us to do many pleasant things, enjoying food, intimacy, sunshine, bird songs, coffee, and aromas. Somehow, I was oblivious to that before. So I decided that war would run its course, and I must live on.
There is a lot of rape going on now. Women are losing any agency, being perceived not as a person but as a piece of meat. I have worked with women who lived through that. I experienced rape myself. And I know one can live on after that, reclaiming one’s body and right to choose a man and feel passion and pleasure. A person is not to blame for being raped because rape is always the choice of the one who commits it.
And I know one can live on after rape, reclaiming one’s body and right to choose a man and feel passion and pleasure.
I recently found a videotape of fifteen- or sixteen-year-old me at home. As I watched it, I caught myself thinking, goodness gracious, how beautiful, slender, and delicate I was. What was wrong with me? I remember hating myself so much when I was young. Now I’m thirty-six, and I look at myself again, thinking I’m fat and saggy, with all those wrinkles, stretch marks, cellulite, different-sized breasts and substandard body. But then it dawned on me: what would I say about myself when I’m seventy? Probably that I was drop-dead gorgeous at thirty-six.
— I am a visual artist pursuing projects to shape the body acceptance culture in Ukraine. However, now I want to do something for myself. I miss myself so much. Odd as it may seem, Russia’s full-on invasion improved my relationship with my body. The fear of losing my life or getting maimed or raped made me study every inch of my body and love, pay attention to, and feel how special and important each is. Being safe and sound became more important than any future with all the treasures that it might hold. It’s like being infatuated but without all the mood swings due to unanswered love or break-ups. I know that I am with my body till the end.
Odd as it may seem, Russia’s full-on invasion improved my relationship with my body.
A highlight among these changes is the substantial progress in treating my generalized anxiety disorder and prolactinoma. It’s strange to realize I am slowly returning to normal. It’s strange to watch my body change and compare my experiences and appearance then and now. Most importantly, though, it’s hard to believe that I approach the moment when I no longer need to take as many medications. I just need MRI to confirm that I’m healthy and there is no threat to my life. I need to know I can just keep living.
— The invasion made me rethink my life. My job is in demand abroad, and I have always dreamt of moving country. However, now I understand that I belong here.
Before the war, I had a complicated relationship with my body. Bearing three babies is a process that keeps you conscious about being a vessel for new life. Once you give birth, your everyday rhythm is fully synced with your baby. Breastfeeding and constantly caring for children — when you do a lot of that, your body feels no longer your own. For some time, I completely lost touch with it.
My second maternity leave was a more spiritually mature endeavour, albeit I was hit by a severe chronic illness immediately after giving birth. The constant pain reminded me I still had my body. As a result, I started reclaiming it with yoga, learning to better control my body in general and deal with the pain syndrome.
The constant pain reminded me I still had my body.
The year before the invasion, I started meditating, which taught me to relax mentally and physically. My spiritual practices came in handy during the war. However, why I meditated shifted from calming myself and finding strength to concentrating on myself. As a result, I no longer feel weak and helpless.
Before I started doing yoga, I had never let people come close. Physically, I was rather big, but inside I felt tiny, taking barely any space. Yoga changed that. As my body got smaller, I started feeling bigger inside. These two aspects of mine are now in sync. I can finally sense myself.