Time Stand Still: Yelena Yemchuk’s Love Letter to Odesa
Yelena was just eleven when her family left the USSR. Three years later, in the USA, she got into photography. In the early 2000s, she started visiting Ukraine and photographing her homeland. This year, Yelena published a book about Odesa and the local youth who joined the Ukrainian army back in 2014 to defend their country in the Russo-Ukrainian war.
An American photographer and artist of Ukrainian origin, she studied fine arts at New York's Parsons School of Design and photography at Pasadena's Art Center. Among her clients have been The New Yorker, The New York Times, Another, ID, and Vogue. In addition, she authored the cover in support of Ukraine for Vogue Polska.
— We left Kyiv in 1981. I have so many happy memories from my childhood in Ukraine. At the time, leaving my native land meant breaking free from the iron curtain for good, albeit never to return. It was little when we emigrated. However, I did realize I wouldn’t get to see again my friends, my cousins, and, most importantly, my grandma Shura, whom I adored. Leaving Kyiv broke my heart. It ended my childhood.
I visited Odesa for the first time in 2003, and it was love at first sight. I intended to go back the very next year to start shooting there, but life decided otherwise. I ended up doing my Gidropark project in Kyiv. The photos I took there eventually made it into my first photo book about Ukraine.
I visited Odesa for the first time in 2003, and it was love at first sight.
Still, I kept returning to Odesa in my thoughts and finally got there in 2013. My second trip there once again proved that my infatuation with Odesa was deep and sincere. In 2015, I started my long-term photo project about this incredible city. I mean, I wanted to do a project about it but didn’t know where to start. And then my friends told me about youngsters, almost teenagers, starting to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces. It happened in the summer right after Russia attacked Ukraine and annexed Crimea. I was so pissed. I absolutely had to go to Odesa Military Academy and take pictures of those boys and girls. I wanted to document the faces of those young people ready to go to war but realized their portraits would require a broader context. So I also started photographing everything around me. From 2015 to 2019, I returned to Odesa at least eight times.
Odesa is a city unlike any other in the world. It’s almost magical. I feel so alive there. I see beauty wherever I look. I remember for the rest of my life whomever I meet there. And, naturally, Odesa is permeated by its characteristic sense of humor. Hopefully, I managed to capture it on film.
During my trips to Odesa, I met a lot of people and made many friends. At some point, I even found myself driving around the city and leaping out of my car to run up to random people and ask them if I could take their portrait. However, my project also includes more intimate portraits of the people I knew well. I share a special connection with them. Remembering it now, every day of that project feels extraordinary.
At some point, I even found myself driving around the city and leaping out of my car to run up to random people and ask them if I could take their portrait.
The project ran its course in 2019, and I planned to publish it as a book the following year. But then the pandemic hit. My publisher couldn’t do it, so I had to look for another one. The process just kept dragging on. In the summer of 2021, we decided the book would be released the following spring. However, even in my worst nightmare, I couldn’t see it coming out at the height of a full-on invasion. Until February, I couldn’t even imagine a war like this was possible.
My attitude toward the project has changed since then. Like all of Ukraine, Odesa is suffering from incessant air strikes. Looking at the photos in the press, I see familiar streets and faces. However, I see them not as they are in those pictures but as I remember them — sunny, beautiful, smiling, and happy. My country is going through dark times now, and my thoughts are with all those people in my photos. I pray that no harm comes to them. The pictures I took during my trips to Ukraine became especially important to me. I believe people from other countries need to see what Ukraine used to be like before the full-on invasion to understand what it is fighting for now.
Every day, I talk to my Ukrainian friends — those who stayed home and those who had to leave the country for the time being. I’d like all the Ukrainians to know how proud of them I am. They have all shown incredible courage and valor in the darkest times. I am positive that Ukraine will win. It is already winning, with all its love and dignity that has amazed the world and its profound and unshakable will for freedom that cannot be broken.