Photo project

I Will Tell You a Scary Story

For her photo series, Zhenia Laptiy created a story about a village inhabited by various characters. She photographed local children from a real village in the Kharkiv region in the roles of a mad King, a deceitful Jester, and an evil Princess. But when Russians occupied the village, the horrifying fairy tale began to transform into reality.
Evgenia Laptij

Ukrainian photographer. Born in Kharkiv. Studied at the Kharkiv Academy of Design and Arts. Participated in group and solo exhibitions in Germany, Italy, Portugal, Ukraine, and others.

— I never thought I would become the heroine of my own fictional story in reality.

The series I started in 2017 is dedicated to childhood with all its hidden challenges. It tells the story of a closed-type village with an Old Ruthenian name, Okolotok. The village has its own police system and is inhabited only by children.

Childhood is different for everyone, but it usually inspires artists throughout their lives. As Almodóvar said, and I agree with him.

Sonya and Dasha

My childhood was quite happy, even very happy, but I was always dreamy and loved scary tales that we used to tell each other in the woods under crackling bonfires. I was captivated by the enchanting world of fantasies and illusions. So I decided to explore childhood, all the dark corners where the ghosts of the past hide.

I started working on this series after moving from Kharkiv to my village. At first, I photographed children as reflections of reality, but later I began to feel the power of images. I realized that childhood is a chthonic force. Over time, the series started to construct itself.

The more I immersed myself in the theme of Okolotok, the more mystical the children I photographed became. They transformed into characters, and the characters turned into archetypes. For example, the King is so afraid of losing power that he gradually goes insane. Or the Fool: he serves the King but seeks to take his power away. The Golden Boy is like a Peter Pan who wants to stay forever young and play with children. So he leads them to fields or forests, takes their eyes and buries them somewhere, so that the children never return home and are always with him. There’s also the Shadow Princess, who, like all princesses, wants to remain beautiful. So she never steps into the sunlight and eats emeralds and opals taken from children’s bellies to stay youthful. I shared all these stories with the children I photographed, and they were fascinated.

The Shadow Princess never steps into the sunlight, and to stay young, she retrieves emeralds and opals from children’s bellies and eats them.

Golden Boy

In the end, the characters became so powerful for me that I couldn’t handle them anymore. I vividly remember the day when they became larger than me, and that’s when I realized that the series was finished. It was in 2020.

The children asked their parents for permission to be photographed. I even wanted to do something like contracts, but honestly, people in the village weren’t too concerned about it.

I worked the most with my sister Sophia and the boy Andriy (the one who played the roles of the King and the Fool) – his last name is also Laptiy, but we are not related, there are many Laptiys in our village. It was difficult for me with my sister, so I had to resort to tricks: when she was younger, I would buy her chips or ice cream for the shoots, and as she grew older, I paid her money. At first, my sister wasn’t very interested, but the shots with her turned out great – she got really angry at me, and that was what was needed for the photos. However, when she grew up, she wrote me a letter thanking me for those shoots. According to her, they taught her to see beauty and create. Sophia draws and takes photos quite well. Before the war, she was thinking of applying to the Art Institute.

The shots with my sister turned out great – she got really angry at me, and that’s what was needed for the photos.

Golden Boy
The Golden Boy leads the children into the field

Andriy approached me himself when I was looking for someone to photograph because not all children were suitable, and not everyone was interested. He is my sister’s friend. When I saw Andriy, I realized he was a treasure. He is a very dreamy, tender boy, intelligent and kind. He was interested in doing something that didn’t fit into the rural everyday life. I transformed him into the most frightening and powerful characters, and he turned out to be a fantastic actor. He could play in such a way that even I felt scared.

Before the shoot, I always explained the character’s story and put Andriy or Sofia in the right state. Often, on the way to the location, I would tell them something about art, trying to captivate or inspire them. For example, when we were shooting Sofia as Ophelia, I talked to her about Shakespeare and showed her paintings by different artists who depicted her character. Sofia loves romantic stories with a tragic ending.

The circle of this project closed when Russian forces entered my real, non-fictional village. On February 24th, I saw a column of Russian tanks heading towards Kharkiv, and that’s when the deranged King smiled at me for the first time, for real.

The circle of this project closed when Russian forces entered my real, non-fictional village.

Blind Princess
Two-faced Jester

Andriy, like me, also found himself in the occupation, and when I left, I tried to contact him for a long time. Then he ended up in Belgorod and picked me up. Since Andriy escaped from the occupation later, I already knew the way to leave through Russia and who to stay with there. I asked the people who helped me to help him too. It’s probably best not to mention their names. Andriy is now in Poland with his brother.

Mom and my sister left even before the invasion. I refused at that time because I didn’t believe the war would start. But I don’t regret it.

During the occupation, I felt an indescribable, oppressive fear that weighs you down, the hatred that consumes you, and a certain absurdity of existence.

Dead Buddha
The one who fell asleep in Armageddon

Once we were sitting in the basement, being covered by Grads. Meanwhile, cars were driving through the streets, and from loudspeakers, they told us: “We are your brothers, we are one people, we are one nation, join our side.” And as humanitarian aid, they distributed meat from the farm they themselves bombed. I took eight kilograms of it. It was still dripping with blood as I dragged it home. It was a sunny day in March, and the snow had mixed with dirt, turning everything into a liquid mess. I walked through the cemetery where all my ancestors are buried, including my great-grandfather who was in the first Ukrainian party “Rukh.” From an early age, he told me that we are not brothers and there is no worse nation than the Russian one. So I walked through the cemetery where we used to play in our childhood, and I cried. One can come to terms with death, but not with having your essence taken away from you. Later, the cemetery was mined.

At that time, I could think of very little, but I felt that the absurd world I had constructed through the series of photographs was gradually becoming real. Clowns in military uniforms told us: “Everything will be fine, just join our side.” Reality turned out to be scarier than scary tales.

Blind freedom
Tanya and Danya

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