Yelena Yemchuk: Odesa

BY Elisabeth Biondi, May 1, 2023

Yelena Yemchuk emigrated with her parents from Kiev to Pittsburgh in 1981, when she was 11 years old. After Ukraine’s independence from Russia in 1991, she began to visit the country regularly. She never gave up the part of her that was Ukrainian; in fact, her ties to the country grew stronger with each trip. 

She first visited Odesa, the port city on the Black Sea, in 2003 and immediately fell in love with the city and its inhabitants. Yemchuk’s pictures of young people –  people she met through friends, or photographed on the street or in the countryside – feel free and uninhibited. In one photograph of a young couple, the woman wears a low-slung mini skirt, and her shirt is unbuttoned to show her black bra. With a cigarette in her mouth, she also wears what looks like an oversized policeman’s hat over blond hair that cascades past her hips. She is stylish, her arm draped over the shoulders of a young man who is hunched over, poised like tiger. Another compositionally unconventional image shows a big white cat, with one green eye and one blue eye, being held by a girl whose face is cropped out of the frame. Yemchuk’s photographs are aesthetically appealing, even stylish at times – like her image of a young blond woman in a pink bathing suit, her head turned away from the camera.

In 2015 Yemchuk took portraits of 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls in the Odesa Military Academy, which became part of her Odesa project. Their faces are sweet and innocent. Now, in 2023, more than a year after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, I wonder: are they still alive?  It is difficult to look at these pictures without feeling heartbroken.

Yemchuk’s photographs are included in the exhibition Ukrainian Perspectives: Photography from the 1940s to Now, on view through May 5 at ChaShaMa in New York City, and through June 11, photographs from her Odesa series are on view at the Chiostri di San Pietro in Reggio Emilia, Italy, as part of Fotografia Europea. Her book Odesa (GOST) is on the longlist for the 2023 Kraszna-Krausz Book Award.

Yelena Yemchuk, Couple Outside the Manga Festival, Odesa, 2016. Courtesy the artist

Yelena Yemchuk, Playboy Bunny, Odesa, 2019. Courtesy the artist

Yelena Yemchuk, Sasha at Eveny’s Studio, Odesa, 2018. Courtesy the artist

Yelena Yemchuk, Anya the First Time We Met, Odesa, 2017. Courtesy the artist

Yelena Yemchuk, In the Middle of Nowhere, Odesa, 2016. Courtesy the artist

Yelena Yemchuk, Hot Pink, Odesa, 2016. Courtesy the artist
Yelena Yemchuk, Miri and Sasha, Odesa, 2015. Courtesy the artist
Yelena Yemchuk, Boy at The Naval Academy, Odesa, 2017. Courtesy the artist