Ukraine through the lenses of its contemporary women photographers

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To coincide with Female in Focus 2021, Kateryna Radchenko, founder and curator of Ukraine’s only contemporary photography festival, discusses Ukrainian women’s contribution to the medium in the context of the country’s cultural and historical tensions

Female in Focus is a global award recognising women’s extraordinary contribution to contemporary photography. Enter the 2021 edition now.


Since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine over the status of the Crimea and Donbas regions in 2014, the Ukrainian government has reported some 1.5 million displaced people: families forced to abandon their homes and livelihoods; entire communities torn apart over night, and the country’s cultural landscape irrevocably altered.

“2015 was probably the most difficult time to start any arts events,” says photographer and curator Kateryna Radchenko, speaking over the phone from Kyiv. “It was the most active phase of the war, and also the worst time in terms of Ukraine’s economic situation.” Nonetheless, that’s when she founded Odesa Photo Days — Ukraine’s only contemporary photography festival, opening for its 7th edition today. This year, the Photo Days programme revolves around ‘Breaking the Wall’: questions of borders and division, separation and communication, illusion and reality, and takes place over three days in Odesa, southern Ukraine.

Daria Svertilova

Born in the 80s, Radchenko is part of the first generation to grow up after the fall of the Soviet Union, and never had the opportunity to study photography through a critical lens in her home country. “We had certain schools of photography and [film], but it was still taught the Soviet way,” she says. “So it was subject to censorship, and quite a traditional way of thinking.” Like many young creators and academics of her ilk, she studied abroad, securing scholarships on programmes in France, Poland, the US and Sweden. “But it was always important to me that I came back,” she says. “To share my knowledge. So the festival is my way of sharing; of [fostering] education.”

If the cultural remnants of a hard-line Soviet regime coupled with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War weren’t enough, the pandemic has seen Ukrainian social tensions burgeon further still. The border between Ukraine and its breakaway territories in the eastern Donbas region has been closed since March 2020, seeing millions of families separated indefinitely. But Radchenko maintains her imperative to champion art, photography and storytelling in Ukraine is only bolstered by the country’s evolving struggles — and that the last five years have seen a boom in its creativity as a result.

Sofiya Chotyrbok

As part of the Photo Days 2021 programme, Radchenko has curated an open-call project that paints a portrait of Ukraine – and all its cultural, political and historical strain – through the lenses of its contemporary women photographers. The curation is part of the UA/UK Moving Image project supported by the European Union under the House of Europe program, and coincides with new research conducted by Radchenko into the history of women’s photography in Ukraine. 

“Ukraine under the Soviet Union had a completely different perspective on the gender question, because we always had equality in the workplace between men and women,” she explains. “So photography was open and possible for female artists, but from another side, the women – even when viewed as equals – had to be responsible for the family. And because of this, they never had time for personal development.” 

Still, Ukraine produced a number of noteworthy female photographers throughout the 20th century. Irina Pap, born in Odessa in 1917, built a now legendary career documenting the likes of Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro for Russia’s Izvestia newspaper, and in 1971 was appointed the director of the Institute of Journalism within the National Union of Artists of Ukraine, where she opened the first professional photography school of its kind. Paraska Plitka-Goritsvit, born in Ivano-Frankivsk in 1943, is known for producing around 4,000 frames capturing daily life in Hutsul communities (an ethnic group spanning parts of western Ukraine and Romania). Rita Ostrovskaya, born in Kyiv in 1953, rose to recognition for documenting the lives of Ukrainian Jews. For socio-political reasons, “a lot of Ukrainian female artists emigrated,” explains Radchenko, “so now they’re well known as international artists — but not as Ukrainian artists.”

Maryna Shtanko

In Radchenko’s curation of contemporary Ukranian female artists for Photo Days 2021, young photographers turn to family archival imagery to reflect on the socio-political shifts that came with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Marina Shtanko, for instance, imagines life in a socialist utopia by turning her family’s old photos into American pop art, combining visual aesthetics from both sides of the Iron Curtain. “I’m trying to imagine a world in which the USSR merged with Western culture after World War Two — as if the Cold War had never existed,” she says. In a similar vein, Sofia Chotyrbok explores individual and collective memory in the society by collaging archival imagery from Soviet times with carpet fabric that, to this day, hangs on the walls of many Ukrainaian and Russian homes; each weft existing as a record of days gone by. 

Through a series of eerie hospital interiors, where time seems to have frozen 30 years ago, Oksana Nevmerzhytska ruminates on the state of Ukraine’s healthcare system. Meanwhile, Daria Svertilova depicts how young students personalise their Soviet style dormitories, resulting in an uncanny confrontation of Soviet heritage with Ukraine’s new pro-Western generation. “Dormitories are the only type of social housing which exists in Ukraine nowadays,” Svertilova muses. “They were constructed during Soviet times, but buildings and living conditions have not changed that much since then — contrary to Ukraine and its people.”

Elsewhere, a careful selection of urban and rural landscapes and interiors complete the portrait of the country and its painful transformations. Iryna Eroshko draws a quirky portrait of her native town of Lutsk, where layers of past and present whimsically overlap, while Xenia Petrovska creates dreamlike mystical landscapes of her native village, exploring notions of home and belonging. 

Spanning a vast and dynamic variety of backgrounds, schools and aesthetics, but often speaking to universal female experiences, the work reads as both searingly personal and resoundingly political: a series of complex and candid musings on the country’s past, present and future, as framed by the all-too-often subordinated female gaze.

Odesa Photo Days is running between 21-23 May 2021 in Odesa, Ukraine

Enter Female in Focus 2021 now 

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.