How do people love each other when they come from two countries that have become enemies? Photographer Oksana Yushko has tried to answer this eternal and tragic question in her own way. With Familia, launched in 2014, the year of the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas, Yushko photographs Ukrainian-Russian couples. Previously, these couples were so common that they were not considered controversial. These love stories in the territories that formed the USSR were unquestionable, with barely existing borders.
A single Soviet family
For decades it was said that these men and women were one family. “During the Soviet era, people traveled from one region of the USSR to another for a thousand reasons – study, work, vacation, various visits,” recalled the 48-year-old photographer. “Our history is complex and intertwined. Millions of Ukrainians – like Russians – have family and friends on the other side of the border.”
‘My idea was very simple: (…) To talk about humanity, our common past, and our possible future,’ Oksana Yushko
Oksana Yushko is the child of one of these couples: her father is Ukrainian and her mother is Russian. She grew up in Ukraine before moving to Russia 25 years ago. The portrait of her parents, Lina and Viktor, sits in their living room in Kharkiv, a 30-minute drive from the Russian border. It’s the first in her series. Oksana, a Russian citizen since she moved to Moscow, lives with Arthur, a Ukrainian. These previously unremarkable love affairs have become fault lines. Oksana Yushko calls the couples who pose for her, her “heroes.”
For years, the artist, whose work has been honored at the Arles Photography Meetings and the Meetings of the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award for War Correspondents, has been exploring armed conflicts, memory, and intimate trauma. When she began this work nearly nine years ago, the war in the Donbas was taking hold.
“Friends ceased to be friends, neighbors became enemies, families were torn apart. Politics was intruding into people’s lives,” she recalled. “My idea was very simple: to reduce the aggression between people who were not directly involved in the conflict, to talk about humanity, our common past and our possible future.” Oksana posted her first images on social media. Many couples wrote to her to be involved. She was invited into homes, traveling from the far west of Ukraine to the far east of Russia.
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When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Oksana initially thought that this series no longer made sense and that she had failed in her somewhat naive and childish dream that love was stronger than war. “All of a sudden, every one of us was involved. There was so much tragedy around me that my words about love seemed absurd and artificial.” She continued, “But I was wrong. My project evolved. My message changed because the war forced people to choose sides. Like when parents split up and, even though you love them both, you have to choose which one to live with.”
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