The beaches are no different to beaches anywhere else in the world, the seas are no cleaner, and they are no dirtier. The amusement arcades are the same, and the provision for families on vacation very similar to those you might find on a seaside resort in Britain or America. But the people make it special. Odessans have there own sense of humour, and Ukrainians in general have a directness which I appreciate. There is less bullshit there than in the UK. People tell you what is on their mind. Ukraine is a country at war, and facing one economic crisis after another. Ukrainians are very hard working people, proud, generous, and extremely self sufficient ( they often hold down three or four jobs in order to cope financially). Ukrainian people have been badly let down by successive corrupt governments and politicians; does this sound a familiar story to Americans? It does to me as a Brit. The Ukrainian people I meet on holiday in Odessa have worked hard for their vacations.
Odessa is the third most populous city of Ukraine and a major tourism centre. During the 19th century, it was the fourth largest city of Imperial Russia, after Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Warsaw.
When I was making a recent work about displaced Ukrainians much earlier this year I visited the National Circus, which is based in Kiev. Backstage I took photographs of a woman in her fifties, Yulia, who performed an act with monkeys. The monkeys live with her and her mother, and they are really part of the family. Yulia explained to me how every August they go to Odessa, a beautiful seaside holiday destination, and take the monkeys with them. She told me how the monkeys swim in the sea, much to the astonishment and delight of the other tourists and local Ukrainian holiday makers..When The New York Times Magazine approached me about making a photo essay, anywhere in the world, about families on vacation, I immediately thought about Odessa, and about Yulia and her circus animal family (as close to her as any human family). I had got on well with Yulia, she clearly really cares intensely for the animals, and she had already invited me to come along this Summer and take photos.
Throughout 2016 and 2017 I had previously travelled through Ukraine and Russia making new work focusing on the estimated 2.5 million internally and externally displaced Ukrainians resulting from the war in the Donbas. The resulting photographic prints and video interviews are accompanied by the interpretation of new survey data from Professor Gwen Sasse and are on currently display at the Centre for Eastern European and International Studies in Berlin (ZOiS). The survey conducted by ZOiS in November and December 2016 provided the first comparative data on the attitudes and identities of the people displaced by the war in Eastern Ukraine both within Ukraine and to Russia.
In my eyes modern day Odessa is a place defined by contradictions; wealth and poverty, excess and restraint, and conflict as well as holiday and vacation..and that is what makes it so fascinating, so relevant now. I had an Italian cultural reference in my mind when I started taking photos in Odessa - the films of Fellini- and I had initially considered shooting my series in black and white, in an attempt to reference films like ‘La Dolce Vita’. Many times while I was photographing the beaches of Arkadia and Lanzheron, the whole beach would stop and stare as military helicopters would fly over, reminders that the conflict in Donbass, some 500 km away, is still raging on a daily, deadly basis. But a minute later, and everyone, including the monkey, was immersed again in well earned vacations.