“There were beautiful people there”
A photographer reflects on portraits of Ukraine
By Tim Gihring
In 1997, Katherine Turczan began showing a series of photographs she had made in Ukraine. “From Where they Came” debuted at the Minneapolis Institute of Art as part of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, and featured portraits of children, nuns, and other Ukrainians trying to find their place in a country once more their own.
Turczan, a professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, has recently been sharing these photographs again, on social media. As the title of the series suggests, her family came from Ukraine, mostly during World War II. But other relatives stayed. And now, as Russia invades, she fears for their safety and the future of her homeland, even as she recalls the pride and promise she witnessed in those early years of independence.
Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union when she arrived in May 1991with her large-format camera. She had just finished her MFA at the Yale School of Art and received a travel grant to make these portraits in Ukraine. It was a working trip, but she also hoped to meet relatives, and when her parents began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, her visit took on a kind of urgency. “It was critical for me to go back there and reconnect with what was left behind,” she says, “because they weren’t able to tell me.”
She did meet family. In fact, she was with them that August when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was arrested by communist hard-liners, a last-ditch attempt to head off democracy. “I’ll never forget this,” Turczan says. “I was in a family member’s house in Kyiv, and we turned on the television and it was just playing Swan Lake, over and over. The radio, too.” This surreal moment of suspense as the coup unfolded in Moscow, and ultimately failed, marked the beginning of the end of the USSR. Four months later it collapsed, and Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence.
Turczan returned to Ukraine to photograph almost every year for the next several decades, as the country transitioned from one way of life to another. “There were some very severe times,” she says. “But what I found were people grateful for the fall of the Soviet Union and the start of a new democracy.”
She began photographing women and children. They were among the most vulnerable to economic turbulence, though some found stability in unexpected places. Convents were supported by money from the Ukrainian diaspora, and became havens for young women. Camps for “Chernobyl children,” exposed to radiation after the nuclear disaster in 1986, also thrived on diaspora dollars.
Her last visit to Ukraine was just before the Covid pandemic. “It’s been my life’s work, in a way,” she says. “And now I’m terrified.” Some relatives have taken up arms. Others have fled, to Poland and Slovakia. And there are older people in the family, having survived conflict and hardship before, who refuse to leave. “Once again my family is being split,” Turczan says.
Her photographs are now a stark contrast to what the world is seeing of Ukraine. “I’ve been sharing these photographs,” she says, “because I feel that images of tragedy can color people’s idea of what is really there. I want to remind them that there were beautiful people there.”
There are many organizations offering humanitarian aid to Ukraine, if you’d like to help. In addition to familiar groups like Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization, here are a few of Turczan’s favorites: World Central Kitchen, launched by chef José Andrés; Nova Ukraine; and Razom.