Katherine Turczan’s photos offer a moment of stillness amongst turmoil

Shot in the early 90s, her portraits of Ukrainian people – collected in a new photobook entitled From Where They Came – are a visual testament to both their hardiness and their vulnerability

“Ukraine was transitioning from a former republic to a confident, independent nation,” says photographer Katherine Turczan of the context for her latest book From Where They Came, which is published by Stanley/Barker. “I was interested in people in transition, the hope, and the complexity of it all.”

This was 1991, and Turczan had just arrived in Ukraine to capture a significant moment in the country’s history as the USSR was beginning to fall. Armed with her 8×10 camera, she navigated the countryside and the cities, photographing the people she came across.

But she was there for more than just simple documentation of Ukrainian citizens — she was also searching for answers to her family’s past, and an insight into a history she had been told over and over again as a child.

Born in the US in 1965, Turczan has fond early memories of visits to her grandparent’s house in New Jersey, where she frequently spoke with her grandfather about his time spent fighting the Bolsheviks as a Ukrainian soldier, and inspecting an old scar from a bullet wound in his ribs.

Fast forward to the early 90s, and with Ukraine entering a new era of independence, Turczan was eager to know more about this country that was so deeply embedded in her heritage. But with her grandfather having now passed away, and her parents dealing with the onset of early dementia, she realised she needed to travel there to gain a better understanding.

“It was my family’s past and my future that I was trying to make sense of,” she recalls. “But perhaps I was [also] filling the void created by my parents’ illnesses. All I knew was that I needed to make portraits and make as many as possible.”

Once there, Turczan rediscovered an extended family that she had never known, and was welcomed warmly into their homes and lives. They instinctively understood her desire to photograph them, and encouraged her to document everything she was experiencing.

Over the following years, she returned again and again to Ukraine, capturing the people and places that made up this beautiful country. But, in particular, Turczan was drawn to the women and children she met along the way.

“Ukrainian women are incredibly strong, confident, and determined; they keep their families together, and I wanted to learn more about them,” she says. “I also visited the Camps for Children of Chernobyl, which were summer camps in western Ukraine that gave children a respite from larger cities near [the fallout zone].”

These portraits, found in abundance throughout the book, do more than just preserve an important moment in time – they build an image of Ukraine that is full of vulnerability and love. As the country goes through yet another crucial moment in its history, we are reminded of the value of such projects.

“I knew that showing this older work would be another voice about Ukraine that wasn’t in the current news,” explains Turczan. “By publishing this book, I wanted to show Ukraine and its beautiful, tender and gentle people.”

From Where They Came is published by Stanley/Barker; stanleybarker.co.uk