Photographer Oksana Yushko started her photographic project, Familia, by taking portraits of Russian-Ukrainian families as a response to the conflict between the two nations – a response that places the emphasis on people, not politics: “We can change something. There is still a chance to looking forward to the best future, to be friends, to understand each other in the whole world, to bring peace not war.”
This interview dates back to exactly a year ago. It was Christmas and there was war in Ukraine. ‘Imagine’, told me Oksana when asked about a song that best describes her project. Imagine like John Lennon’s beautiful ode. Imagine like a synonym of… magic. Yes, indeed – just imagine: it is Christmas and… love is everywhere. Even where, the media and politicians say, it’s not supposed to be.
I’d like to begin our conversation with the legendary statement of Dostoevsky – “Beauty will save the world”. When you think of your project, do you feel like replacing the word beauty with love?
I would love to say that the world will be saved by love. I have been always thinking in terms of what is good and what is bad, even though there is no one truth. In his novel ‘Idiot’, when writing about beauty, Dostoevsky meant the beauty of soul, a moral beauty. I believe that love in its wide sense is absolutely the most important thing in our life. Love and compassion can make us feel and think different.
Surely you’ve heard of Brandon Stanton’s HUMANS OF NEW YORK PROJECT, what’s your view on it? Yours, too, is a photographical census if you like.
I definitely saw the picture of a man dressed as a New Year Tree and some others, but thanks to you I have heard about the whole project. I think it’s lovely, and people always love to know more about other persons’ life and thoughts. Brandon filled his work with love to all these people, good job man!
Many families interviewed so far? Have you set any number you’d like to reach?
I go slowly. I don’t have any number in my head, I just know that I will keep photographing people till I will feel that I need to do it. Till the conflict will be over. Till aggression will be over. I took my first picture and posted it on Facebook, and it was my statement, my message to my friends and this world: ‘Please share love not aggression, please do something for peace not for war.’
How and why did it all begin? Whose family and love story was the first to be told?
First I have photographed my parents. My mom is Russian, my dad is Ukrainian. They have met each other many years ago during their education in the university in Ukraine. My mom was born in Voronezh region in Russia, but then their family moved to Saint-Petersburg and then to Kharkov. During the Soviet Union it was easy to move between different republics, so I know many examples like this. I have never felt myself Ukrainian or Russian, dividing these things. I don’t feel the difference.
It’s not only about Russians or Ukrainians. I feel the same traveling around the world or visiting friends in different countries. We live in the modern world, and of course we use internet, social medias, etc. Since the beginning of the conflict I have seen that the situation between friends, many families got worse and worse just because they had different opinions. They posted and reposted aggression everywhere. This project is my statement on how I feel about this. I posted my pictures on Facebook pages telling these small stories about love and friendship. It went wider, the pictures were reposted many times, people commented on them, and their words were only about support and understanding. Below are two examples – the first one is from Britain, the second is from the USA:
“During the Civil war after the Revolution so many families were broken and people hated each other. They were fighting for stupid ideas of other people and forgot about love and compassion… It is sad what is going on now in Ukraine… but keeping love and peace in our hearts is the most important thing.”
“Be at Peace to all Russians and Ukrainians… Remember you are brothers to each other.”
I can’t stop this conflict but if with my project I will make at least one more person think differently, then it is worth doing it. I received many good responses so far. First it was on Facebook, and it was my initial idea, because everyone uses social media. I wanted to reach my audience that is connected somehow – friends, friends of friends, colleagues, etc. After the project got published in a few magazines I received some very nice letters. One woman wrote to me that she is a pastor in a church in Germany, and she would like to hang these pictures on a wall in the church before Christmas. It’s lovely!
Glancing through the photographs I get a feeling that there’s a lot of work behind each of them – every story looks like a mini-montage made out of a huge amount of information.
Oh, I love to hear it from you. Actually I usually spend 2-3 hours with my heroes watching them and asking them to do what they usually do. I try to catch some intimate moments. I photograph families at their homes when they feel themselves cosy and relaxed. So I try not to ruin the atmosphere of love and show it in my photographs.
What remains behind the scene?
Tea, good talks, funny stories – sometimes, and a feeling that I am on the right way.
Is it hard to find families willing to participate?
It’s not easy. This is why I use social media and ask help to my friends who repost and share my ideas. For now I have been photographing people living in Russia and Ukraine because for the last half a year I’ve been travelling a lot between the two countries. I know one family who lives in Paris (moved there a year before), so I plan to visit them. I met my heroes when I was travelling on assignments as well. Everywhere I go I try to find such people.
Every family is different – some love travelling, some are busy with bringing up children, some are thinking about making money, some are looking for art and inspiration. Elder people find joy in small things, younger couples feel like they could conquer the world. It happens everywhere and it’s good. This makes us reciprocally interesting.
What is the common pattern of these stories?
Love and compassion is a red line that unites them all. These people are free of prejudices and stereotypes – they know real values and don’t follow any propaganda or political games, whatever the country.
What are the main criteria to be eligible for your project?
If put in two words it’s #nowar.
What’s next? An exhibition? A book? A documentary?
I keep working on this project and I think an exhibition will be a good step to spread the word about it.
Should you pick a song for your project, what would it be?
All photo-stories are courtesy of the artist and sourced from Oksana Yushko's Facebook page.