From Where They Came

Katherine Turczan’s portraits from Ukraine describe a photographer’s response to a personal crisis and to a people in the midst of momentous historical change. Faced with the diagnosis of both parents with late stage dementia as a result of Alzheimer’s, Turczan set out in 1991 to photograph their homeland. Ironically, her arrival in Ukraine coincided with the August Coup in Moscow and its reverberations in other Socialist Republics. The painful transition from communism to capitalism, transforming the country and her own heritage, was a constantly developing mirror of her own personal transition in life. Turczan’s response to those transitions, depicted in the faces, postures, and returned glances of her sitters is an unforgettable meditation on the ways political and personal upheaval resolve themselves through individual lives.

Concentrating on the regions from which her parents came she travelled by bus and by foot with her camera. She found her sitters in several cities in Ukraine. Her work is loosely divided into three parts: portraits of citizens, portraits of children at sanitariums for Chernobyl victims, and nuns who take refuge in western funded monasteries and convents.           

It was April of 1986 when the Chernobyl Nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown.  Considered one of the worst in world history it’s impact is still felt after 15 years.  Chernobyl, only 60 miles away from the capital of Ukraine, exposed thousands of people to radiation. Those suffering the most from the disaster were and are the children.  Sanitariums were and are set up for the children in the Kiev area to rest and get away from continuing exposure to radiation.  Turczan visited her young cousins at one of these sanitariums and found nobility grace and beauty the face of extreme illness.

Using her 8x10 camera, Turczan set out to the streets of cities and villages to capture individual citizens of the country.  To get a better understanding of the political climate of the country, she often conducted interviews during which she asked political and cultural questions of her sitters

The nuns that Turczan photographs have attempted to find solace from religious bankruptcy and economic hardship by entering convents and monasteries. Funded by religious groups from the West, many of the convents are able to provide a level of security and comfort beyond the means of most Ukrainian citizens. But like the new Ukraine itself, monasteries have become sites for social renewal and transformation. Some women have entered the life of solitude and female companionship to escape prostitution and poverty. Others are revitalizing religious traditions and establishing new orders in hope of realizing moral and religious life lost during Soviet rule.