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Francis, teacher, photographer

“In my french village we had a neighbor, Tatyana. She was born in Piski, Ukraine, in 1924. Like millions of other Ukrainians of her age, she was sent to Germany during the war for forced labor in a German factory. And like thousands of young girls, she met a man there and fell in love. He was a French prisoner of war. His name was André. Tatyana and André got married in a tiny village in eastern France in 1946. They lived in a house by the river, surrounded by cows grazing in the meadows. They had a boy who they named Jacky. I was born in this same village many years later. Madame Constant's house was the closest to ours. I would never have called Madame Constant Tatyana, Tatyana was the name for her former life, and Madame was the minimum respect I could show to a woman of her age. In the early 60s, André was killed in a motorcycle accident in the village. Madame Constant was left a widow for the rest of her life. She raised her son alone. She never taught him her own language, although she spoke French poorly. Perhaps she never even told him about her native country, or only in the secret of their solitude.

I grew up. I left my village. She moved to a nearby town when she retired. We lost sight of each other. Years later, when chance brought me to Ukraine, I immediately thought about her. Three months later, back in France for the holidays, I took a train to my village in the hope of finding her. At the town hall where I had gone to enquire, I was told that she had just passed away. A secretary who had known me from childhood opened the civil status register in the year of her marriage. I read: “Tatyana Skripko, born in Piski (Russia) on January 18, 1924.”

Her son Jacky told me that he found in his mother's papers an envelope with the address of her family that she had visited several times in the 1970s, after a 30-year separation. Back in Ukraine, I asked a friend to write to this address. It was a nephew of Tatyana. Her three sisters had left this world a long time ago. I explained who I was, my connection to Tatyana, and expressed the desire to meet him. So, the following summer, I took the train with my friend and interpreter to Poltava.

They invited me in a very friendly and very Ukrainian manner: with vodka and all kinds of delicious food on the table. I quickly realized that the nephew would have nothing to tell me about Tatyana or her family, but at least I was given a warm welcome. Suddenly his wife went to get a shoebox full of photos and spread them out on a small table. All these photos had been sent by Tatyana to her family throughout her French exile. Most of them had been taken in her garden, next to her house, and on some of them, I could even see my own family house in the background, and the cemetery where my parents now rest.

It was the village of my childhood, my most intimate and personal vision, which was spread out there on this table, in a typical Ukrainian house, in the distant city of Poltava.

I imagined this pilgrimage to Poltava would be the start of a great adventure. It was just the end of it. My own Ukrainian adventure was about to begin.

I’ve been living in Ukraine for 14 years already. I work in a French Lyceum, which teaches kids in elementary school. In my class I have 21 kids and among them 4-5 are foreigners and the rest are Ukrainians. So, Ukrainians study the French language, by the French program, at French school, they are given French education by French experts. I live on Gogolivska street and call the region Zoloty Vorota a French region. Yes, there is a French Institute, a French school, and lots of French people live nearby. I chose Ukraine almost by accident. I was just curious about this part of Europe. I chose a few capitals in Eastern Europe. I’m happy I’m here.

I was interested in this part of Europe because I was from a generation who knew well enough about this big divide between East and West Europe, so it was like the forbidden side of the world.

My first adventures were little trips to Eastern Europe, where there was still some communism. East Germany, Krakow. And every time I had a strong feeling. And I felt comfortable but there was still this iron curtain at that time, this wall, and I couldn’t even imagine passing it yet. I still had this in mind but I needed to visit it, to find some reason to do this one day, and then I got this opportunity to come as a teacher.

I have been interested in photography almost all my life. I started to do this seriously in Ukraine. When I arrived here, I found my inspiration as a photographer. In Kyiv, I started with a series of people on playgrounds. At first, I chose characters just on the streets. Sometimes it took me a few hours - I just walked, looked for them and found nobody. For the most part, people said ‘no’, and that's okay. I would refuse myself.

Over the years of the project, I have photographed about 500 different playgrounds in Kyiv in different areas.

I started with the central ones, I walked a lot, so I studied Kyiv. Of course, if it’s another region I would go by subway and then walk. Even this long street on Peremogy. I walked and found so many playgrounds on the right and on the left. I try to find the diversity of the city as much as possible. I choose a shot based on the combination of space and background, not only the character I photograph is important.

5 years ago, during the French Spring, I had some exhibition. It was in Reytarska, Educatorium, for the opening of this new space. My life as a photographer really started after that. It became much easier for me to find new heroes and meet more people. And then there were more friends and friends of friends and people from Partcom. It’s some underground place on Reytarska, very close to Ex Educatorium and Dukat, just across the street where there is a ZigZag. You have this courtyard and on the right you go down. I don’t know if they still exist. I had a friend, Pasha, who advised me on interesting people. I’m not sure I can talk about him because I can start to cry. It was a very good friend who killed himself. I can’t talk about myself here without talking about him because he helped me so much. He really gave me another direction in my work.

I started a new project, with the kitchens in the apartments when I was doing this project with playgrounds. The kitchen in many cultures is a very important place, especially probably here, even more.

Also, I like to follow some lines, like playgrounds, and the same with kitchens. Today I have 230 photos of kitchens and almost 500 photos with playgrounds in Kyiv. I have about 2-3 shootings a week in Kyiv.

Perhaps, my photo projects helped me socialize here in Ukraine. People were interested in me and I was interested in them. I think that’s not the one way, it's always both ways. Ukrainians have very different backgrounds than the one we have. And that they are not like Italians or people from the South. They are not so closed and they are deeper.

And there is something that I can’t really explain, it’s like you have something in common. Every time I come back here, there is something important. 14 years in Kyiv. My vision changed as well.

Especially after Maydan, I could see people become more enterprising, like opening small businesses. And you have lots of coffee shops, you can see bicycles, “samokats”. I would say that girls have more flatter shoes. I think they became more Europe-oriented. I remember days when the Russian football team would win and people were happy like it was the Ukrainian team. Of course, you don’t have this now. There is a difference in the way people serve in the shops. Before, it was more of the Soviet-style “Shto Vam?” - What do you want? Why did you come?

I’m going to be retired in two years and will come back to France. There is something that I should mention. Every time it seems so strange to people when I mention that my family is there. I live here alone and I feel divided in myself. Like a family man but not so family man. At least my family is there. I have a daughter. And she is already a mother. I wanted to do something for myself in the beginning, but I’m here for such a long time. That also explains why I may sometimes feel depressed. But then I have something that keeps me alive and that’s photography. I came here for 1 year. And every time it’s one more year and then one more. But of course, it has to stop, like everything stops. What can I do? I hope some people will remember me here. I mean that the only thing that can bring me here will be photography. But I know that if I hadn't got this job as a teacher, I'd never have come. There is something that forces me, brightens my life. Will you continue photography in France? No idea. This is the big question. Because I’ve never been photographing all my life. That’s why these 14 years are so important to me. And that’s why at some point I understood that I had to leave my country, France, and go somewhere else. And my wife understood this as well. She said “Just try”, but it was for so long, and we are still married. I see her about 4 months a year in general.

I’m not wise enough to give advice. I don’t know. Be patient. Because I am. That was my first answer to Pasha. ok, just do what you’re meant to do, if it’s impossible for you not do it. If you have to do it, just do it.

And if people find something in it, well, lucky you. If they don’t, keep looking for it. Because even if nobody is interested in what you are doing, you can make people like what you do. But this one and only thing that you do, you should like it, and do it in some way, and don’t wait for anything”.

Francis, teacher, photographer


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