The Picture Show
3:03 pm
Thu August 8, 2013

Burrowed In Brooklyn: A Little Ukrainian Beach Town

Originally published on Sat August 10, 2013 12:35 pm

Resting on the southern shore of Brooklyn, between Coney Island and Manhattan Beach, is a place known to New York City dwellers as Brighton Beach. To some, though, it's just "Little Odessa."

Photographer Uliana Bazar grew up in Ukraine and had heard of "Little Odessa" during her childhood. The New York community is named after a Ukrainian city on the Black Sea — and today it's a community of mostly Eastern Europeans, many of whom immigrated after 1970.

In 2012, when Bazar was a graduate student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, she decided to visit the place she'd heard so much about. And then she went back 26 more times.

Initially, she found that people in the tightknit community did not want to be photographed, and it took time to build trust. She said they didn't want to be misrepresented, and many are illegal immigrants who were nervous about being exposed.

But eventually they began to open their homes. First it was a family's personal Easter celebration. Later, a man saw her editing photos in a coffee shop and invited her to visit a Russian sauna. Bazar even met a woman from a Ukrainian village neighboring her grandmother's who offered her a place to stay — a one-room apartment with a single bed, which they shared.

"I think I was attracted to people who could potentially be my relative or my parents' friends," Bazar says.

Even if not literally related to the people in Little Odessa, Bazar said she could still relate — to the idea of being caught between two worlds, to a vibrant immigrant culture, and also to their feeling of homesickness.

"When you remove all of these colors, traditions and vibrancy ... you see people are lonely and isolated," she says.

The "fantasy," as she calls it, is that coming to the United States will mean a better life. Many immigrants don't tell their relatives back home how hard life is, not wanting them to know that they work long hours to send money back home, for example.

Bazar says she understands well that feeling of homesickness that is portrayed in so many of her images. And looking through her photos, one of her professors pointed out a trend: "I realized half of my pictures are of single women and isolated," she says. "Maybe it is a reflection of myself?"

As these things often go, you set out to look at other people and end up learning about yourself. Throughout the process, the Little Odessa community received Bazar's work with open arms, just as they had her.

Bazar knows they tried to help her, not as a student doing a project, but as a fellow Ukrainian, far away from home.

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