Book of the Month: Debaltsevo, Where Are You?

February 23, 2023

The private becomes political: a project that began ten years ago as a biographical research into her own grandmother's life, developed unexpectedly into a long-term one. This led the Dutch photographer Karine Zenja Versluisinto the middle of the current upheavals of the war in Ukraine.
A young woman looks out at us from the cover of this exquisitely designed photo book. Her posture is somewhat stiff, and is reminiscent of the standardised studio picture typical of the late 19th century. It is a reproduction of the kind of photos produced in a atelier, before photography became a mass media. The photo book, however, moves swiftly from the past to the immediate present. It is the photographer's great grandmother – whom she never met – on the cover, but the portrait comes from the estate of the grandmother, whose life story is the starting point for the project. Questions start emerging right from this first picture: What remains of a life? What stories and family secrets are conveyed by portraits from the past and blurry colour snapshots stored in boxes and drawers? How do you research your own family history, the life of your grandmother?

The desire to learn more about her grandmother's life grew in Dutch photographer Karine Zenja Versluis, at a later date: “As a photographer, I spent many years telling other people’s stories: stories in which culture, identity, and migration played a role. That is, until I realized I knew almost nothing about my own background,” she remembers. Her “Babuschka” was not a talkative woman, especially when it came to the past. Born in 1921 in Debaltsevo in the Donbass, Eastern Ukraine, she was married to a Dutchman whom she met during her time as a forced labourer in Germany during the Second World War, and with whom she started a family. These were the few facts of family history Versluis knew so far; and she wanted to know more: “What did this Ukrainian part of me mean? I decided to go to Debaltsevo and take photos of everyday life. My goal was to use these images to engage in a dialogue with my grandmother. I wanted to get to know her better, and by doing so I also hoped to learn more about her past.”

Doing this proved to be more difficult and complex than Versluis expected: her grandmother is slowly becoming lost to dementia; the start of the war in Ukraine initially hindered the trip to Debaltseve (Debaltsevo as her grandmother remembers it). But over the years, Versluis got to know three Ukrainian families who had fled the city in 2015 and 2022, due to the war. Constantly overtaken by current events, the photographer's plans kept changing and, in turn, became symbolic of her search for her own identity. As illusive as her grandmother may remain, she is close to the families she found and their dramatic experiences. “The families from Debaltsevo are the closest I have ever come to my Ukrainian roots. Even though they are not my relatives and never will be, there will always be a bond between us because of Debaltsevo. Their stories have also become my memories,” the photographer explains. Even if, ultimately, she does not manage to make it to her grandmother's home town, Versluis has succeeded in creating an exciting testimony to her time, which, with its mixture of old family pictures, contemporary portraits, letters and texts, poignantly presents the importance of family and of history.

A statement explaining the alternative spellings of Debaltseve and Debaltsevo, appears inside the cover of the book.
Ulrich Rüter
First two images: © Dick Versluis; All other images on this site: © Karine Zenja Versluis

Karine Zenja Versluis: Debaltsevo, Where Are You?+-


Karine Zenja Versluis: Debaltsevo, Where Are You?
148 pages, 16 reproductions, 95 colour images
16.5 × 24.0 cm
Design: Jeremy Jansen
English (Ukrainian and Dutch translations can be found online)
The Eriskay Connection


Book of the Month: Debaltsevo, Where Are You?