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Mila Ugryn’s “Ukrainianness”

Wed 23rd Mar, 2022

By Polly Gaillard

Mila and her friend dropping off suitcases of medical supplies for humanitarian aid in Poland for delivery to Ukraine.

By Polly Gaillard

I hear a heaviness in Mila Ugryn's voice when she answers her phone from her home in Chicago. Mila (APA Chicago member) was born in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine (Western Ukraine), and moved to the US with her parents in 2003 before she was eighteen. I can tell that the Russian war weighs heavy on her as we speak — she still has some family in the country’s mountain region. Recently, Mila and her Ukrainian friends traveled to Poland to deliver humanitarian aid, primarily medical supplies. She and a tight-knit group of Ukrainian friends from Chicago set up an Amazon wishlist for the humanitarian effort. They sorted the supplies at the warehouse where they were shipped, then packed their luggage and headed to Warsaw. They purchased their own flights. Mila briefly explains the complex logistics of getting the supplies into the right hands to be delivered to the most-needed areas in the war-torn country. Then she adds that she’d like to return, but that may not be possible — the cost of the flight and the bags are prohibitive.

Tetyana ©Mila Ugryn

"The Ukrainian people are incredible but humble from their history of suppression. They felt protected by their government, living peacefully like most other European cities until Russia annexed Crimea in 2014," says Mila. Since then, the country has feared aggression by its eastern neighbor, the cruel and senseless attack of Putin's army that is taking place today. Mila's voice breaks slightly, but she quickly gains composure to express her gratefulness for how the US and other NATO countries have supported the Ukrainian people. "Something beautiful came out of this awful experience."

Anna ©Mila Ugryn

Before our interview, I noticed a series of portraits entitled "Ya Vilna" on Mila's website. When I inquired about the project, Mila said she began photographing her Ukrainian friends in 2021 during the pandemic. She had only posted the portraits to her site two weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She urged her subjects to exhibit their "Ukrainianness." They arrived for the photo session donning either traditional "vyshyvanka" (Ukrainian embroidered shirt) or beautiful headdresses that were thought to ward off evil spirits in years past.

Taras ©Mila Ugryn

Mila says Richard Avedon's portraits from In the American West influenced her portrait style — a white backdrop, the camera's proximity to the subject, and the vulnerability of her friends standing before the camera in all their unique "Ukrainianness." Mila explains, "It was spiritually important to use film because I had to take my time composing the frame and felt a connection to the history of photography through the medium; it felt right." According to Mila, the project's goal is "for people to know how special the Ukrainian people are; they love where they come from. I want to celebrate their beauty. This project is a celebration of Ukrainian identity."

Volodymyr ©Mila Ugryn

The series title "Ya Vilna" means "I am free" (in a feminine voice), which seems quite an extraordinary declaration given the moment in Ukraine's history, but Mila is still optimistic. "No matter what Russia does, Ukrainian people cannot be occupied — they have a strong will and free spirit." Mila will continue to make photographs for the series and see where it takes her, that may even be to Europe. She says that making and sharing the pictures is "like pure joy and a secret." Since the war started in Ukraine, Mila hasn't been taking pictures because she feels preoccupied with, "how best can I help?" 

Mila has provided links for donations to the humanitarian effort in Ukraine:

Non-profit helping in Ukraine: 

Helpful organizations such as World Central Kitchen, Unicef, Red Cross, etc

Humanitarian and medical aid to Ukraine:

Amazon wishlist (Mila and friends) for humanitarian aid: 

Self Portrait ©Mila Ugryn

Mila's website

Mila's IG - @milaugryn

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