A Photojournalist’s Intimate View of Ukrainians Living in Sydney

Photographer Thomas James Parrish’s We Are Ukrainian photo project focuses on both Ukrainians who have lived in Sydney, Australia for years along with those who have arrived as refugees after Russia’s invasion of the country earlier this year.

In We are Ukrainian , The vivid colors and introspective gazes of Parrish’s subjects beckon an almost mesmerizing gaze, and a fixed focus from its viewers. Capturing the diverse array of stories and photos through the lens of his Mamiya C330 and Portra 120 film, the Australian-based photojournalist skillfully illustrates the complex moods and varying degrees of emotions of Ukrainians who now reside in Australia.

Part photo diary and part storytelling, the shots from We Are Ukrainian aim to communicate the various challenges of being on the other side of the world and having to witness conflicts in one’s homeland, while also sharing the experiences of those who have recently escaped that homeland.

Parrish is driven by his passion for storytelling and the desire to document and explore social issues. He hopes to inspire reflection and social change through his work.

“I hope this series enables an understanding of the struggles currently faced by members of our society, and that it acts as a reminder of the relevance of a conflict we may choose to believe bears minimal immediate significance,” Parrish says speaking with PetaPixel.

older Ukrainian man in traditional attire

Each photo is named after the subject and is accompanied with their words, stories and personal experiences of sacrifice and resilience.

In the photo titled Ksenia, for example, the subject is seen standing defiantly with the backdrop of an active protest behind her. She grapples with her complex emotions around the news of the initial invasion of Ukraine and the response of her neighbors.

” I live in a building with a swimming pool. There are kids playing and having fun. The first few days were difficult for me. It is amazing that the world can go on. It’s so unfair. My mind went into a coma and then I was like, okay back to work. My mind just decided it was too hard to process this so we’ll just go back to the comfortable everyday stuff, and I hated that because I don’t want to not feel it, it felt numb.”

Young Ukrainian woman at protest
Ksenia, 30, moved to Australia from Kyiv with her family when she was 4 and has since visited and holidayed frequently to visit friends and family. Photographed during a protest for Ukraine at Martin Place.

In the photo titled Maksym & Kateryna, the couple expresses their frustrations with the politics of the war and their distance from Ukraine.

It is helplessness. It’s almost impossible to do anything from here. Just share news and check information and send some money to volunteers for buying medicines, ammunition and so on […] Then it’s the rage and probably hate because Russian could have stopped this from happening for a really long time ago, even when Putin for the first time cheated to stay President[…]It’s about hate and helplessness mainly.”

Young Ukrainian couple in their apartment
Maksym and Kateryna, both 25, moved to Australia from Odessa, in the South West of Ukraine, 1 months before the war began to study at Macquarie University. Photographed in their apartment in Macquarie.

In the photo titled Anton, the subject laments not being in Ukraine right now.

“Absolutely I wish I was there. I’m meant to be there. A flight I was supposed to take had to be cancelled due the war. It was a shame that I wasn’t there sooner. It is something that makes me think every day. I wish I could be there. That’s why I quit my job and do what I can to support the community. I’m working with humanitarian and military efforts. Helping our military, working with anyone coming over here from Ukraine, helping with visas and helping with people on the ground.”

Young Ukrainian man

In the photo titled Anastasia, the subject reflects on her heritage and her present life in Australia.

“There’s a huge aspect of survivors guilt. Why am I here and why is my family still there? Why out of everyone did my great grandparents leave and give me the opportunity to be here? I could as easily be there right now. For my great grandmother to have walked from Ukraine to Germany on foot, taking 2 years, and during that time she gave birth without anyone around her. It was a great feat of strength and courage to accomplish this. It’s an intense thing to think about.”

Young Ukrainian woman in white shirt in Australia
Anastasia, 21 has lived in Australia all her life as her great grandparents fled Ukraine during the holocaust. Photo taken at Hamilton Park in Turramurra.

In the photo titled Taras, the subject is in bright Ukrainian attire and reflects on the losses in his life.

” I have friends who are soldiers. They don’t share a lot of information because they’re in war. They can’t both write and shoot on Instagram simultaneously. One guy I knew, my friend, died just a few days back. And the other guys who are fighting, they say that they’ll never give up. So what I’m really proud of is that they are so strong and even though they understand that we are over gunned, we are overpowered by Russia, they still want to fight.”

Young Ukrainian man in traditional attire
Taras, 30, moved to Australia 2 months before the war began to work. His family was raised in Turnopil, before he moved to Lviv in the West. The photo was taken in North Sydney’s apartment.

In the photo titled Olga, the subject’s vibrant hair is basked in sunlight while discussing the frustrations of propaganda.

“Imagine the city you grew up in, this beautiful historic city, getting pummeled, getting destroyed and the whole country is becoming a war zone. It’s just really hard. And what’s even harder is dealing with Russian propaganda saying everything is fake and dealing with people who have latched onto that.”

Ukrainian woman with vibrant hair
Olga, 32, was born in Kharkiv in North Eastern Ukraine before her immediate family migrated to Australia when she was 13. Photographed in Hyde Park

In the photo titled Mar’yana, the subject cradles her violin in natural light.

“I play in a Ukrainian music ensemble, which I started a few years ago. I feel closer to my homeland and my culture by playing the violin. It is deeply touching to see the appreciation of my country by those who attend concerts. So I continue to spread the message of Ukraine through my music.”

Ukrainian woman holding a violin
Mar’yana, 44, moved to Australia 20 years ago. Her family was raised in Zaporizhzhya, in the South West Ukraine. Photo taken in French’s Forest, her house.

And in the final photo titled Vladislav, the subject is wearing a traditional attire, and shares his thoughts on the conflict that is occurring in his homeland.

“Why Russia hates Ukraine? Well many reasons for this. One we think is that the empire has ‘phantom pain’ […] the empire has had phantom pain since Ukraine’s independence.
Another reason is the empire is not strong, but it is not fully broken yet either, and so it will try to make revenge on those who breaks away from them. They cannot accept that they are being broken, and they are angry with Ukraine for this. And most of all, without Ukraine, the Russian Federation cannot be the Russian Empire.”

Older Ukrainian man in traditional white and blue attire
Vladislav, 58, was born in Odessa and studied his post-graduate in Kyiv from 1990. He first moved to Australia in 1996. Photographed in his garden in Artarmon.

Read all of the full stories and see more shots from the series on Parrish’s website.

Image credits: Photos by Thomas James Parrish