Art

Women of Ukraine displaced by war rebuild their lives in striking new portrait exhibition

It’s two years since Russia invaded Ukraine and photographer Polly Braden’s new exhibition Leaving Ukraine is showcasing the hidden stories of women displaced from their home country

Ukraine photo exhibition

Anya with baby Vavara at the Inflancka No6 Women’s Hospital, Warsaw, 10 hours after Varvara was born, 16th May 2022. Image: Polly Braden/Foundling Museum

A new photo exhibition is putting the women forced to flee Ukraine in the spotlight two years on from the start of Vladimir Putin’s illegal war.

Leaving Ukraine will showcase Polly Braden’s powerful photography following six women as they escaped the war and rebuilt their lives, capturing everything from the highs and lows of job interviews, first days at school and gruelling night shifts.

Ukraine photo exhibition
Lena after her interview at Wikborg Rein, telling her mum she was offered a job, London, June 2022. Image: Polly Braden/Foundling Museum

“We know that millions of people have been uprooted, but what does this actual lived experience mean and look like for those individuals trying to forge new lives elsewhere, against the backdrop of war in their homeland? I wanted to make sure these less visible stories were told,” said Braden.

Around six million Ukrainians were displaced as a result of the war after Russia invaded the country on 24 February 2022.

The majority of people fleeing Ukraine were women and children with most men required to stay and fight off the invaders.

Ukraine photo exhibition
Narine with her son Valentine, 9. Chişinău, Moldova, March 2022. Image: Polly Braden/Foundling Museum

But that saw mothers, daughters, teenagers and babies in arms scattered across Europe to neighbouring nations like Poland, Moldova, Bulgaria and the UK.

More than 9,000 households who made the journey to England have asked their council for support to avoid homelessness, it was revealed recently.

Ukraine photo exhibition
Narine with her children Nicole (6) and Valentine (9) preparing to leave Regina Pacis, Moldova, with their friend Yuliia looking out for the minibus that will drive them to Italy where Narine hoped to make a new life, March 2022. Image: Polly Braden/Foundling Museum

Braden’s work looks to reveal the unseen burden of social care and dependency on women in wartime.

The photographer followed six girls and women – Sofia, Aliesia, Yuliia, Lena, Anya and Narine – as their circumstances evolved amid ongoing uncertainty.

Ukraine photo exhibition
Sofiia, 17, at home in Gipf-Oberfrick, Switzerland, July 2022. Image: Polly Braden/Foundling Museum

Leaving Ukraine puts the focus on four central stories unfold, including three school friends dispersed across Europe forging new lives and continuing their education and a young graduate making a fresh start as a successful lawyer in London.

The exhibition also highlights a mother whose baby was born shortly after a perilous escape from Kherson starting a new life in Warsaw and two friends and their children who fled to Moldova with help from a kickboxing club, now struggling to find work in Italy.

“Through Polly Braden’s compassionate lens, we can finally see inspiring personal relationships that would usually be hidden from view,” said Emma Ridgway, the director of Foundling Museum.

Ukraine photo exhibition
Yulia,16, in Byala, Bulgaria, the day before the family packed up to drive to Warsaw, June 2022. Image: Polly Braden/Foundling Museum

“Presenting these compelling stories at the Foundling Museum echoes the constant challenges and agonising choices faced by women throughout history, including the sacrifices made to ensure the safety of their children and others. The exhibition also serves as a reminder of the wider refugee and migrant crisis and the profound consequences on the millions of women, children and young people who are currently displaced around the world.” 

Leaving Ukraine will be on show at London’s Foundling Museum from 15 March to 1 September. Details at foundlingmuseum.org.uk.

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