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Inside the Walls of a Women’s Prison in Ukraine, a Garden, Wallpaper—and Memories

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''I love to draw. In the Zaporozhye region, where I live, I painted four drawings in the tradition of feng shui, something my mother practices. According to the teachings, I drew a dragon on the east side, a tiger on the west wall, a turtle on the north, and the south side features a phoenix. The dragon signifies wealth. The tiger drives away all troubles. The phoenix promises well-being. And the turtle—I don’t remember what the turtle symbolizes. I finished all these pictures just a week before I had to leave home for the colony. I have not had a chance to color them yet, but I think [my family] will color them while I'm gone.''—Lena

What would you do with a shampoo bottle that’s nearly empty? Probably turn it upside down, use the rest, and throw it away. Maybe recycle it if you’re feeling responsible.

Unless, that is, it’s the only gift you’d ever been given. Then you might keep it, memorize its smell, and cherish it as a way to remember your mother, who gave it to you before you went to prison and before she passed away. That’s the case with Vika, a young woman photographers Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac met while working in a Ukrainian penal colony.

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Young women at a penal colony in Melitopol, Ukraine, pose for a photograph.

The husband-and-wife team has been working on issues of incarceration in the United States for almost six years. Last year, because of their experience working with the criminal justice system, Bulisova and Isaac were invited to participate in an artists’ residency by an organization called Tandem. They were to work in collaboration with a museum in Melitopol, a southeastern Ukrainian town, which is home to the country’s only penal colony for females ages 14 to 20.

The couple knew from their work in the U.S. that access is always an issue when working in prisons, especially when minors are involved. They expected this to be just as tough in Ukraine. “We thought our chances [in Melitopol] were slim at best,” says Bulisova. “But after answering numerous questions about the reason for our request and sending scans of our passports to the Ukrainian secret police, we were given permission to work in the colony.”

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“I have a sister, Olga, she is 22. She’s my co-offender. She is now in prison in Odessa, where she gave birth to a girl, Valeria, my niece. I have never seen her in person, but I have a picture of her. And this picture is very dear to me. I am very sad for Valeria to be in prison. She’s little, and I do not want her to stay there. I want to get out and take her away from there so she can grow up in freedom.”—Alyona

***

They weren’t really sure what to expect when they arrived. From the outside, there wasn’t much difference between the Melitopol penal colony and others they’d seen in the U.S. “It looks like any detention institution,” she says. “There is a wall, wire.”

But as soon as you step inside the facility, everything changes, as Bulisova explains.

“You’re surrounded by a beautiful garden that the girls take care of. And once you enter the living corridors there is wallpaper. It’s meticulously clean and warm and homey.”

“They don’t have a policy of mass incarceration, at least as far as their juvenile population is concerned. We understand from other people that the conditions for adults may not be as nice, but as far as juveniles they’re restricting this situation for people who were involved with serious crimes or were repeat offenders.”

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“In this picture, my mother is 17 years old. Mom often jokes that I am her copy, except enhanced. When I saw the photograph, I was 14 years old, and I understood that we are very similar. When I was born, Mom was already an adult, and I didn’t think that we had anything to talk about, but in the moment I saw the picture, I knew we are on the same wavelength. And for me, she became always young and positive and joyful.”—Oksana

***

There are only about 30 young women at the facility, so it’s much easier for the staff to make personal connections with those in their charge.

Bulisova and Isaac’s residency was part of a larger project focused on memory, so they knew they had to take that angle and approach this story in an unconventional way. They met with the residents and asked who wanted to take part in a collaborative photo project. Thirteen young women joined them.

That’s where Vika and the shampoo bottle come in. The girls were each asked to present an object that held strong memories for them. Bulisova and Isaac spent time with each participant, photographing their chosen relic and listening as they shared the recollections and emotions associated with the object.

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“My mother drank her entire life, as far back as I can remember. At first, the money that she earned was spent, then the money that was given to us was spent, and then food and other things started to disappear from the house. Because of that, nobody ever bought anything for me. Then, before I was sent to prison, my mother bought a bottle of shampoo for me. I was using it, washing my hair, but then, when there was just a little bit left, I decided to keep it. Every day, when I opened the nightstand and I saw the shampoo bottle, I remembered my mother.

Then, I called home. At first, they didn’t want to tell me, but I heard in their voices that something had happened. Then they told me that my mother had died. From that point on, the bottle became especially precious to me. I take it out every day, I smell it, I hold it in my hands, and I remember my mother. Now, it would be a great joy for me, even if for one minute, my mother were back. At home, I lived with her my whole life, but I didn’t appreciate her. But now I treasure every memory that is connected to her, no matter how simple or banal, good or even bad.”—Vika

***

“When you’re on the inside your links to the outside become extraordinarily important,” Isaac says. “In some cases the things that were important to their memory were things that would be totally ordinary to us.”

As with Vika and the shampoo. “She started using it just to shampoo her hair, and at some point she remembered it was the only thing that had been bought as a present for her in her entire life,” he says. “Then she lost her mother while she was at the facility, and it became really her most treasured possession.”

Many of the objects tied the girls to their families, despite the fact that the majority come from some sort of abusive situation. “Ukraine is a huge country and it’s not like parents or guardians have an opportunity to travel much and visit,” says Bulisova. “Most of these girls come from poor families or families who are dysfunctional, so even if it is a family [member] that might have caused some harm, it’s the link that connects them with their home.”

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“This toy was given to me ten years ago by my stepfather. It’s dear to me as a memory of him. He died of a disease after my mother separated from him. We continued to be in touch, but later on I accidentally dropped this toy that I was keeping into a fire. This photograph was made on Christmas when the whole family was together. This picture will always remind me about my stepfather. Always!”—Ksusha

***

Along with the object, Isaac and Bulisova worked with the girls to decide where and how they should have their portrait made. There was an added challenge, as the girls who were minors were unable to show their faces. But the photographers embraced the limitations. “Sometimes constraints are liberating,” says Isaac. “You can just go about this very enjoyable task of figuring out how to make it work.”

The resulting pairing—portrait and object—are meant to work together with the text, to create a more interactive process and result.

“We wanted viewers to understand how important memories of other times and places are to the women living in the penal colony, and we wanted to convey the intense meaning they attach to specific objects to keep their memories alive,” says Bulisova. “Importantly, as their explanations reveal, memory serves not only to recall the past, but also as a tool to invent the future.”

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“I want to tell you about my postcards. Each card is associated with the memory of the person who wrote it; the kind of person, his character, and the relationship you have with him. And it makes you realize that this person left an imprint on your life and perhaps taught you certain things.

One of the cards, the most important one for me, is from my mom and dad. When I first arrived here, I was really worried that I would not have a good relationship with my parents, that they wouldn’t like me anymore. And when I got the birthday card, I realized that they remember me and love me and that our relationship remained the same. I am so far away from them, but I’ll come back and be reunited with them.”—Marina

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“My grandmother and my grandfather didn’t communicate, because my grandfather led a bad life—he drank and beat my mother and grandmother and threw them out onto the street. My grandmother harbored a great resentment toward him. They did not communicate for 20 years.

In 2010, for the first and only time in his life, he called me. He told me that he regrets that he mistreated my grandmother. I did not pay much attention to it all. He cried very much, and I felt joy in my heart that he is experiencing the same pain he inflicted upon my mother and my grandmother.

A few days later, I learned from my grandmother that he passed away. My grandmother did not go to the funeral, but she said that she forgave him, and she gave him her place in the cemetery.”—Boguslava

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“I want to tell you about my life after I am released. I have a dream to open an orphanage for kids who have no parents. I feel deeply sorry for them. I would like to work with children; they are good and they need to be taught good things.

I am glad that I have reestablished a relationship with my mother and with my family, because previously, I had a bad attitude. I want all people, all boys and girls, to value their parents, because parents are the most important thing we have in our life.”—Tania

Taking it one step further, Bulisova and Isaac asked the girls to record questions to the residents of Melitopol in a video interview. Then they took the questions outside the walls of the colony and showed them to the residents. The residents responded in kind, ultimately breaking down walls and creating a dialogue between inside and outside. The video is a work in progress.

The quotes accompanying the images have been abbreviated. For the full version, hover over the image, click into the gallery, or visit the website.

See more work from Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac on their websites and follow them on Instagram @gabrielabulisova and @markisa8.


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