Resilience and Strength

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, millions of people have been displaced, with over 6.3 million Ukrainian civilians seeking refuge worldwide. Alarmingly, nearly 80% of this displaced population comprises women and children, highlighting the disproportionate impact of conflict on vulnerable groups. In response to this humanitarian crisis, documentary photographer Polly Braden has dedicated herself to documenting the personal narratives of Ukrainian families who have fled Europe in search of safety. Braden’s latest exhibition, Leaving Ukraine, currently showing at the Foundling Museum in London, offers an intimate portrayal of the women forced to abandon their homes in the wake of violence. Through her astute and poignant photography, Braden captures the extraordinary journeys of mothers, daughters, teenagers, and even infants, as they navigate unfamiliar territories and strive to carve out new lives for themselves amidst upheaval and uncertainty. Each photograph serves as a testament to the resilience and determination of these women, highlighting their courage in the face of adversity.

Through first-hand photographs, personal films and recorded conversations, the exhibition takes visitors on a geographical and emotional journey, including the highs and lows of job interviews, first days at school, trips to buy wedding dresses and poignant family reunions, as well as gruelling night shifts – a far cry from the jobs they had at home. The show explores four central stories. These include three school friends trying to forge new lives and continue their education; a young graduate making a fresh start as a lawyer in London; a mother whose baby was born shortly after a perilous escape from Kherson to Warsaw; and two friends and their children who fled to Moldova with help from a kickboxing club, now struggling to find work in Italy. In one image, a girl sits on a window ledge in Bulgaria, issuing a small smile towards the camera. In another, a teenager is shown on her phone, sitting in front of a wall plastered with a print of the Dubai Marina. In a third, a subject laughs joyfully into her phone, caught mid-call in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. These are moments that are frozen in time, depicting young women on the precipice of social change. They illustrate personal victories against circumstances of difficulty, uncertainty and loss.

Braden’s connections with the women and girls featured in the exhibition persist to this day. Audiences bear witness to the constant challenges and agonising sacrifices endured by women throughout history. We see their persistence – their ongoing journeys amidst the continuing uncertainty of the war. As years pass, we watch teenagers mature into young adults and infants grow into toddlers, reflecting the passage of time in our everyday lives. The work builds upon an accomplished oevure of Braden’s previous socially-driven projects, such as Out of the Shadows (2018), which shed light on individuals with learning disabilities and/or autism in the criminal justice system, and Holding the Baby (2022), which explored the effects of austerity on families throughout the UK. Through these projects, Braden continues to explore themes of adaptation, perserverence and strength, amplifying the voices and experiences of marginalised individuals. In the middle of it all, she emphasises the importance of community as a unifying, resilient force.

Polly Braden: Leaving Ukraine | Until 1 September

Image Credits:

Sofiia, 17, at home in Gipf-Oberfrick, Switzerland, July 2022 © Polly Braden

Yulia, 16, in Byala, Bulgaria, the day before the family packed up to drive to Warsaw, June 2022, © Polly Braden

Lena after her interview at Wikborg Rein, telling her mum she was offered a job, London, June 2022, © Polly Braden