The femen phenomenon
By Gleb Garanich
I have been shooting Femen protests for five years and the girls have become a real Ukrainian brand now, like Chernobyl, the Klitschko brothers, footballer Andriy Shevchenko and Chicken Kiev. Colleagues in the office were always jealous when we left to cover the protests and many of my acquaintances from abroad were willing to go and watch them. Before taking pictures of the girls’ regular lives outside the protests, I asked myself: what do I know about them? I only knew their names. The public has two ideas of them, “funny girls” or “damn prostitutes, I wonder who’s paying them”. I personally do not care if their actions are moral or immoral, wrong or right. They do not kill or steal or promise to make voters’ lives better. Shooting their protests is much more interesting than, say, covering a briefing by the prime minister. These girls at least appear honest. Who pays for that is a question for the Financial Times, not me.
I chose the three most prominent Femen activists, Oleksandra Shevchenko, Inna Shevchenko and Oksana Shachko, and decided to spend a few hours with each one on a regular day. Two problems I faced were a queue of foreign reporters waiting to meet them and the flu, which brought the girls down. But once they recovered, I paid them a visit.
I spent the morning with Inna Shevchenko.
Inna, 21, was born in the city of Kherson and studies journalism in Kiev. She had worked for the press office of the Kiev mayor’s office, but was sacked for taking part in Femen protests. Inna likes to hike in the mountains and read Chekhov. She rents a room in a downtown Kiev apartment.
We meet at 09.30. Her room is large and has a sofa, wardrobe, two armchairs and a TV. Multiple garlands hang on the wardrobe door, Femen’s trademark which she wears at all protests. Inna, in shorts and a tank top, has just got up and is browsing Facebook on her laptop. As we chat on various subjects, she reveals that she only moved in two months ago from a hostel and is enjoying the solitude. We move into the small kitchen to have tea and Inna washes the dishes, commenting that she cooked borsch, a traditional Ukrainian soup, last night. She learned the craft from her mother, a professional cook.
Afterwards, she takes just 10 minutes to get dressed and we leave for the Kupidon (Cupid) cafe, the unofficial Femen headquarters where the girls spend most of their time, looking at news and planning new protests.
At lunchtime, I met Oksana Shachko.
Oksana, 25, was born in the city of Khmelnitsky and studied iconography at an arts school. She rents a room in an apartment in Kiev and dreams of becoming a famous artist and opening her own gallery. Her neighbors dislike her, save for a five-year old girl who recently asked “Inna, I saw you on TV but you were naked. What were you doing?”. The room has bare minimum furniture and the floor is covered with paint. Oksana is painting on a wall. Other walls are covered with icons, paintings and the coat of arms of the Soviet Union. Oksana tells me Mother Mary ends up looking like herself on the icons she draws. She does not talk much, focusing on her artwork while I get covered in paint as well.
I spent the evening with Oleksandra Shevchenko, who is not related to Inna despite having the same last name.
Oleksandra, 23, was born in Khmelnitsky and is studying at a human relations school by correspondence. She rents a three-room apartment with four friends on the outskirts of Kiev, at the very and of a metro line.
I meet her at Kupidon, which is still full of Femen girls at 19.00 when we leave for her home. I take shots of her in the metro as it is not completely crowded, although I dislike working there. A lens was stolen from me a couple years ago on the metro. Sasha (short for Oleksandra) doesn’t like the underground either. She says she gets harassed (by men) often. She and her friends live in a regular Soviet-era building, and neighbours’ dogs bark at us from behind closed doors as we reach her apartment. Only one of her house-mates is home at the time. We drink tea and discuss whether it is okay to eat kiwis with the skin on. Sasha has a separate small room, while the two other rooms are each occupied by two girls. Inside Sasha’s room, there’s a sofa, a table covered with books and magazines with reporting on Femen, a wardrobe with wreaths and a make-up table with even more wreaths. The girls chat, read and play dice. Sasha’s mother calls to ask if she is feeling and eating well. Time for me to leave.
The next day, all three girls and I walk around Kiev. Nobody recognizes them on the streets. We discuss icicles that make walking around the city dangerous. Then we go into a shop where the girls want to try on new wreaths for a planned trip to Italy. The management does not allow me to take pictures of “my friends trying on hats”, saying this requires permission from their chief executive. This is going to surprise the Euro 2012 tourists. The girls ask me if we can go to McDonald’s next. For the first time in my life, I’m taking girls to McDonald’s, a place I’ve only visited with my kids.
Finally, as we part, I take a picture of the girls next to the plate denoting the Presidential Administration building. Who knows where they will end up some day.
I think they are normal girls with normal problems, ideas and ideals who manage to break out of the routine and desperation during their protests, which sets them apart from many others who have moved to Kiev from smaller cities and towns. I think they have done more for Ukraine and its European aspirations than all the politicians and all the expensive adverts ordered by the government.