Documenting Ukraine’s student dormitories and a generation ready for change

Daria Svertilova has long documented Ukraine’s youth, both as an individual photographer and as part of collective Join the Cool. Born in Odesa and currently based in Paris, she is drawn to Ukraine’s cultural complexity and how it manifests itself in the creativity of the country’s young people. Her latest project, Temporary Homes, explores the precarious environment of Kyiv’s student housing, where Soviet heritage and new-era values collide.

“Student dormitories are the only type of social housing which still exists in Ukraine. They were constructed during the Soviet era, and since that time, buildings and living conditions haven’t changed that much — but Ukraine and its people have,” Svertilova says. “This ambiguity represents the change of mentality in a country that is moving towards globalisation.”

Svertilova was first inspired to create the project in 2019. The series is shot in the capital, Kyiv, where students from across the country come to study. The project not only captures details of their daily lives, but the dreams and aspirations which manifest themselves in the homes they create for themselves.

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“Dormitories are very particular places. The buildings look identical, and shared spaces such as corridors, kitchens, and bathrooms look more or less the same. But when you enter students’ rooms, you see a completely different world. For me, it’s a vivid example of how individuality wins over the system,” the photographer says. “I am always curious to see how people who are living in dormitories for quite a short period of time (usually just 3-4 years) appropriate the space and make it personal. They’ll often write on the walls, and pin up photos, concert tickets, and diary notes. The walls of each room say a lot about the personality of its occupier. As a photographer, I like that element of surprise that comes with walking into one of these rooms for the first time. I know nothing about its space or the light there, because I never ask students to show me their rooms before we shoot. Every room is a challenge.”

The 25-year-old photographer particularly wanted to focus on Ukraine’s younger generations: those born after the year 2000. She would sometimes spend hours with students, “talking about life, their studies, plans for the future. Despite the sometimes gloomy interiors, I would describe the atmosphere there as light and lively,” she says.

“For me, the 00s generation is more coherent, courageous and perhaps even more pragmatic than mine. They grew up surrounded by much more in the way of comfort and technology, but at the same time, they are attentive to nature and their surroundings,” Svertilova says. “I admire young people who have decided to stay in Ukraine and develop it. I left the country not so long ago, but I have always had this guilt in the back of my mind: ‘if all the young people leave, who will stay and change things?’. That is also the reason I decided to work on this project”.

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