For kids growing up in 90s Ukraine, makeshift photoshoots were a rite of passage. Photographer Maksym Kozlov had three: one where he dressed up as an astronaut, one where he was styled as a prince in Kievan Rus, and another where he became a musketeer.
But it wasn’t until Kozlov saw similar photographs at a friend’s house in the small town of Uman in Ukraine’s Cherkasy region that he saw them for what they were — a small slice of history. “I noticed some pictures in fancy dress in his room and instantly decided to tell the story of our common childhood,” he remembers.
Kozlov decided to capture these photoshoots in My Beautiful Tomorrow: an archive of childhood photos from Ukraine in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The small photo studios where these shoots took place were part of the country’s transition to capitalism, as small business owners tried their luck in a brave new world. For a small fee, their work allowed children to be captured as different characters: historical, fictional, or inspired by prestigious professions. Caught on camera on the brink of adolescence, the children stare into a future which remained uncertain both for them and the country as a whole, surrounded by heavily photoshopped montages of dream-like aspirations.
Kozlov had no shortage of contributions to the archive project. “I posted the open call on my Facebook page and, for a half a year, built up the collection with more than 50 scans sent to me by my friends. Ninety-nine per cent of the images in my archive are from Ukraine, and a few are from Russia,” he says. “[For parents,] the motivation behind taking these photos is often to have them as “a keepsake”. In that sense, it’s interesting to observe what these young parents facing the turn of the century with their young children wanted to remember.”
One of the project’s key motives was to process and reclaim a small piece of recent Ukrainian history, with its aesthetic and material culture. “I wanted to approach the idea of ‘our history’ with some critical reflection,” says Kozlov. “I didn’t edit or interfere with the photos; I just helped to bring them together and ensured they were properly captioned. But as they came together as a series, the images begin to tell important details about my own generation: the formation of the psyche and values of both ourselves as children and our parents in that era.”
Flicking through images in My Beautiful Tomorrow, viewers will inevitably smile at the garish, over-the-top backgrounds, the DIY props, the seriousness of child models, and the pop-cultural references (which span Formula One, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and even The Matrix franchise.) At the same time, the project provides multidimensional documentation of an emerging generation, their parents’ aspirations, and the makeshift photography industry which had sprouted all over post-Soviet Ukraine.
The individual stories behind each image also remain open to interpretation. “This archive is about direct documentation, so I tried to present the pluralism of this phenomenon. But some photos tell expanded stories,” Kozlov says. “For example, I really appreciate the photo of a boy in the Berkut uniform, which at the time was Ukraine’s special police force. Today, Berkut [is better known for] its history of illegal activities against Ukrainian citizens, such as racketeering, physical violence, torture, voter intimidation, and violence against protesters during the Euromaidan and Orange Revolutions.”
For Kozlov, the ability to capture these changing landscapes and relationships is what makes photography so special. “For me, photography is about building a relationship with the reality that surrounds us, how we exist within it,” he says.