New East Digital Archive

‘Who you meet is a lottery.’ Hop on a wild ride with Ukrainian Railways

Originally from Stakhanov in eastern Ukraine, Julie Poly began her photographic career by documenting the equestrian market in Kharkiv. She made her mark as a fashion photographer in Kyiv, shooting editorials for Ukraine’s Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. For the last two years, she’s been working on a personal project — a “pseudo-documentary” on Ukrainian railways — inspired by her days as a trainee train conductor. Playfully tongue-in-cheek, Ukrzaliznytsia is a visual love letter to railway travel that packs the heat of a sweltering cabin in summer and pokes fun of Eastern European stereotypes all at the same time.

Read on to hear about life onboard the Ukrainian Railways in the photographer’s own words.

I’ve always been fascinated by the mystery of train travel. In films and books, trains are a popular device for bringing characters together. Part of the fun is not knowing who’s going to be your companion or what the trip will lead to, which is the reason why it’s a popular setting for detective dramas. Even before you’ve bought your ticket, you’ve probably made up stories about your fellow travellers — who turn out to be completely different people by the end of the trip. You meet all kinds of characters on trains. It’s a lottery: maybe it will bring you romance, maybe a murder (in films, anyway).

When I started my training as a conductor 10 years ago, working for the railway industry was considered to be very prestigious. It’s still a popular profession to this day. Ukrzaliznytsia is one of the largest enterprises in the country and employs approximately 350,000 people, enough people to populate a city.

I studied at the Ukrainian State Railway Academy in Kharkiv in “process control and customs control”. It is expected for first-year students to work through the summer, when the train conductors usually take time off. I wanted to see what that would be like, so I passed all the necessary tests and got the job. The first route I worked was Kharkiv to Simferopol, Crimea; the next route was “Kharkiv - St Petersburg - Kharkiv - Ivano-Frankivsk - Kharkiv”. I enjoyed the fact that every day would bring new passengers, new faces, new adventures, and new passing views.

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One of the most storied routes was from Kharkiv to Vladivostok, which took 16 days return. People typically made this journey to bring back goods from the Far East, such as caviar or cheap gadgets. Everybody had money and this influenced the people you met on board. I’ve heard stories featuring gamblers, fraudsters, and kids who go around drugging passengers with sleeping pills. For the book, I reimagined these stories with fictionalised characters.

Ukrainian trains have an absolutely unique atmosphere. Passengers like to get comfortable. Crammed into small compartments, they swap their city shoes for slippers or poke their bare feet out of their bunks. They wear as little as possible in their cabins, the same place they dine and drink. Any privacy and personal boundaries are quickly erased. This is something I wanted to show with the book, which explains the sexual current that runs through the photos.

All the photographs were made especially for the book. I started out by making a mood board, where I collected all the scenarios I wanted to reproduce. While many of the shoots were staged and scripted, the photos were taken on real trains journeys and capture our own adventures onboard. In the end, it was interesting to see the stylised characters interact with real passengers — it created a curious synthesis. Other photos in the book are pure documentary.

I collaborated with stylists — Venya Brykalin, Nastya Gutnik, Alyona Ivanova, Stas Soulkeeper, and Olena Polyvyan — to create the looks for my characters. At some stations, we dropped into local beauty salons for finishing touches. Everyone I cast, in some way or other, was asked to play themselves, in a slightly exaggerated fashion: for example, the dancer is a pole dancing champion and trainer; the “Barbie” is actually the former Miss Lviv. I wanted the staged photos look as natural as possible.

As for the set design, everything you see in the photos is original decor. There were several shoots for which minimal scenery was required. Besides this, the still lifes and documentary photos show train travel in Ukraine with all its comforts.

The idea behind the book was to give readers the opportunity to experience Ukrainian train travel for themselves. With this in mind, myself and the art director Ben Ditto decided to divide the book by stations in Ukraine. I included poetry and texts (written by Lizaveta Gottfrick and Olga Balenciagato) to convey the atmosphere of the journeys. We even went as far as to borrow the packaging of the book from the bedding you find on Ukrainian trains. Typically, each train journey begins with you getting accustomed to your cabin, ripping open the plastic packet that contains your pre-prepared bed sheets, and making your bunk. We wanted to recreate this feeling so that by opening up the book, you are prepared for the journey that is about to begin.

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