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Ukrainian photographer Antonina Savytska shares an intimate portrait of her relationship with her aunt Zina, documenting her response to Zina’s death from cancer.

From childhood I loved my aunt Zina very much and, at the age of 13, after another scandal at home, I packed my things and went to live with her. Since then, her house has become mine. She encouraged my love of creativity and I admired her: under her influence my taste was formed. In those days, she worked as a photographer at the Ivan Franko Theatre in Kiev, and often took me to performances. I began to borrow her camera and take pictures of my friends, myself, and my surroundings.

In April 2018, Zina suddenly began coughing. At that time she was preparing to leave for France. She was very tired and wanted to go there to take a break from her day-to-day life. She had bought a new camera to play with on the trip. A week later, she discovered that she had stage four cancer. The trip was postponed forever.

Over eight months I watched her illness and tried to capture my experiences with a camera. She did not allow herself to be photographed, but once agreed to a session wearing a hat. The subject of my research was my own condition, attempting to understand the concept of life and my inability to stay in the moment, wishing life would develop differently.

It seemed stupid to me that she was not able to go to the doctor’s office without waiting in line. She became unable to cope with the absurdity of human nature as one by one her friends recommended that she could cure herself simply by changing her way of thinking, and often she was angry and yelling at me.

When she was no longer there, I began to notice how I was copying her mannerisms in my way of speaking, moving, and expressing emotions. Looking through her archives, it is amazing how much the subjects that caught her attention are the same that catch my eye when I hold a camera in my hands now.

In these photographs I undress myself to the viewer in an attempt to become vulnerable and show my relationship with my aunt Zina as it was, as I see it.

Self portrait: self discovering - I made my self portrait as an answer to Zina’s photography works. The sharpness of my body movement in the presence of another, with the desire to share and be loved, hides the fear of rejection. My external non-interest in reality, tension in the body, and control of my emotions is only an unconscious manoeuvre that makes me absent from the present moment. I do not agree with reality so I try to move the space, but I remain in this space alone.Violence against another, hoping to get what I want, is cast aside and innocent joy is replaced by isolation from another. Strong concern for myself occupies the thought process and makes it cyclical, tied to fatalistic self pity, where there is no real place for flexibility.

Zina’s self portrait - “Sooner or later, the body will be gone.”

Self portrait - The story of the last months of Zina’s life is my attempt to realise human innocence in the face of change that determines the course of life. My internal conflict was first accompanied by a denial of Zina, a desire to separate myself from her.

Zina’s drugs - Psychedelic mushrooms in honey. In Ukraine the healthcare system is very poor so we resorted to various methods of relieving Zina’s pain, including the illegal purchase of marijuana and psychotropic substances to create an alternative analgesic.

The last series of pictures I took of herZina in a hat with her cat Niasia.

She decided to take her hat off

A reminder - Avocado became a symbol of Zina’s death – it was one of her favourite foods. I couldn’t eat after the stress.

Zina leaves - Zina spent the last three days of her life in a clinic. On the third day, her best friend came to our house to bring fresh sheets and towels as well as a bouquet of flowers but they called from the hospital to say that Zina was dead. The flowers remained at our house.

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Words by

Antonina Savytska

Antonina Savytska is an artist photographer from Kyiv, Ukraine, interested in human nature and how failure can make life both unpredictable and bea… Learn more

Photography by

Antonina Savytska

Antonina Savytska is an artist photographer from Kyiv, Ukraine, interested in human nature and how failure can make life both unpredictable and bea… Learn more


Zina Ponomareva
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This article is part of Issue #2

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Death / Journey / Seeds

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