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It was 11:00 PM, going on midnight, when Sergey Melnitchenko saw the snow start to fall over the city of Mykolayiv, Ukraine. He texted his friends, and they went out into the night, shed their clothes, and ran around the city, naked and freezing but alive. It was long before the Russian invasion, and their city was their playground. 

Melnitchenko has been creating pictures with his friends (and friends of friends) for five years now as part of the series Young and Free, starting in 2017 and running until the invasion in 2022. The title refers to this group of friends but also to the rising generation of Ukrainians. “We’re young and free inside,” he tells me. “We don’t have any borders; we do what we want to do; we say what we want to say; we show what we want to show. That’s what our enemy never had.” 

For these photo sessions, which take place year-round, Melnitchenko and his sitters usually set out for their adventures at 2:00 to 3:00 in the morning, hoping to reach their location by dawn to catch the golden light. “All the photos were taken in the beautiful landscapes of my lovely Ukraine,” the artist says. “We did them in different regions in the south and central part of Ukraine.” 

Many of the men asked to participate in the series after learning about it from friends. Some of them were initially too shy to pose nude, but they found the experience liberating. In art, nudity evokes feelings of vulnerability, but it’s also closely tied to power and strength. For some, getting naked is an act of rebellion and defiance, especially in the face of oppression and violence. In ancient Greek art, heroes and warriors are depicted nude. In Young and Free, Melnitchenko’s sitters emerge as heroes in their own right. 

“Sometimes, I have crazy ideas and I call them,” the artist says. “They’re just like, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ They’re not shy anymore. They’re in the game and in the moment. It’s a kind of therapy.” The photographer himself does not appear in these images, but in many ways, he thinks of them as mirrors. “I think that if I didn’t see myself in these young men, I wouldn’t make such work,” he says. “An artist reproduces his inner world, feelings, and emotions. Some of these guys are as crazy as me. Some of them have families and kids like me.” 

An estimated 1,000 children have been killed or injured by this unconscionably cruel war over the last six months. Mykolayiv is among the hardest hit by Russian forces, with the city and surrounding areas witnessing brutal attacks daily. Almost half the city’s residents have left. 

Many of the remaining residents are elderly and not able to leave. When I first connected with Melnitchenko, he’d just heard that the house opposite his grandmothers’ house had been bombed. Hospitals and schools have been destroyed. Residents have been lining up to donate blood for soldiers on the frontlines. 

In the aftermath of the invasion, the photographer, his son, and his mother left Mykolayiv and settled in a region in the west of Ukraine. “We are trying to build a new life here,” he says. He wants to go back to get his grandmothers and bring them west, but they’ve asked him not to take the risk of returning at this time. 

The photographer has remained in touch with almost all of the young men featured in Young and Free. “Some of them stayed in Mykolayiv, Odesa, Kyiv, and some of them resettled as I did,” he says. “I’m very thankful to God that they’re alive. For now, that is the best that can be.” 

In recent months, work has been exhibited around the world, most recently at the Unseen Amsterdam Photography Fair. The artist is also the founder of MYPH (Mykolaiv Young Photography School), a Ukrainian photography school, community, and gallery. He’s chosen 63 photographers to be part of the first MYPH photobook. The book will be published in Ukrainian and English in a limited edition of 500 copies each. 

As for Young and Free, Melnitchenko hasn’t been able to make new images for the series during this time: “I tried, but I can’t.” He expects he won’t until the war is over. But he does look at the pictures often. “They give me hope that someday, and I hope it will be very soon, the war will end, and I can come back to my home, to my landscapes,” he tells me. Only then will they run through the streets of Mykolayiv, naked and free, as the first snow falls over their city. 

Selected images from Young and Free are available to collect as NFTs on Foundation. All of them are available as limited edition prints, made on Hahnemühle archival museum paper. Contact the artist for details

Young and free #9
From “Young and free” series, 2017-2021
Young and free #12
Young and free #8
Young and free #4

All images © Sergey Melnitchenko

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