Sergey Melnitchenko: Young and Free?

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled [detail] from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

I photograph what I know and feel


Sergey Melnitchenko is something of a force of Nature. Barely thirty, with a young family – and having taken three years out to work as a dancer in China and, subsequently, to found a school of photography – he has nonetheless established himself as one of the most widely exhibited of a new generation of contemporary art photographers in Ukraine. His images engage a generation of young men caught up in the shifting history of their country but determined to live freely. In his photographs, this freedom finds emblematic form in nakedness. Liberated from the social signifiers of dress and uniform, the young men assert themselves as individuals independent of wider societal constructs. And, in so doing, they succeed in appearing both innocent and provocative.

Even now, the male body can be a challenging subject in photography. While male nudes abound in the fine arts, they invariably wear their nudity as a mantle of allegory, representing the heroic traditions of Ancient Greece, the piety of the Christian martyr or some such elevating garb. Sergey’s nudes have no such grandiose pretentions, nor are they particularly homoerotic. They are simply ordinary young men doing the kind of things young men do, but without clothes. Yet here too, their nudity tends to lead the imagination to metaphor – to see them not simply as individuals but as capturing the spirit of a generation.

Sergey’s home town of Mykolaiv on the Black Sea is one of the more traditionally conservative cities in Ukraine. It was not the easiest place to begin photographing the male nude and his work has not been without its critics. But Sergey is a man of considerable charm and determination. Self-taught, he has developed both the skills of his art and of its promotion through the praxis of lived experience. His social-media presence is prolific and engaging, he exhibits extensively, and he knows how to schmooze the art fairs. That said, his lively personality does not manifest as the dazzle of ego reflecting from the surface of his art, but the force behind that urges it forward. This is not limited to his own photographs and the men represented within them. As founder of the Mykolaiv Young Photographers school he is an ardent advocate of the budding talents that are emerging from this collective creative enterprise.

Riding the zeitgeist, his vision, his way of connecting and his generosity of spirit have resonated for a generation within Ukraine and an artworld beyond. With so much achieved in the first decade of his adult life, one can only imagine where the next ten years might lead…

Alasdair Foster

© Sergey Melnitchenko ‘The Exploitation of Human Labour’ from the series ‘Young and Free?’ 2020


How did you begin as a photographer?

In 2009, when I was eighteen years old, I got a tongue piercing. My grandmother disapproved and offered to buy me a camera if I took it out. I did and, from then on, I have been a photographer.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled diptych from the series ‘Schwarzenegger Is My Idol’ 2012–2013

How did ‘Schwarzenegger is My Idol’ begin?

Really, it began by accident. It was the very first series I made and totally intuitive. At that time I really had very little understanding of contemporary photography.

I just wanted to show a young generation, my generation, who grew up with the movies and screen idols from the 1990s. Nothing more. I was too young an artist to think about explaining (even to myself) what I wanted to explore through these images. It has only been with the passage of time, and with the help of curators and art critics, that I have come to understand what I was doing.

Why are the men naked?

My original idea had been to dress the young men in old soviet sports clothes. But then I met Roman Pyatkovka. He is, of course, a very experienced photographer and member of the Kharkiv School of Fine Art Photography. He thought it was important to show the real human being and not a ‘fashion icon’. He said that the combination of strength and vulnerability in the young men’s naked bodies would allow my work to be more timeless. It was just a suggestion, but it made sense to me.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled diptychs from the series ‘Schwarzenegger Is My Idol’ 2012–2013

So, I returned to my hometown, called my friends and explained the idea, but that now I wanted to make it without clothes. They agreed and we did it.

Since then, the male nude has in many ways become your ‘signature’ as an artist.

I could not agree more. I have been working on this subject since 2012 and continue to do so. While it began ‘accidentally’, I fell in love with the process of working with guys; each time I make a new series it is connected to the male body – something I share with the men I photograph. So, yes, it is my signature.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled diptych from the series ‘Military Commissariat’ 2014

‘Military Commissariat’ was made at a very specific time in the political history of your country. What is it you wanted to explore through these images?

In 2014, after the Revolution of Dignity [which followed the Euromaidan protests], the army draft – which had previously been treated as something of a joke or escapade – had now become, literally, an invitation to war. This set a new context for my work, but I did not change my signature to go into documentary photography or something like that. In this work, the ‘soldiers’ are two pairs of twins. They represent the young boys who found themselves in the midst of this conflict. They look almost identical, like the same young man replicated over and over again. The army erases individual differences, replacing them with chevrons. Nobody cares about them as individuals. They are all just the same: bodies to send to war – it’s very sad, horrible.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled diptych from the series ‘Military Commissariat’ 2014

How did you design the images?

Their poses are regimented, and each image of the young men is paired with an image of the make-shift fortifications constructed from old tyres and sandbags. They are bare-chested, they are alive and vulnerable, they display no rank. Each image is bordered with symbols like a chain. The pictures of the defences have religious symbols, while those around the young men are military. In this way, I wanted to connect two opposite sides of our life – god and war.

The ‘Naked Self-Portraits in Paris’ are very different. Black and white, grainy, fragmented, oblique… How did this series come about?

I was in Paris, staying in a friend’s apartment. He had gone to work by the time I woke up. I realised that I was alone. There were four or five rooms with many mirrors and beautiful objects. I couldn’t miss that chance!

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Naked Self-Portraits in Paris’ 2018

I am interested by the style you chose, it’s kind of mysterious and dark. It is almost like a voyeur spying on someone – as though you are not aware you are being photographed. I think that is very interesting as a way of constructing a series of self-portraits.

It was a bit hard for me to get started, because I had not been making self-portraits for quite a long time by then. But, a few days before I made this work, I had received a message from a friend who told me that my early work reminded her of the style of Francesca Woodman [1958–1981]. That was the mood I was thinking about when I started to make these photographs: black and white with a slight feeling of distance… disconnection… and a little sadness.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

‘Young and Free’ is the most extensive of these series, made over half a decade. What are the underlying ideas behind this work?

For the three years I was working in China I did not make any male nude photographs and I missed it so much. So, when I returned to Ukraine in 2017, I was eager to start again. But this time there was a different aesthetic from before. While ‘Schwarzenegger’ is a project about youth and their interests looking back to the 1990s, ‘Young and Free’ is more contemporary in spirit. It’s a kind of showcasing of the new generation – more liberated, more open.

You have been making this series for five years now. How has it evolved over that period?

I don’t set out with an objective. I just do what I get the most out of. Once I become bored or tired I move on to another way of working. This series has lasted a long time, yet with each successive shoot, I find new ideas, new meanings, and the desire to continue only intensifies.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

I made the first pictures with my friends Alexei, Nastya, and Andrey in various apartments in the city. They were calm, subtly erotic, like the image of Nastya holding Andrey on her lap. I did not want to make images that were shocking. I just wanted to shoot nude and gentle portraits of young people in interior spaces.

But in time this became boring for me. It was like a switch flipped in my head. I no longer wanted to stay indoors and make placid pictures. So we started to go outdoors looking for some great landscapes: mountains, canyons, lakes, rivers, forests, sand dunes… The series started to change, and the whole process became looser, freer.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

The pictures began to include more people, the action more dramatic. I wanted to catch a sense of the fire inside the hearts of the younger generation. It became an adventure! Not just the thrill of creating the photographs, but the whole process: getting ready, collecting the guys who were going to model, on the road together, drinking coffee at gas stations… The camaraderie of it. It was filled with emotion.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

The most recent part captures the sense of energy and freedom of these young men. ‘Young and Free’, the name itself sets the mood of liberation. It’s fun, everyone involved is running on adrenaline. Many guys, having seen my work, have asked to participate. I hope that, thanks to this project, there will be less fear and shame about the male body; fewer sanctimonious stereotypes in our city. Young people want to be free, to stand tall, to go beyond their limitations.

How do you decide on the poses and action in the photographs?

Actually, there’s no preconceived idea about the poses. I just do it. When I am shooting, everything depends on the people, on our mood, on the location, the weather conditions, and so on. A photograph shot spontaneously may later become a pivotal image in the series. I need to spend a lot of time selecting which images are in the final series, because I really want to publish them as a book.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

Who are the men in your photographs?

They are all my good friends. They are really interested in helping me with my ideas, and, for some, it is a kind of a personal challenge to themselves to strip naked and take part in such a project. Many of them have liked the process so much that they have come back again and again to join in the shooting trips.

I have been very lucky that my friends have been so open and willing to contribute to these projects. To be honest, I am still amazed they agreed. Ukraine is quite a homophobic country and our hometown of Mykolaiv particularly so. Any hint of male nudity can result a lot of bullying and threats. It took a lot of courage for my friends to expose themselves in this way and to break the stereotypes that surround a nude male body in photography.

You were a professional dancer. Do you think this has given you a particular insight into the expressive potential of the male body?

I think that dance has been a big influence on my vision of the world and made me more open to working with the body and exploring ideas through it. The body is a fascinating thing, especially when it is naked and free. And I think many people who see my photographs feel this too. I photograph what I know and feel. Nowadays, I have no desire to photograph women. Maybe because I don’t know how or don’t want to be able to. I only photograph my wife, but that is a very different kind of image-making.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Young and Free’ 2017–2021

How were the images received by Ukrainian audiences?

In 2012, after making ‘Schwarzenegger is My Idol’, it was tough. We – me and the young men I had photographed – faced a lot of negativity. Now, times are changing, and it becomes easier to do such projects. But, you know, in a way it also becomes less interesting. I love challenging people’s preconceptions. That’s why I do my art.

I do not expect that everyone will like my pictures of naked men galloping around the countryside. On the other hand, these images are quite aesthetic, and I think perhaps some people may have an internal conflict, finding them both shocking and yet visually pleasing. People here are already accustomed to the female nude; this work breaks the template.

© Sergey Melnitchenko ‘The Ecological Issue’ from the series ‘Young and Free?’ 2020

In 2020, you made a series in which you add an all-important question mark to the title: ‘Young and Free?’.

Yeah, this series is a kind of social commentary. It addresses very real issues, much more than just the Coronavirus pandemic: the ecological crisis, forest fires, the exploitation of labour, the threat of war, police brutality and concerns that, in Ukraine, we were returning to the criminality of the 1990s. The situation is becoming more and more unpredictable and alarming every year.

© Sergey Melnitchenko from the series ‘Young and Free?’ 2020
[Left] ‘Back to the Criminal 90s?’; [Centre] ‘War in Ukraine Remains an Ongoing Issue’; [Right] ‘Disinfection’

These are questions for the whole generation, for the generation of millennials. They will be the ones most affected, and they are the ones that should be taking responsibility. Now there is a decisive transition from the point of uncertainty to the formation of a long-term vector. You can fall into the trap, simply accept the ideology of your predecessors and, again, crash. Or you can make a conscious choice to hold onto your right to freedom of opportunity.

I used my signature visual language of naked young men and added symbolic props to highlight these social and global problems through the personal lens of my art. In ‘Young and Free’ I was exploring a more optimistic and free world for the younger generation, but in ‘Young and Free?’ I’m looking at the things that are happening around us and asking a question: are we really free?

© Valeriy Veduta a group of students of the MYPH School with Sergey Melnitchenko (crouching)

In 2018, at the age of just 27, you established the Mykolaiv Young Photographers school – MYPH. How did this begin and what do you teach?

Photographers here do not have the same opportunities as they do in America, where talented people are noticed and taken under the institutional wing. In Ukraine, you have to rely on your own strength alone. In our case, the school is the real space where we gather. My task is to build a functional base, to organise a team. I can’t call myself a super-educated person. I have learned to self-organise and promote myself, to look and to understand. I teach how to think and do. Education can only begin; it will never end. So, I founded MYPH as a collective of young artists from my hometown running short courses in photography and professional development.

And it has quickly established itself…

Yes. In just a few years MYPH has grown considerably and currently has six in-house teachers and broad community of students. The main task of the school is not only photographic education; I want to help my students to showcase their works, not just locally but worldwide through magazines, exhibitions, collaborations with the galleries, and even to sell their work. We have students that are now winning important awards, beginning to work with international galleries, and some of them even have their photographs held in big museum collections in Ukraine. I really believe in what we are doing here, and I think it is just a start of something that can become global. It’s not just about today and now, it’s about the future.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Fundamental Space Exploration of the Naked Singularity’ 2019–2021

In your most recent series, ‘Fundamental Space Explorations of the Naked Singularity’, you have taken a new turn that seems to look at the male body in a more metaphorical or fictionalise way… First, what is the ‘naked singularity’?

In astrophysics a ‘singularity’ is something which cannot be observed from outside – a black hole for instance. It is surrounded by an ‘event horizon’, which marks the limit past which an outside observer cannot see; nothing inside the event horizon can be perceived from outside. In philosophy, a singularity is something that is unique. For me it is a kind of metaphor: each person is unique, there is no-one exactly like you or exactly like me. You might say that the phenomenon of our uniqueness is in fact our personality, our singularity.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled images from the series ‘Fundamental Space Exploration of the Naked Singularity’ 2019–2021

This is a conceptual work. We are alone and trying to find ourselves – desperately – often feeling like aliens on our own planet. Like this, the person is within their own event horizon, what is inside them is invisible to others… Until another person makes contact, connects with them, it is impossible to see the scale of their internal search. A ‘naked singularity’ is a singularity that is not surrounded by an event horizon, it can be observed from outside… we can connect…

Using this cosmic analogy, I am creating faux scientific documentation to suggest what is happening beyond the event horizon in which each of us is located until we connect with another by becoming a naked singularity.

© Sergey Melnitchenko untitled [detail] from the series ‘Fundamental Space Exploration of the Naked Singularity’ 2019–2021

Biographical Notes

Sergey Melnitchenko was born in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, in 1991. Self-taught, he began taking photographs in 2009 and exhibiting in 2012. From 2013–2016 he worked as a dancer in China. In 2018, he founded the Mykolaiv Young Photographers school – MYPH. He has presented twenty-four solo exhibitions and featured in well over one hundred group shows across many countries in Europe and in Asia and South America. His work has been presented at a range of international art fairs including Paris Photo, Volta Art Fair, Photo LA, and Photo Basel. His photographs are held in various public and private collections in Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and USA.

He has won a number of national and international awards including the Leica Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award (Berlin, 2017), Photographer of the Year (Kyiv, 2012, 2013, and 2016), and a Golden Camera (Kyiv, 2012), and was nominated for the Foam Paul Huf Award in 2020. Sergey Melnitchenko has published a number of books including ‘Schwarzenegger is My Idol’ (MOKSOP, 2020), ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ (Rodovid Press, 2018), ‘Behind the Scenes’ (RITS Publishing, 2017), ‘Passengers’ (Red Zet, 2018), and ‘Loneliness Online’ (Self-published, 2014). He lives and works in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.