Daniel Jack Lyons’ series “Displaced Youth” doesn’t look like most of the documentary work that has emerged from Ukraine in recent years. Records of protests like Euromaidan, Russia’s controversial intervention there and in Crimea, and civil unrest in the country has led to an outpouring of photojournalistic projects focusing on the aftermath of violence. Many of these series are potent and compelling in their own right (Tim Eastman’s series Citizen of War comes to mind) but Lyons’ series deserves attention for presenting the victims of displacement in a new light.
The images in “Displaced Youth” are overlaid with a nostalgic filter and a sublimated desire that would feel at home on an indie movie set or photoshoot in California. But this is the meat and marrow of Lyons’ work—his series reminds us that any country can, at once, be a site of conflict and also a place where young people have few obligations or cares beyond the yearnings of being young. Of course, these men and women do have other worries on their minds: Lyons photographed this series in the summers of 2015 and 2016, at the height of the turbulence for this unsettled country.
Lyons’ photographs call attention to his subjects as both young people and victims of displacement. In recent years, huge numbers of Ukrainian citizens have fled the ongoing Russian military operations, especially at the frontiers of the country, and this had led to a surge of job-seeking citizens in urban centers like Kiev. Many young adults arriving in this area come without prior work experience and have trouble finding employment, the effect of which is swelling numbers in the capital’s resettlement sites. This is where Lyons focuses his lens.
Many of these sites are repurposed summer camp dormitories, and the juxtaposition between the original purpose of these camps—leisure, amusement—and their unanticipated current use speaks to the fractured state of the country and the challenging young adulthood faced by these people. “The summer holiday ephemera in these sites is starkly contrasted by its occupants, which include families who are desperately waiting to go home,” says Lyons. “The photos in this series document the essence of youth living in limbo.”
Scratch away the surface, he suggests, and we will see the unstable and untenable reality of a country at war. But the surface is also one we should pause and acknowledge. This duality—youthful desire barely masking deep concern—is etched on the faces of many of his subjects. At the same time, we also witness the incredible tenacity of youth; the ability of these young people to recognize the difficulty of their situation but also indulge themselves in the maelstrom of emotion and inward reflection that defines adolescence.
But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to skate along the exterior that these youths present to us. At the core of it, we find a country being pulled apart at the seams. How will this impact the men and women “coming of age” during a period where their situation doesn’t allow them to live, fully, as young people do? Lyons’ series calls attention to the independence, insouciance, and naiveté that are at risk when our teenage years are threatened by volatile (or dangerous) surroundings.
If you like this series, we’d recommend these previous articles: A Shaded Path, Elliott Verdier’s project on youth and modernity in Kyrgyzstan; Love, Family Brotherhood: Ancient Themes in Contemporary India, a video interview with Vasantha Yogananthan that delves into his seven-year-long project on The Ramayana; and Fault Line, an intimate project about the photographer’s family shot on the rocky, windy coast of Maine.