More than a decade ago, on a Fulbright fellowship in Ukraine, the artist Carolyn Drake found herself outside Ternopil, a small city on the banks of the Seret River. Her hosts led her to a forest on the edge of a suburb, where a large, half-century-old building stood bearing a small nondescript sign, which translated to “Petrykhiv Children’s Home,” or Internat, the title of her just-published photo book. Away from society at large, among a staff of women and one male director, the orphaned girls who lived there formed their own community, an all-female family engaged in the routine of daily life and chores, and an instinctive, if naive, curiosity about the outside world.
In the intervening decade, Drake traveled to Central Asia for her project Two Rivers, and to the western frontier of China to make the photographs, drawings, and embroidery that comprise Wild Pigeons. When she returned to Ukraine, in 2014, she expected that the girls she had met would have left the orphanage. But they were still there, suddenly grown up.
“They were little bouncy energetic girls and then they were private, snarky, opinionated, complicated adults. I started thinking a lot about change,” Drake told me recently. “I was interested in how girls develop in an environment void of men, especially in Ukraine, where women seemed to me a lot of times to be defined either as objects of the male gaze or through their purity.” Over a series of visits from 2014 to 2016, she took photographs with the Internat residents that compose a subversive fairy tale—a story of modern cloistering, of isolation and escapism, and an evocative reimagining of what it means to be female.
The residents at the Internat range in age from four or five to thirty-five, supervised by a staff of female nannies. Many of the girls and women housed there are living with various physical or mental conditions. Some of them are incredibly high functioning and some, it seemed to Drake as she began to photograph them, have no apparent discernible reason for being institutionalized. Once a year the girls are visited by a group of female Canadian college students; once a year they are taken by a church group for a week in the countryside; once a year one of the nannies directs the girls in a themed seasonal performance—they wear costumes, sing songs, and recite poetry. These are the few times each year that they interact with the community. Once in a while, some of the nannies will take the girls for pizza or bowling. They collaged together ideas of femaleness sourced from these brief and ritual interactions, from the stories of the Virgin Mary they learned through church and the images of the Ukrainian pagan goddess Berehynia, from the Turkish soap operas they obsessively watched.
When Drake returned in 2014, the girls still gathered outside, but when indoors, they huddled around computer screens; some of them had acquired virtual boyfriends on social media. One girl had sex with local boys, it was rumored, in exchange for cigarettes. The second time she got pregnant, she kept the baby—leaving the Internat to live in a convent. Once in a while, one of the girls will be adopted. But the girls who remain quietly become adults, all the while cloistered in institutionally defined strictures of a prolonged adolescence. They were women, but they were girls; they were girls and women at once. When they reach the age of thirty-five, they are no longer allowed to live in the Internat—and most of them are moved into a geriatric home nearby, the middle passage of life seemingly skipped over.
Their milieu lies somewhere between the fantastical short stories of the Russian writer Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and the realist Ukrainian and Russian oral-history novels of Svetlana Alexievich. Depictions of institutional hallways recall Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s Chinati Foundation installation, School No. 6, 1993, an immersive construction of an imagined abandoned Soviet-era school haunted by the impressions of its former students in scattered notebooks, posters, and drawings. In Drake’s photographs, the girls are collectively arranged behind tree trunks or kneeling to work in their vegetable garden, staking branches into the dirt or making a chain of ribbons flung over the wall like a plotted escape. They gather wildflowers, scatter onions in cryptic formations on the ground, thread their fingers through a web, drape their hair in tinsel—excavating and reclaiming the emblems of fairy tales that are embedded in their world. Drake frequently masked the faces of her subjects, preserving the enigma. One girl conceals her face behind a massive cabbage leaf plucked from the garden, another inside a theater prop in the form of a giant rose: “I felt like looking at some of the girls’ faces would make the spectator assume things about them that weren’t necessarily true,” Drake said. “A few of the girls looked like what one might call ‘disabled,’ but as I spent more time with them, they revealed themselves to be incredibly thoughtful and observant. I also felt the act of using the camera to keep them hidden reflected the way they were already positioned in the world, physically hidden, not only inside Ukraine, inside an old crumbling building, but in a forest behind a giant wall.”
At the Internat, folktales exist in the materials of the everyday—mops made of sticks, brooms made of tree branches—and in the actual plaster on the walls, where Drake discovered images of a golden-haired girl with bright red shoes, of a wolf, of rural houses with smoke pouring from their chimneys, alongside fantastical Soviet-era imagery: androgynous children holding rockets while looking up at the stars and sky. She photographed ghostly faces drawn in chalk on the border wall; she photographed a splotch of pink paint spreading across the dirt. “I saw imprisoned maidens, a mischievous pixie, invisible creatures, a clever escape, a haunted forest, but I wanted to twist it all into a new, not-quite-intelligible context where the conventional meaning was tweaked or subverted,” Drake said. A trail of house shoes makes a pathway across a tiled floor, like the castoff slippers of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Twelve Dancing Princesses.”
The girls’ daily existence mirrors a fairy-tale narrative, too—Cinderella-like maidens consigned to a life of craft-making and chores and drudgery, sheltered from the outside. The Internat’s director, one of the few males with whom the residents interact, and who frequently forbade Drake from photographing, is not depicted in the book. But his presence looms over it in archaic and archetypal ways, like a king protecting his daughters from princes desiring their hand. On days she was not allowed to photograph, Drake brought in art supplies. Initially, when she invited the residents to draw, they turned in stereotypically girlish illustrations: near identical sketches of flowers and hearts and shining suns. “It wasn’t until I came back later with these very liquidy paints that their imagery started getting less literal, more abstract and rough,” she said.
Once upon a time, Drake believes, the girls dreamed of escape, or at least wished for a normal life, in a normal house, with a mother and a father. “Now that they are older it feels different—maybe they gave up on those things or maybe they became content with how they know they have to live,” she said. “How can you create little bits of contentment or happiness or fulfillment within a context where there is very little to be found and little encouragement to look for it or expect it?”
Collectively, the pictures in Internat depict the power of the imagination in an entrapped situation. On the cover of the book, there is a found portrait of a female figure, her gaze downcast, her face painted the color of a beet, her hair festooned with a headpiece embellished with greenery and wildflowers—the sort of flora that the girls might have gathered in the forest on their wanderings outdoors. Drake had invited the girls to paint over portraits of ballerinas and society women and the Virgin Mary, and of sculpted male nudes. She also invited them to paint over a picture of the nineteenth-century poet, artist, ethnographer and political figure Taras Shevchenko, whose image is iconic in Ukraine; he is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous male figures in the country. Shevchenko had been a prisoner, too, held in Saint Petersburg and then in military prison, exiled for his writing. The girls rendered his eyes in green stripes; a bright swatch of pink across his mouth. It is a bold rebellion, an act of reclamation.
Rebecca Bengal writes fiction, essays, and long-form journalism and lives in New York City.