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Last Summer by Kacper Zywicki
Photography by Kacper Zywicki

Portraits of Ukraine’s Male Models: Once Bonded by Work, Now by War

Shot between Lviv and Kyiv during August this year, Kacper Zywicki’s new photo series focuses on those who remain in Ukraine, at the mercy of a war they may end up fighting in

Lead ImagePhotography by Kacper Zywicki

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Polish photographer Kacper Zywicki knew he had to act. Being a quarter Ukrainian and fluent in the language, he was better placed than most in offering help to the millions of refugees entering Poland in search of safety. What began as a volunteer role, organising accommodation for displaced families and translating their needs, soon provided the basis for a new project he hopes will bring a different form of aid through the stories of those this war has condemned. 

“One day, a very close friend of mine, Yourko Kalichack, who runs a Ukrainian model agency [Boys Boys], asked me to help with accommodation for one of his models who was coming to Poland for work,” explains Kacper. “Originally my plan was to take pictures of these boys who had left Ukraine to find modelling work in Western countries.” 

That all changed however once Kacper found himself in Lviv, a mere 70 kilometres from Poland’s border, where he was introduced to a group of young models from Kalichack’s agency. “When I came to Ukraine, it struck me how many amazing people are being lost or excluded from the fashion industry because of the war. What really impressed me was the relationships between these young men, who had all become close friends at the same agency.”

The ensuing project, Last Summer, shot between Lviv and Kyiv during August this year, instead focuses on those who remain in Ukraine, at the mercy of a war they may end up fighting in. Featuring boys on either side of manhood, for some that possibility is all the more real, while for those not yet 18, the option of moving abroad and avoiding possible conscription remains open.

Kacper’s photographs bring light to lives that have fallen into darkness while celebrating the fraternity that has withstood it. United in their experience of loss and uncertainty, it was these bonds of friendship that first caught Kacper’s attention. “I was incredibly impressed by the relationship between the older guys and the younger ones. There was no sense of competition, they were more like mentors, giving advice and encouragement.”

For all the chaos of war, the images in Last Summer bear virtually no trace of it. From what they reveal, this group of teenage boys appears like any other, wiling away the last of the warm weather – smoking, swimming, wrestling – enjoying each other’s company for what could well be the last time. Reminders of their circumstances are only hinted at: the occasional furrowed expression or look of apprehension. As in August Sanders’ renowned photograph of three young men attending a dance at the onset of World War I (Young Farmers, 1914), the strongest sense of foreboding is imposed by the viewer. 

The comradery between these boys is, in Kacpers’ eyes, reflected in the historical relationship between Ukraine and Poland. For centuries, the two countries have shared territory (Lviv having formerly been part of Poland), and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, mutual security interests. Though clearly complex, that relationship has held firm since Russia’s invasion, and Kacper’s work honours what he sees as an essential kinship between the two nations. “I want people to see those images and really appreciate Ukraine’s beauty and history. At the same time, I would like to add that for many people Ukrainian conflict can seem far away but in fact, Lviv is only 6 hours from Warsaw. Looking at the world now, we should really take care of one another and be kind in those difficult times.“