Ukrainian women are often considered the most beautiful in the world. Even Joe Biden thinks so.
While working in the Ukraine last June, photographer Julie David De Lossy started hearing about Nikolaev, a city known for having the highest concentration of beautiful women in the entire country.
When she arrived in town with her boyfriend, photographer Colin Delfosse, she understood the rumors. There were beautiful women everywhere.
"It is really impressive when you walk in the main street of this town and you have the feeling a super posh party is about to start, but it’s only 10 a.m.," David De Lossy said via email.
But there was also something she didn't expect: wedding agencies—she estimated more than 200 based in one town.
For their series, “My Ukrainian Wedding,” the Brussels-based pair sought to challenge stereotypes about the women who enlist with the agencies by creating diptychs of two women—one from an agency, one not—and letting viewers differentiate between the two.
They contacted dozens of agencies looking for subjects, and were mostly met with suspicion. Finally, two agencies trusted them enough to put them in contact with women who agreed to have their photos taken. For the other half of the diptych, the pair approached women on the main street in town at random.
“Because we are a couple, I think they felt comfortable. Not everyone we asked agreed, of course, but most of them did. They are very proud of their appearance, and it is mostly justified! Usually girls walk down the street in teams, so we split the duty. Colin photographed one, while I did the other,” David De Lossy said.
As they worked, they learned more about Nikolaev’s history. Based on a tributary river of the Dniepr, the town was a large shipbuilding center during the Soviet era. After the USSR collapsed, industry sank, and workers found themselves with few employment alternatives. Many of the men moved to nearby Odessa seeking work.
But David De Lossy said the town has plenty to offer. There are several universities, and a number of the young women in Nikolaev are educated there.
“The girls get a good education … but have almost no prospect of finding a husband. So they look abroad,” David De Lossy said.
David De Lossy said that women enrolled in the agencies are generally looking to be matched with men in Western countries. But many don’t advertise their involvement in the agencies to avoid unflattering comparisons to prostitution. As online international dating sites begin to saturate the market, that stigma could begin to lessen.
But David De Lossy says while many women in the agencies may indeed be looking for a way out of the Ukraine and a more stable financial life, there's no single motivation that can be attributed to all the women. However, she found that many of the ones she talked to wanted to fight the impression that they were gold diggers. “[While some women] pretend to be in love, take as much as they can— visa, wedding, money—and suddenly, 'Sorry, but I am not in love anymore, darling.' ” That’s far from universally true. Some brides feel that this stereotype “undermines the sincerity of their will to find true Western love."