In college, one professor regularly told photographer Katherine Wolkoff that she looked like the Belarusian woman whose face represented the nation on a 1975 National Geographic map that hung in a history department office. Her father’s family had in fact emigrated from Belarus in 1906, but growing up, Wolkoff had never considered it part of her cultural identity.
That changed after her father, whom she had always looked like, passed away in 2010. Suddenly, Wolkoff became interested in traveling to Belarus in search of other women who looked like her. “It was inspired by the idea of tracing this abstract family tree,” she says. “Sort of like finding this extended family that didn’t exist.”
In July, Wolkoff spent 10 days in Belarus photographing more than 50 women who shared her physical traits. With the help of a 25-year-old Belarusian guide and social media—and the sole stipulation that the women have blonde hair, be it natural or dyed—the photographer made a series of minimal but captivating portraits collectively called ‘My Belarusian Brides,’ a title that touches on family and the nation’s booming mail-order bride business.
Wolkoff traveled with a digital Hasselblad HD40 camera, which allowed her to see the images instantly. “I photographed a woman in front of these trees, and it became so clear that this was the image I’d intended to make,” she says. And to bring the idea of family full circle, Wolkoff even created a self-portrait for LightBox, capturing herself in the same light and setting seen in the series.
Some women showed up all dressed up and in full makeup, and many brought their friends or boyfriends. “In part, I think the shoot was a moment of fantasy for them—like the Hollywood fantasy of being photographed,” Wolkoff says. “Belarus is a pretty repressed society, particularly for women, and I think this was a moment of expression and excitement for them”
Wolkoff says she saw a piece of herself in each of the women she photographed, from the tenderly awkward teenager eating an ice cream cone, to the older, self-assured Svetlana who arrived in coral lipstick. “It was an incredible look at aging process—to see these women who weren’t my relatives, but looked very much like me,” she says. “It’s as if we were an ephemeral family.”
Katherine Wolkoff is a photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.