When photographer Emine Ziyatdinova introduced herself to Yuriy Shelkaev, he told her their meeting was destined.
Shelkaev, 62, was living in the basement of a building in Brighton Beach, a predominantly Russian-speaking neighborhood along Brooklyn’s southern shore.
At the time Ziyatdinova was struggling to meet people while pursuing a long-term project on the area’s immigrant community. A friend urged her to reach out to Shelkaev, a self-proclaimed psychic and spiritual healer.
They met for the first time early last year. He quickly opened up to her, eager to share his views on politics and the health care system.
“I kept in touch with him ever since. He is a good friend of mine,” Ziyatdinova said. “And I am really sorry to see that his life turned out this way.”
When Superstorm Sandy hit New York in October, Shelkaev was flooded out of his home and lost most of his possessions. After the storm, he had to sleep on the boardwalk or stay with friends. He still hasn’t found a permanent place to live.
Yet he hangs on to the American Dream, Ziyatdinova said, believing that he can start over and build a better life.
Originally from Kazakhstan, Shelkaev came to the United States in 1993 to work as a falconry instructor at a festival in Nebraska. He eventually made his way to Brighton Beach.
Before he was uprooted by Sandy, he was able to live in a basement rent-free in exchange for maintenance work and massage therapy services. As a spiritual healer, he earns a monthly income well below the New York City poverty line.
“Convinced that he has a gift from God and can heal people, Yuriy proudly believes that he cured two people who suffered from cancer,” Ziyatdinova said.
He also practices esotericism and claims that numbers represent energy, which determines the nature of everything. He tells fortunes based on a person’s date of birth and keeps a record of every lottery ticket he has bought in the last 10 years.
While documenting the greater Brighton Beach community, Ziyatdinova stayed with Shelkaev for a couple of months last summer. It offered her a more intimate and accurate view of his life.
“I disagreed about a lot of things, but usually just listened,” she said.
Ziyatdinova, 25, moved to Ohio from her native Ukraine in 2010 to study photojournalism. Her family was deported to Uzbekistan during Joseph Stalin’s regime and returned to Crimea after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
At first Brighton Beach reminded her of home. Before living there she had her own stereotypes about the area and the people she met, but over time she began seeing things differently.
“You start to realize most of the people are just normal people who live in New York and try to find a way to live,” she said. “They have their own problems and struggles.”
As she neared graduation, Ziyatdinova knew her U.S. visa was going to expire. She told Shelkaev that she was probably going to have to move back to the Ukraine.
“He said that if I will continue to follow him, they will give me a visa extension,” she said.
She has a hard time believing he can really predict the future. But she was granted the extension and allowed to continue her work on Brighton Beach.
- Brett Roegiers, CNN