I grew up in Yakutia. It is the largest region in Russia, five times the size of France, but with a population of just one million spread over three million square kilometers. The climate is severe and contrasting. In summer, it is 40 ° C; in winter -60C, with snow from October to mid-April. Getting anywhere takes a long time: several hours in the car. There are practically no railways and few roads. It is easier to fly from the Far East to Moscow than it is to travel. Half of the people are ethnic Sakha from Yakutia, half are Russian. The two communities don’t socialize much. Most Russians live in the Aldansky district, but their numbers are shrinking. Many are moving to less harsh parts of the country.
As a documentary photographer, I want to record how people live here, what they do, what their problems are, what makes them happy. Every solstice we have a vacation called Ysyakh. Is a pagan festival, an important part of our national identity and a time when we became an organic whole. Because we are so dispersed, it is often difficult to feel any kind of unity. The Yakutia brand is winter; I wanted to show the summer. Participants dress up in national costumes. The women wear long, flowing dresses decorated with flowers. It is a time when people feel relaxed from being photographed. There is still some paranoia in Russia about posing for a camera. It’s a bit of a Soviet hangover.
In June 2018, I was filming the opening ceremony of the festival. A group of women took the stage to dance and sing. They were Russian and wore traditional Yakut costumes. It was just a moment. I didn’t look at what they were doing: I just fired. When I checked the frames afterwards, I noticed that one of the women was pointing at a cloud. It was a light and spiritual gesture. The image is not fully understandable. Sometimes in photography we cannot explain what is happening: it is like a miracle. You can’t really interpret it. It is what it is.
I took an online course at the contemporary photography school in St. Petersburg. I would see new names of brilliant photographers every day, look at their work and think, “Oh my gosh, that photo is amazing.” I discovered how to conceptualize my photographs, how to tell a story with them and create some kind of story. I try to find a single thread that concerns me and people. The photos of Ysyakh are part of a larger ongoing project called My dear Yakutia. Our remoteness from the world and the severe climatic conditions have determined a special way of life and culture.
Another part of the project is a series on Yakut’s independent film industry. It’s our version of Hollywood: Sakhawood. Every year between seven and ten films are made, from romantic comedies to fairy tales, based on local legends and beliefs. Most directors have no special training. Some of the actors work in theater, but others have never appeared in a movie. Yakut movies sometimes do better at the box office than international blockbusters. Budgets are modest, even by Russian standards. On average, the film costs between 1 and 2 million rubles (£ 10,000- £ 20,000) to produce. Despite this, Yakut filmmakers have ambitious plans: to win an audience in Russia, and then to conquer the world.
In January, there were protests in Yakutsk after opposition leader Alexei Navalny flew back to Russia and the authorities arrested him. About 50 people showed up. I went to take pictures. It was -50c, very cold, a faint. We are used to these conditions. The locals came out not only to support Navalny, but to express themselves and declare: “We have a life, we have a voice.” People do not have much to say and it is becoming increasingly difficult to live. The local police were softer on the protesters than the Moscow or St. Petersburg police. Everyone knows each other in Yakutia. We all have relatives. My photos of the meeting appeared in various foreign publications.
Alexey Vasilyev CV
Born: Yakutsk, 1985.
Training: Docdocdoc School of Contemporary Photography, Saint Petersburg.
Influences: Jonas Bendiksen, Martin Parr.
Decisive point: “Making my first shot for a prestigious international publication, Der Spiegel magazine, in the city of Khabarovsk.”
Low point: “When the story did not appear later”.
Better advice: “Just go outside with a camera.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism