In Siberia’s remote reindeer-herding communities, it’s a woman’s world

Each year, the Nenets people move gigantic herds of reindeer from summer to winter pastures across Siberia’s Arctic tundra. As they age, women in particular become isolated from their community and social purpose

14 December 2018

The Nenets are an indigenous nomadic community of reindeer herders native to Siberia. Each year, they move gigantic herds of reindeer from summer to winter pastures across the Arctic tundra. Crossing vast distances is physically demanding work, especially in one of the most challenging environments on Earth. Since men are usually more encouraged to stay in the migrating community, many women find themselves aging alone. Photographer Oded Wagenstein spent several weeks talking to women as old as 89 in a village so remote, it can only be reached after driving for seven hours on ice. His photo series Forgotten Like Last Year’s Snow is a story of survival in one of the most marginalised communities on the planet.

My grandfather emigrated at a relatively late age from Bulgaria to Israel, where I was born in 1986. After his wife, my grandmother, died, he began living with us on weekends. We spent a wonderful time together, during which he told me all about his childhood. He was already over 80 and his condition deteriorated rapidly. This was the first time I lost a loved one and I felt angry that we did not have enough time together. There were still so many things I wished to ask him.

For the past five years I have been on a journey, meeting elders in far-flung communities around the world. I listen to their stories and dreams, fears and longings, and ask them to share their experience of ageing. For this project I asked: how does it feel to crave something which is long gone, like your community or home?

The Yar-Sale village is located on a remote peninsula in northern Siberia. In summer, you arrive by boat; in winter, it can only be reached by driving on the ice (in a special vehicle). I took an international flight to Moscow, from there a 60-hour train to northern Siberia, then a seven-hour drive across the frozen lake. I remember how, after seven exhausting hours driving on ice, when there was nothing but a “sea” of white around us, suddenly the village appeared on a hilltop. It was magical. Although I visited at the end of March, the village was still covered in deep snow. As a Middle Easterner, who was born almost on the edge of the desert, this landscape was so different from everything I’d ever encountered.

In my work, photography takes up only a fraction of the time I spend with people. It is essential to understand that you cannot just knock on someone’s door and ask to take their picture, especially in a closed community like this one. You have to be very respectful. Visiting Yar-Sale, I had never received a warmer welcome. Once I was invited in, the stories and memories just burst out of these women, as if they were just waiting for someone to come and ask. We sat for hours, drinking many cups of tea, and only after that conversation did I begin photographing.

The youngest woman I met was 50 years old while the oldest was 89. I think that the most significant difference between the two women was the degree of longing they felt for the past. I got the sense that the older you get, the stronger the sense of yearning for lost parents, partners, and friends becomes. Generally, they spoke about what it was like to lose their social and communal role — that sense of being a part of something, of being useful. Of course, this is not something that is unique to this village or community. It’s a problem I encountered in all of the aging communities I have visited during my five-year journey in different parts of the world.

Modernity has brought a lot of benefit to the Nenets people, from televisions which help to overcome loneliness to snowmobiles that made it easier for children to come and visit from the tundra. With regards to globalwarming, the stories are heartbreaking. Some of the women I met lost their entire reindeer herd — the only source of food and livelihood — due to extreme cold weather. The changing climate and high temperatures have created a thicker layer of ice on the ground, which has made it more difficult for reindeer to reach their food and many just die of hunger. Huge herds have disappeared overnight.

I think that in modern societies, we are too focused on the younger generations — in the workforce, in the media. I believe that we are neglecting a great source of knowledge and experience that we all could benefit from.

Image: Oded Wagenstein

Interview: Liza Premiyak