It is hard to comprehend the vastness of Siberia, which encompasses three-quarters of Russia’s landmass. To showcase its extraordinary scale and diversity, in 2019, our friends at Makers of Siberia — a Russian-language online platform and guide to contemporary Siberia — launched a photo prize in a bid to broaden perceptions of the region. Local photographers were invited to submit projects that address or reflect on everyday life in their hometowns. From more than 600 entries, 17 photographers made it onto the shortlist and, in October last year, were able to participate in a dedicated exhibition in Omsk. In this two-part feature, we bring together the finalists’ work in a collection that may just redefine your expectations of Siberia.
Photography made its way into Istromina’s life as a break from the monotony of office routine. After earning a degree in cultural studies, Marina had working as a copywriter at a creative agency. After observing the art director at work, she began taking an interest in the visual side of the business, and soon began taking photos herself.
Istromina’s photo shoots, and the relationships she formed with her subjects and the surrounding area, quickly took precedence over “the artificial and shallow” world she wished to escape. Eventually, after realising that she was already shooting six days a week, Istromina quit her job and embarked on a career as an art photographer: “The coolest part of photography for me is the search that starts when I’ve already taken several dozen photos,” the photographer reveals. “It’s like a Minotaur’s labyrinth, trying to find a single thread that connects all of the images. It’s more captivating than any movie.”
“I was lucky to be born in Yakutia. You can’t help but take photos of a place like this,” says Aleksei Vasiliev, “I’m proud to call myself a photographer from Yakutia. This place has defined my visual language and attitude.” Vasiliev has been working in photography for less than 10 years, but his works have already been published in Russian news outlet Meduza, as well as National Geographic, The Guardian, The Observer. He has been awarded the LensCulture prize for both Emerging Talents and Visual Storytelling.
Vasiliev first picked up the camera on the cusp of turning 30, and has since graduated from the St Petersburg school of documentary photography, DocDocDoc. “It was a way of killing time,” he explains. “I liked the process of shooting: walking the streets for hours, listening to music, looking for interesting subjects and places.” For a while, he doubted whether he should pursue photography, but today, Vasiliev says with confidence: “I’ve chosen photography for now, and I can’t find the same joy and thrill in anything else.”
“My favourite thing about photography is the absolute focus it requires,” says Aleksandr Nikolskiy. “I don’t know what else to compare it with.” Nikolskiy got his first degree in social psychology and then learned to use his first camera in just two weeks in order to apply for his second degree at the Institute of Culture. His reasons for picking photography had nothing to do with him wanting to be an artist: “I wanted to continue my studies and further my understanding of photography as one of the most powerful and popular social technologies today,” he says. Since 2013, Nikolskiy has been teaching photography at the Kemerovo Institute of Culture, and also works with video and objects.
“It’s the typical story,” says Yanina Boldyreva when asked how she came to photography. “I found my grandpa’s old Zenit camera when I was 16 and borrowed it as an accessory.” Now, aged 32, Boldyreva admits that she still takes photos of “the same things as I did when I was 16”, but tries to present them in an original and compelling way. Boldyreva regularly takes part in international photo contests and last year won the “I’m From Siberia” photo prize. For her, photography is not simply a hobby or an art form, but a crucial tool in making sense of the world.
In her words: “There are some things about reality you can only convey by clicking the shutter.” Despite spending a majority of her life taking pictures, Boldyreva admits that it is rare for her to be interested in something for this long: the fact that she still enjoys photography is one of her main achievement. She originally studied painting, and besides photography, also produces mural paintings and curatorial work.
Vladislav’s interest in photography started when: a friend gave him his first SLR camera for his 19th birthday. “Back then, I didn’t know much about photography and just kept taking pictures of my friends,” Vlad says. “After about a year, I had a better idea of how to shape my work.” Vladislav works in industrial design and fits photography in around his day job: his works have already been featured on the pages of Motor, Fubiz, Moss and Fog. “It’s always rewarding seeing my photographs published and have a life of their own online,” says the photographer.
“In 2001, I was studying IT and borrowed a digital camera. I instantly realised the possibilities it could open,” says Anton Klimov. For a while, the high cost of equipment had deterred Klimov from photography. Yet he persevered — and now his work has been published by Forbes, Der Spiegel, Takie Dela, Lenta.ru, Novaya Gazeta, and RBK.
Klimov’s first solo exhibition took place in 2013 at the Irkutsk Art Museum; he has also participated in group exhibitions in Italy and Moscow. His work is currently on at the Peregovorshchik Krasnoyarsk Museum Biennial and at the Ploshchad Mira museum centre. “For me, photography is a way of understanding the world around you and your place within it,” he explains. “It’s a way of expressing feelings you might not even be fully aware of.”
Although Vil Ravilov has been taking photogaphs since the age of 20, it wasn’t until 2016, when he joined the Galperin Photography Department in St Petersburg, that he became critically engaged in the medium. In his words: “They really knocked some sense into me.” Before, Ravilov had worked as a commercial photographer, spending his time, as he puts it, “chasing down equipment” and “darting between landscape and wedding commissions”.
He also enrolled at DocDocDoc photography school, which helped him to find his priorities. “I’m really into street photography,” he explains. “I put my headphones on and go for a walk around the city. At some point, your mind turns off and that’s when you begin to see things. Sometimes I zone out so much that I don’t even recognise my friends.” Ravilov doesn’t think prizes and publications are the true marker of success. “Without prizes and exhibitions, photographers have a very fruitful life. You have the privilege to meet interesting people and learn about so many fascinating topics.”