A photographer’s spiritual Siberian homecoming

The Republic of Buryatia in eastern Siberia is known for its breathtaking mountains and glistening Lake Baikal. Yet its diverse ecosystem of local cultures remains largely overlooked by the wider world. The population of Buryatia includes scores of different ethnic groups, many of which have historic links to Mongolia. Together, the different traditional beliefs practiced across the region, from Buddhism to shamanism, have melded to form a unique spiritual core at the heart of the region, one that has shaped local life for generations.

Photographer Ayuna Shagdurova tried to capture this sense of spirituality in the modern world.

She grew up in a Buryat family in St Petersburg, but spent each summer back in Buryatia. “Growing older, I started to feel my connection with Buryatia grow stronger. I tried to be more conscious of my own identity,” she says. “In St Petersburg, my family has always kept in touch with our native culture, its holidays and traditions. I identify as Buryat, although sometimes that can be awkward because I don’t speak the Buryatian language very well, something that I hope to improve in the future.”

Enter the surreal world of Yumzhana Suy, the Buryatian artist fusing activism and Buddhism
Read more Enter the surreal world of Yumzhana Suy, the Buryatian artist fusing activism and Buddhism

For Shagdurova, photography became a means to explore her heritage. The title of her project, Tengeri, translates into English as “eternal blue sky”; a word used to describe the divine in various Buryat-Mongol shamanic cultures. She worked on it throughout the summers of 2017 and 2018 across various locations: in Buratiya’s regional capital of Ulan-Ude, in her father’s former village, on Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island, and in Mongolia.

Tengeri is a personal story. It’s about my perception of Buryatian culture and its beliefs, about how enchanted I am by this part of Buryatia. It’s also about my love for my family: we’re a big, tight-knit group, and lots of family members ended up in my photographs,” says Shagdurova. “While making this project, I was worried about exoticising Buryatia, about becoming like a “white” intruder or a dry, soulless researcher. That’s when I decided not to look into other external materials, and to follow my heart rather than my head.”

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Tengeri’s intuitive nature can be traced throughout the project: close-up details and faces punctuate a very personal journey, making many of the images mysterious yet intimate. Shagdurova documented both shaman and Buddhist ceremonies, but tried to capture their symbolic, personal meanings, rather than the public spectacle. “Fire is an important symbol in Buryatian culture, which is why I included the image of fire and smoke,” she explains. “There is also the colour blue. Buryat culture has this recurring image of the eternal blue sky, home of the divine, but also the home of ancestral souls.”

But what allows Shagdurova to capture these moments is her ability to straddle two worlds: to look with the instinctive knowledge of an insider, while retaining the warm curiosity of an external observer. “I look at these traditions with a bit of irony, because my Western upbringing is also an influence,” the photographer says. “I don’t like the patriarchal side of Buryatian culture, which often shows up in day-to-day life. But I am trying to cultivate respect for these shaman rituals and beliefs because I understand how crucial they are for our culture. I want to try and integrate them in my life to preserve them for the next generation.”

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