When Russia’s Covid-19 lockdown struck, student Alexei Dudoladov found himself on TikTok. Posting videos of everyday life from his small Siberian village, he soon found himself gathering an impressive following under his handle, @omskiy.kolhoznik. There was only one problem. Dudoladov could only upload his posts eight metres above the ground. Each day, the 21-year-old would climb the branches of a birch tree — the only place in the village where he could get a phone signal.
Dudoladov’s real issue, however, wasn’t uploading content, but connecting to his online classes. When photographer Alexey Malgavko met Dudoladov to take his portrait in November 2020, the student was already spending hours among the frost-tipped treetops to access his lectures and seminars. As a result, he had already battled pneumonia twice.
First published by Reuters, Malgavko’s extraordinary shot caught the world’s attention when it circulated in the various international press. Now, it is on display in Omsk as part of an exhibition showcasing the finalists of the Makers of Siberia Photo Prize. In many ways, the photo encapsulates the position that many of Siberia’s photographers find themselves in: more connected to the world than ever before, yet still overlooked and cut off from wider cultural dialogue.
“So much cultural attention is given to Moscow and St Petersburg. We need to make sure we are bringing the same exposure to the art and culture of Siberia,” exhibition curator Nadya Sheremetova told The Calvert Journal. The Makers of Siberia Photo Prize was founded in 2019 to broaden perceptions of the region and bring recognition to its young talent.
But seeing photographs of far-flung corners of Siberia is only half the battle, says Sheremetova. “Thanks to Instagram, you can now scroll through a stream of mesmerising everyday snapshots from Siberia, or anywhere in Russia. Yet, it’s artists who help us to see the connections, who construct a narrative around these places, and share important stories of the country and its people.”
So how do Siberia’s photographers see their region? The theme of this year’s Makers of Siberia Photo Prize is “New Reality” — and it’s no surprise that many of the finalists’ images are marked by a sense of disruption, reflecting on the changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Sheremetova, the jury were looking for work that “reflects something of the period in which they are taken”. In the prize’s Single Image category, that resulted in highly-symbolic visuals: Stanislav Ponyatovsky’s photograph of an inflatable astronaut succumbing to the effects of gravity in Krasnoyarsk, or Vil Ravilov’s grandly-titled End of an Epoch, documenting the demolition of Kemerevo’s much-loved Palace of Culture.
Other photographers responded by celebrating love; or by paying a tribute to those who were a lifeline throughout the turmoil. Valeria Mironovich took a portrait of her dear friend Alyona in Tomsk, while photographer Alisa Baklashova from Ulan-Ude celebrates love with an intimate moment between two figures, who are swept up in each other’s gaze.
Finalists who submitted longform photo projects also found creative and conceptual ways to channel this period of disruptive change. Lockdown inspired Krasnoyarsk-based photographer Artyom Vladimirov to observe his surroundings with a newfound curiosity — but it wasn’t until he developed the film that his series 40 Days began to take shape. By playing with manipulation and textures within his images, Vladimirov gives an impression of time that glitches and unravels before our eyes.
Anastasia Bochkareva and Alisher Makhsumov, meanwhile, decided to take a tongue-in-cheek approach. They centred their first photo shoot out of isolation around a jar of pickled tomatoes: a gift from Bochkavera’s parents that had sat unopened in her fridge. This accidental relic from the past year was preserved in salty brine and analogue film.
Sheremetova says remoteness may not be such a bad thing for regional creatives — it can even help photographers find their stride: “When you’re already on the margins, you probably care less about staying relevant. It frees you. You draw on your own creativity and process,” she says. “You can show that which isn’t visible. You construct your own world, your own sense of place.”
Certainly, what unites this year’s finalists is a shared sensibility to conjure Siberian fables, or create new myths out of their everyday reality. That includes the prize’s overall winner, Yanina Boldyreva, who crafts a beguiling allegory of Russia with her project Birch People. Many of her images offer familiar and witty glimpses of Russia: a carpet hung up to dry, a construction site plastered with photographs of the natural world, pillars from unfinished building works painted by locals to look like birch trees. But the most memorable photos — a forest plastered with flyers or a woman cradling a young tree like a baby — purposefully trip you up.
The artist invented the story after finding a local park with names of people carved into each tree. As it happened, the site was built on a former cemetery and each engraving was a tribute to a loved one buried there. For Boldyreva, the scene posed endless questions: Who are the “birch people”? What kind of lives do they live? Beyond giving her a set of enigmatic characters, over time the series has developed into a playful exploration of Russian tropes and traditions.
Myths are ingrained in Siberian landscapes. Along with spiritual beliefs and folklore, they are a powerful source of inspiration for the region’s artists. When society no longer makes sense, fiction and fantasy become a way to make sense of and heal from crisis. It is what brought Denis Melnichenko to the Baikal region to study shamanism and locals’ worship of nature, and what took Svetlana Tarasova on a search for Belovodye, a legendary place in Russian folklore said to be hidden in the Altai mountains. Making up her own fairytale is what helped Marina Istomina to scrutinise the recurring wildfires in Siberia, when facts reported in the local media no longer made sense or told the full story.
“Technologies are ever-evolving; rockets fly to space. It’s true that we don’t have flying cars yet,” Aleksey Stepanenko says in the description of his photo, Flight. “But there’s a place here in Siberia, where cars jut out into the sky, as if about to take off.” Whether giving us their own perspective of Siberia, or reconnecting with stories of what might have been lost, each of these photographers show how reality and fantasy intertwine in our search for belonging.
Winner: Yanina Boldyreva — Birch People
Aleksey Ivanov — Containment
Anastasia Bochkareva and Alisher Makhsumov — Pickle
Sasha Kuzovkov — Middle Ages
Pavel Limonov — In the shadow of the monolith
Denis Melnichenko — Look
Lesha Pavlov — Boyhood
Svetlana Tarasova — Searching for Belovodye
Artyom Vladimirov — 40 Days