We spoke with Bryan Alexander, the photographer behind our new exhibition Yamal: The Stream of Life, about working in the Arctic for almost half a century.
What are you looking for when you capture a photograph?
When I am out on the tundra or in native camps, I tend to just react to whatever is going on around me. It’s hard to plan too much ahead as things can be so unpredictable in the Arctic.
If I am working on a specific story I will often make a list of the subjects that I feel I need to photograph in order to tell the story.
What are the difficulties you face working in and photographing the Arctic and how do you overcome them?
The cold is one obvious difficulty when working in the Arctic, especially during the winter months.
With the right clothing though I find I can keep warm enough even when photographing in temperatures as low as -58° C. When it’s very cold I usually wear a combination of modern cold weather clothing and traditional native clothes.
Finding cameras that work well at these low temperatures can be challenging, particularly nowadays with most cameras being electrically operated. Batteries lose their power much quicker at extremely low sub-zero temperatures, so I always have to carry a lot of extra batteries.
Transport can also be a problem when travelling in the Arctic, where the distances are vast. Reaching isolated camps and villages can be difficult due to the limited transport. One camp I visited in Chukotka, Siberia took me a month to reach.
During my time working in the Arctic, I have travelled by a wide variety of transport from traditional Arctic transport like dog sleds, snowmobiles, reindeer sleds, and kayaks, to modern transport, like all-terrain vehicles, motor boats, helicopters, and planes.
Having worked in the Arctic for 47 years now, what changes have you noticed to the landscape and to the people?
Of course, the whole world has changed considerably over the past 47 years and the Arctic is no exception.
The only place that I have been and noticed a significant change in the landscape is Northwest Greenland. The warming climate has resulted in the icecap and glaciers receding considerably there.
The Politiken Glacier, which I first travelled on by dog sled in 1971, was used regularly as a route to neighbouring villages and hunting grounds by the local Inuit during the winter months. Now it is impassable by dog sled because of the receding ice and the deep crevasses that have opened up.
To me, the most striking change to affect the Arctic’s native peoples has been the steady decline in their traditional culture. There have been positive changes too, better transport, schools, healthcare etc. I feel privileged to have been able to document this period of change in the life of some of the Arctic indigenous peoples.
What is your fondest memory of working in the Arctic? Or your most notable incident?
I have many fond memories of working in the Arctic, certainly too many to mention here. I think that the most memorable incident occurred on my second trip to North Greenland.
During the winter, I went walrus hunting with three Inuit hunters from the village of Siorapaluk. We travelled by dog sled and were about 30km out on the frozen sea when the ice broke up around us.
For three days we drifted out to sea on a small ice floe, before being blown back towards the Greenland coast during a severe storm. On our fourth day adrift, the local villagers realised it was likely that we were in trouble and alerted the authorities.
Once the storm had subsided a search for us began. Two helicopters searched for us for over five hours and the pilots were on the point of abandoning their search when one of them spotted us on the ice.
Fortunately, there was a happy ending for all concerned in this rather scary incident and a few days later, we all headed out onto the frozen sea to hunt walrus again.
What is your relationship with the Nenets? How did you gain access to their communities and lives?
I first visited the Yamal in 1993 on an assignment for an American magazine. Travelling in isolated areas of Russia at that time was difficult, so I was fortunate when I was offered a ride in a helicopter to visit a remote Nenets reindeer herders’ camp.
When the helicopter landed in a forest clearing, I was amazed to see how traditional the Nenets herders were. They were living in reindeer skin tents and everyone at the camp was dressed from head to foot in traditional reindeer skin clothes.
Sergei Serotetto, the head of the group of herders, invited me to have a meal in his family’s tent. We all got on very well and I ended up asking if I could stay with them. There was a problem in that I had lost my bag containing my cold weather clothing. Sergei and his family quickly solved that problem by finding me a reindeer skin parka and long boots to wear.
I ended up staying over a month with them as they travelled from the forest north across the River Ob and then onto tundra on their 1000km spring migration. The longer I spent with these herders, the more interested I became in Nenets culture and the problems the people faced.
After I returned to the UK, I managed to persuade the magazine’s editor to send me back to the Yamal again at the end of the summer, to re-join Sergey and his family as they began their journey south back to their winter pastures.
Since my two visits there in 1993, I have returned to the Yamal on a number of occasions to document life in different camps and communities. I have photographed, not only Nenets, but also different cultures like the Khanty, Komi and Selkup, who also live in the Yamal.
What was it like returning to the Nenets over the years? What surprised you the most about how the community has changed or hasn’t?
Although I have visited the Yamal region many times since 1993, it was only in 2017 that I re-visited Sergey and his family. They were at their winter pastures and it was wonderful to be with them again. It was just like visiting old friends anywhere.
At first glance, there didn’t appear to have been much change. Sergey and his family were still living in the same reindeer skin tent and his wife Galya still made reindeer-skin clothes for the family.
However, I noticed that there had been no snowmobiles in the group back in 1993, everyone travelled by reindeer sled. Nowadays every herder drives his own snowmobile.
In 1993, there had been no electricity at the camp, candles and kerosene lamps were the only light source. Now every tent had a small portable generator, bringing not just light but enough power for laptop computers and TV. Children can watch cartoons before going to sleep, and later in the evening after they have finished their work the adults can watch movies.
In 1993, gas development in the Yamal Peninsula was just beginning. I thought that within ten years there would be no more reindeer herding on the Yamal Peninsula but I have been proved wrong. Although the reindeer herders have lost a considerable amount of their pastures to the gas industry there are now many more reindeer in the Yamal than there were in 1993.
What do you hope people take away from this exhibition?
I would like to think that people will take away an insight into Nenets culture and that the exhibition may even inspire some of them to visit the Yamal see the region for themselves.
What do you have coming up next?
At the beginning of September 2018, I will be in Moscow for the opening of my exhibition, “The Arctic Circle of Life” at the State Museum of Oriental Art. After that, I plan to travel to Siberia’s Gydan Peninsula and photograph there for about a month.