“Everyone has a reason for being here,” notes Evgenia Arbugaeva about the Arctic regions where she was born — in Tiksi, East Siberia, in 1985 — and which, for some time now, have served as pictorial material for her documentary work. These reputedly austere territories, sometimes shrouded in ice and darkness, other times sublimely illuminated by the Northern Lights, are for the Russian photographer a trove of images that at times verge on magical realism, offering fresh insights into these lands frozen in stereotypes.
Following the story of Slava Korotki, “a decidedly happy man,” featured in the spring of 2015, the “in camera” gallery in Paris now brings us a sequel to Evgenia Arbugaeva’s Arctic adventures. This time, we travel to the Kanin Peninsula, to Dikson, and as far as Enurmino, a village inhabited by 300 Chukchi, just across the strait from Alaska. Arbugaeva is never after a scoop or a thrill; instead, she conveys a sense of beginnings, as if humans and landscapes came into being before her very eyes.
We face them just as she does, with no pretense, at once real and unreal, near and far away. Such are, for example, the coupe Evgenia Kostikova and Ivan Sivkov, posing with their dog Dragon, who seem like fragile figures in the white expanse where they work, “collecting meteorological data.” Arbugaeva brought them apples, which the couple later gingerly wrapped in newspaper, “as if they were made of crystal.”
In the village of Enurmino, the photographer culled Nicolai’s memories and his deep melancholy. She learned how the Chukchi community, whose roots in northern Russia run centuries’ deep, have kept alive their myths and legends. She crossed paths with walruses, stranded on the shore by the tens of thousands due to the lack of sea ice — a sobering spectacle of global warming, a tragedy made palpable.
In Dikson, once the capital of the Russian Arctic, the intrepid traveler confronted the ghost of a city gradually abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. There is but emptiness and silence; a bitter cold, nearly forty below, and absolute darkness. What was she doing there, where nothing happens, and one can see nothing? Nothing, that is, until the day when, against all expectations, the sky burst into light, a promise of dawn, a blaze of color: it’s a waltz of photons, the aurora borealis. Flames and sparks, it’s as if the sky caught fire. “Cast in a green light,” as Evgenia Arbugaeva described it for the National Geographic (December 2020), “a monument to soldiers looked like Frankenstein’s monster, who, after all, at the very end of Mary Shelley’s book, escaped to the isolation of the Arctic.” The Arctic as a romantic interlude, why not? “I am my real self only when I’m here,” concludes the photographer, who loves visiting the shores of her childhood.
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the photography column. She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Evgenia Arbugaeva, Arctic Stories
March 4 to April 17, 2021
in camera galerie
21, rue Las Cases, 75007 Paris
For more information, click here.
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