Homeland: Stories from the Russian Arctic
Photographs by Evgenia Arbugaeva
In collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery and as part of the Photo Oxford Festival – whose theme this year is 'Women and Photography: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen' – this online exhibition presents selections from new work by Russian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, whose major ongoing project explores life in northern outposts of the Russian Arctic. In a recent talk to accompany her first major solo exhibition, ‘Hyperborea’ at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Arbugaeva describes her working methods and discusses the emotional resonance of returning to the place where she grew up:
In my work I often return to my homeland, the Arctic, and I think I do it mainly because I really miss it, because now I live in London and I have been living in different cities and countries for years. So for me it is a way to come back and spend time there. But also I feel very much related to people, to the mentality, to the way people see nature and landscape. And this project started a long time ago actually. It started in 2013 when I first went on two-and-a-half months’ journey on the icebreaker ship that delivered supplies to the remote Arctic stations, and I visited twenty-one stations. And some of the places that I have seen, you know, I didn’t even know that they existed.
The most difficult part of my work is always travel logistics, because all these places are quite remote and isolated, so oftentimes it requires taking a ship and then a boat and then a dog sled or then walking. So sometimes it takes a month or a couple of months just to get there, and to get out of the place. I have quite a bit of spare time to think about things when I travel. But that is the beauty of it as well. I think by the time you are waiting for so long – you know, there are endless weather delays, or some other things – but then you get there and I think you appreciate it more.
I prefer to travel alone because I feel that I want the story to be about people, not about me, and I want to have my presence as small as possible, and not to influence things and how people behave. And also I am quite conscious about energy that different people can bring into situations. But I did travel with my brother sometimes. He is a film-maker and he suits me. And I am very much sure of him, of his energy, and he brings actually quite a lot into the dynamic between me and people. Yes, so either I am alone or with my brother Max.
There are so many things that are very special about Arctic. The first thing that you notice is visual things: the emptiness, the whiteness, but darkness as well. It is months of constant darkness during polar nights, so you don’t see the sun for a few months, which is on its own a very weird and strange experience. It does something to you, to your mind. And then there is never-ending polar day, which is also, you know, a sleepless summer full of insomnia and sun and never-ending light. But these are the first things that you notice. Then the deeper things start to… you start to notice what happens to you, inside yourself. There is all this free time and once your eyes have rested on this empty landscape, and on the horizon, all the things that you kind of kept in your unconscious start to creep out and run around in your head. So there’s a lot of questions that you start to ask yourself, and you have time to answer them. And I think in that way Arctic has a very cleansing effect on many people, certainly on me. It is a cleansing – visual cleansing, emotional and personal.
Acknowledgements and Credits
Online exhibition organised by Philip Grover.
Photographs reproduced courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery.
Organised in collaboration with Photo Oxford Festival 2021.
Special thanks to Evgenia Arbugaeva, Anna Dannemann and Alexandra Olczak; and to Danielle Battigelli and Hannah Pye.
Evgenia Arbugaeva was born in the town of Tiksi, located on the shore of the Laptev Sea in the Republic of Yakutia in Russia. Her early series ‘Tiksi’ (2010) and ‘Weather Man’ (2013) combine documentary and narrative styles and reflect the photographer’s fascination and childhood nostalgia for the Arctic. During 2018 and 2019, supported by a National Geographic Society Storytelling Fellowship, Arbugaeva travelled to three more outposts in the extreme north of Russia, creating further chapters to her long-term project: a lighthouse on the isolated Kanin peninsula populated only by the keepers and their dog; Dikson, a now derelict town that yielded the spectacle of the aurora borealis during Arbugaeva’s stay there; and the far eastern region of Chukotka, home to the Chukchi people, who still maintain the traditions of their ancestors, living off the land and sea with walrus and whale meat as the main components of their diet. Featured in her first major solo exhibition, Hyperborea at The Photographers’ Gallery, are four ‘chapters’ presenting visual stories of life in the Russian Arctic, continuing a fascination with her homeland.
You are able to visit Evgenia Arbugaeva’s personal website online here. Evgenia Arbugaeva is represented by The Photographers’ Gallery, London. You are able to purchase limited edition works by Evgenia Arbugaeva from the Print Sales department of The Photographers’ Gallery online here. You can visit The Photographers’ Gallery’s main website online here.