All photos by Alexey Vasilyev. To see more visit his website: https://alexey-vasilyev.com
Deep in the Siberian wilderness, surviving the harshest winters, is a region slightly smaller than India, yet with a community of less than one million people. From this culture has emerged a diverse and prolific art industry; predominantly film and photography. Most art is made by self-taught directors and photographers on miniscule budgets, yet still manages to capture the beauty of the harsh Siberian landscape and the folk culture traditions of the Sakha indigenous people. I interviewed Alexey Vasiliyev, a photographer who has gained global recognition, on what he values about his culture, the rising art movement in Yakutia and what the future bodes for him.
What first inspired you to photography?
In the last ten years, Yakutian photography and film has sprung up. There is little money involved and principally it was just enthusiasm that drove us. In Yakutia, life is difficult. The winters are long, 9 months, and in these conditions it is very important that people have something to do. When it is boring, we try to do something creative, and despite the harsh conditions, this life is what inspires me. Directors, cinematographers and photographers, we make art about our life and experience in our mother tongue as this is the subject we know best. I photograph my homeland, what I know.
You often focus your photography on your homeland. How do you depict your culture in your photography, and what effect do you think this has?
I don’t know, I simply photograph what I see, what is around me, that which I understand best. I would perhaps like to depict an essence of loneliness and light sorrow, which I find beauty in. For me beauty can appear in the ordinary, perhaps some kind of old house or ordinary people. The simple things which we often do not pay attention to. My city is ugly, and I try to find something beautiful, a good and harmonious atmosphere, in my photography.
Do you see yourself staying in Yakutia or would you like to work internationally?
Of course, I live and work in Yakutia but my work has been featured worldwide – in National Geographic, Time, The Guardian – I would like to photograph and work in another place, in order to explore a new world and create a story in another country. I would be interested in photographing Kazakhstan, Kalmykia and Kyrgyzstan- republics and places with people who look like me. Asian people who are close to me in soul and mindset, our brothers and sisters from another country. To me, it would be interesting to explore their culture and how they live. However, I would like to always live in Yakutsk (capital city of the region of Yakutia) because where is better? I would like to travel of course, but money is an issue – during the pandemic, I had to work as a courier. Wages are low in Yakutsk.
Do you think the world of Sakha film has the possibility to garner attention in the Western world? Is it important for you that your work reaches international recognition?
Of course, we have ambitions to reach that level, to maybe get some Cannes awards, or even an Oscar! Step by step we are getting there – it might take 10 years or 50 but we are reaching that goal. We have already been seen in Russian festivals such as Kinotavr (a Russian film festival that takes place in Sochi). What makes our cinema and art interesting is the authenticity behind it. We are self-made, not very professional and filming in a place about which little has been written. It seems the West are growing tired of the constant profit movies churned out and would receive Yakutian cinema well. They might be interested in how we show our values. However, Yakutian cinema is very specific to our culture and so might not resonate, films made by Tarkovsky, for example. But it is a big goal. When I was on film sets I helped out and took part in the production. Helping out is a big part of our culture. I developed a close relationship with many of the actors and I love to think about that time. Maybe the popularity of our work will rise or shrink, but our quality won’t be lowered.
Tell me more about your collection ‘Ysyakh’ – how does folkloric history mix with and influence art created in Yakutia?
Ysyakh is the principal holiday celebrated annually in Yakutia. It takes place in the middle of June and celebrates the solstice. In Yakutia, we believe in the nature that surrounds us. We feel close to the river, earth and sun. Every living thing has a spirit inside of it and we celebrate that. In the north, we live under tough conditions and so we pray to nature and to the benevolence of spirits. These are habits of our culture and our traditions which we still believe to be sacred. This is reflected in our art – take our cinema, where our favourite genre is mystical horror, reflecting our belief in spirits. In childhood, we enjoy scary stories and this sense of horror enters our cinematic influences. In Europe, often people are more individualistic and materialistic, while here we are very close to one another and spiritual.
One of your photos depicts a couple standing in front of a building with Lenin emblazoned on the side. How does subculture and patriotism present itself in Yakutia? Do you feel connected to western Russian culture?
We are definitely a part of Russian culture. I grew up speaking Russian, and I think and read and mostly communicate in Russian. I love Russian literature, Dostoevsky being my favourite author, and I don’t know the Yakutian language particularly well. I grew up in the city in the 90s, where we were not particularly interested in our Yakutian roots. Rather, we were more concerned with Western culture – everything from Sylvester Stallone to Agatha Christie. Speaking in Yakutian was not fashionable, as it was something only villagers spoke. Sometimes, when I visit other parts of Yakutia, due to my accent I am deemed a foreigner. In my professional life I speak more English, which I learned in school. Nowadays, our young people are more interested in Asian culture: K pop, Japanese anime, and Chinese language, so the cultural focus is shifting. Despite the predominance of Netflix, Marvel and Asian culture, we have a growing sense of nationalism and self-awareness. People are trying to preserve our culture through speaking more Yakutian and creating art. We have practically no authors, at least that I can think of, but our visual culture is big: filmmakers, artists and fashion designers.
Do you have a favourite photo?
Perhaps Kiosk, because it sells the best! It makes me money! I love money! How does the phrase go? If it doesn’t sell, it’s shit.
Your photos are often coloured in a gentle, pastel palette, contrasted against the harsh winter which they depict. How do you try to portray the weather in your work?
Winter is difficult, psychologically difficult. I would not like to die in winter. The ground is too hard to dig a grave. The weather here can make you crazy: normal people do not live in a place where you cannot go outside, but we live here, because we have no other choice, this is our hometown. I simply take the image and the viewer can see what they want. Each sees something different and that is what makes that artwork their own. I shoot winter as something which is beautiful but deceptive. The gentleness is deceiving, as yes, it is beautiful, but you would not want to be there. On the whole, our directors shoot in summer, because it is cheaper and simpler, as in winter the circumstances are complicated, for instance, technology does not work and your camera can freeze up. It is costly but for some directors necessary because our harsh winter is our brand and affects all of life around us.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in photography?
If you sincerely love what you do, it is not hard. To me, photography is easy and learning to photograph was easy. You should constantly walk around, study other photographers and their work. I spent a lot of time shooting every day. I went out into the city and constantly took photos. I looked at others like Magnum Photographers, in particular those who make art similar to my own vision. Really, the only advice I can give is practice, practice, practice. Only practice will make you stronger and that’s all, there is nothing else.