Nearly three hundred years ago, Elena Anosova’s ancestors journeyed from their small settlement in the Nizhnyaya Tunguska river, in the extreme north of Russia, to the taiga—the forest of the subarctic region found in the heart of Siberia. Hunters by trade, they came to colonize Serbia and soon assimilated with the Evenks, one of the indigenous peoples of the Russian North, founding a small village in the taiga. Shaped by a harsh climate and a remote geographical location, the village developed a unique way of life, grounded in a bond between man and nature—one that continues to thrive. Life in the village has barely changed in centuries.
Having grown up in a big city, Anosova’s encounters with her heritage happened mostly through stories and summer visits from her family. ‘Out of the Way’ marks her discovery of the village, its distinct myths and traditions and the 100-odd people who live there—all of whom are distant relatives of the photographer. Documenting the day-to-day of village life and the harsh and beautiful landscape that it unfolds in, Anosova builds a portrait of a strong community that has managed to hold on tightly to its identity as the world around it changes rapidly.
In this interview for LensCulture, Anosova speaks about her ‘writing’ her family story, the connection between humans and nature central to village life and what keeps microcosms like this alive in the age of globalization.
LC: Out of the Way seems to be one of the most personal projects out of your work. How and when did the project start? Did it grow out of any previous projects?
Elena Anosova: To be honest I wouldn’t say that this is the most personal project of mine. It is less personal than Section, in which I explored the lives of women in closed institutions, a familiar traumatic experience. After I had finished Section, I went to the village for a break and to feel close to my routes. In the tungus language, the name of the settlement means ‘The Isle’. After spending some time there, I decided that I need to go back.
LC: What drew you to start exploring this village and your family there? Do you have a close relationship with the place already or did the project mark the beginnings of your relationship with it?
EA: I had never visited it before 2015 but I had seen pictures and read books about the place. There is a famous book with a movie adaptation called Ugryum-Reka (roughly translated as Ugryum River). It is a family saga, set in Nizhnyaya Tunguska against the backdrop of the Siberian Gold Rush. I also listened to many stories from my relatives, and from my dad in particular—he was born and raised there. After spending some time there, I felt the desire to ‘write down’ the story of my family, and the place, in some way. There is a tiny local museum in ‘The Isle’ and in the beginning, I decided to collect archival pictures from locals for the museum. While doing that I understood that this story is universally relevant, making us question who we are and where we come from.
LC: What is your relationship between your close family and these relatives?
EA: I grew up in Irkutsk. It is a big city by Lake Baikal, around 1000 km away from The Isle— which is relatively close in Russian terms. Our relatives from the village would visit us every summer, to see a dentist, for example, and do some shopping. Many decided to stay in Irkutsk later. In Soviet times these summer trips were more affordable than now, which is why they could visit. My cousins would make fun of me, because I was a ‘city girl’ and had never seen a bear in my life.
LC: The distinct atmosphere of the region is very striking in your photographs. Can you give me a sketch of the geographical location of where you were working, and tell me a bit about the history of the region and how this has moulded the kind of place it is.
EA: These places are hard to access and are underpopulated. The nearest small towns are around 300km away by a ‘winter’ road—one that is available just 3 months a year, from December to March. It is a mix of mud and ice. In the summertime, access is only possible with a helicopter. The village was founded by the Tungus people, more than 300 years ago. Later, the Russians arrived and assimilated into the village. They started to grow wheat along the river banks and hunt.
During Soviet times, there was a collective farm in the village and all the inhabitants had to work for the government. People from neighboring villages had to move to ours, to work in the collective farm, abandoning their own. We still sail up the river to these places to look after our ancestor’s graves. Also, at that time, geologists had been searching for natural resources in the area. They found diamonds in Yakutia, which is nearby. Today, gas and oil are produced in the region, which is slowly destroying the fragile ecosystem. So basically the village is inhabited by descendants of the Tungus people, Russians, and geologists.
LC: How do the extreme weather conditions shape the daily routines and culture of the region’s inhabitants?
EA: We say that a Siberian is not someone who doesn’t feel cold, but someone who is dressed properly. Life in these extreme weather conditions requires constant movement, so everyone keeps busy all the time. It means hunting, fishing, agriculture—using greenhouses with heating inside. Preserving food for winter is quite an activity. Dumplings, pirogi, sour cabbage. People also collect mushrooms and berries. One can make home ice cream. It is quite an easy recipe when it’s between minus 30-45 degrees celsius outside.
LC: How did you try to capture this specific way of life in your images? What kind of story did you want to build?
EA: Using family archetypes in my work, I hope to create interest around other people’s family histories, archives and look into these questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? How can micro-communities like this one survive without globalization? There are only a few places in the world like this. Perhaps they can keep their identity because they are so far away, difficult to access and don’t welcome strangers?
LC: Tell us a bit about the cultural make-up of the region.
EA: Most of us have mixed blood. Some have more of visible Tungus DNA, and some less. For example, I am the first one in my family who has blond hair and fair skin. There are a lot of mixed marriages that happened throughout generations and they are accepted without prejudice.
LC: Animals seem to have a very important position in the project. Can you tell me a bit more about the different roles they play in the region.
EA: The dog is seen as the best friend, a family member and a partner. There are a lot of wild and dangerous animals in the area. They have become more dangerous as their natural habitat is disrupted by the production of oil and gas and their behavior is unpredictable at times. Wolves and bears can attack people and domestic animals. The dog will protect and help no matter what. They are specially bred and trained for that. If someone gets lost in Taiga, the snow forest, the dog knows how to bring them home. It is a tragedy if the dog dies. When there are no roads during summer, fall and spring, people use horses, to get to the hunting lands, for example. Our family’s land is 70km away, farther in the taiga. If we are talking about wild animals, the region survives by hunting the elk for food, and sable for fur.
LC: There are about 100 adults living in the village. What kind of work do they do?
EA: There is a school, a kindergarten, a paramedic, a ranger, a fireman and a post office—and also a tiny diesel electricity station. All the buildings need to be heated twice a day hence everyone is constantly busy producing wood. And most of the men in the village are hunters. In terms of leisure, there is a local community center, a museum, and a library. Locals produce their own shows in the club.
LC: What happens to the youth of the region? Do many people move elsewhere or is it custom to stay and settle within the community?
EA: After finishing school, by the age 15, many leave the village to go study either in the towns around or Irkutsk. After finishing their education some do come back and teach at the local school, for example. The ones who do are really attached to the place and the lifestyle and they sincerely love it. In how many schools around the world can you get skiing classes, or learn to study the traces of animals?
LC: You mention the myths of the region are almost a stronger influence than modern life. Can you tell me a bit more about this relationship? What is the interaction between this small community and the way the world is developing technologically, politically, socially?
EA: They really are. In fact, it is enough material on that for a whole book that I am working on now. But to give you just one example, according to the legend that is especially important to my family, the wolves are scared of fire. The modern interpretation of this myth is expressed by putting a scarlet ribbon on the dogs in case they might be attacked by wolves. When I wondered about this and asked my uncle why he does it, he told me that this is what our grandfathers used to do and it worked. Why question it? I get scared sometimes that it all might change with new technology. They now have internet and social media. But, the usage is limited, from 8 a.m. until 12 p.m. and the speed is very slow—hopefully not enough to get addicted.
LC: Your project also contains archival images. Can you tell me a bit about those?
EA: I started my project by collecting the archival images from locals, so I have quite a collection. I have a set of amateur photos of hunters that cover several generations—just men posing with rifles in the snow. But one of my personal favorites is the image I discovered from the family archive of my dad’s classmate that depicts my super distant relatives relocating from the neighboring village to ours by literally moving their whole house on a floating boat. I love this image so much.
LC: The project is ongoing, and you’ve been working on it for quite some time. Have you witnessed any changes in the community over the period you’ve been working there?
EA: Not really. Two newborns and two funerals.
Editor’s Note: This body of work is on view at Schilt Publish & Gallery in Amsterdam until the 15th of December.