In the northernmost stretches of arctic Russia reside the Nenets, the country’s largest indigenous group. Each year at the start of the school term, helicopters descend on the land to collect Nenet children and whisk them away to boarding schools, where they are to spend the next nine months away from life as they’ve known it. Tundra Kids a series (and book) by Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima, takes us behind the boarding school doors to reveal a world that most of us would not get to see: a place where kids play in minus-30 degree C° snow drifts and mini-tents are erected inside classrooms to make the children feel more at home.
In January 2014, after first hearing about the school on a visit to Vorkuta in the Komi Republic of Russia, Kuwajima decided to go and visit. Inside was very surreal, he said, because it looked like a regular school in any developed country in the world, except it was filled with ornaments, ethnic-themed decoration, and mini-mobile tents. Intrigued by the strange aesthetics, Kuwajima decided to photograph the school, but was told he would need an official permit from the education ministry. Ten months later, with help from friends in Moscow and their connections within the Komi Republic, Kuwajima was granted the permit. He returned to take photographs at the boarding school in November 2014.
Looking through Kuwajima’s Tundra Kids book, consisting of photos from the boarding school, what is immediately striking is how he has framed the photographs. When asked why he shot the portraits the way he did—keeping both the backdrop and the lights within the frame—Kuwajima says: “The main theme of this story is the collision and mixing of two different cultures. The backdrops and artificial light held up by the kids were instruments to emphasize the coexistence of two different worlds.”
Kuwajima explains that he arranges his photographs this way in an attempt to defy the ordinary and reveal “the whole picture”: “I framed it that way so that another layer of the reality would be visible behind the backdrop. [In framing] we often fail to see the things beyond the frames, or miss the whole picture of reality. I wanted to address this issue and tried to show the changing and complex identity of the Nenets today.”
In addition to the portraits, Kuwajima’s book also features photographs of drawings and toys crafted by the children, which he describes as visual extractions of what the children see in their minds. “The children still vividly remember their life on the tundra,” says Kuwajima, “physically they live in the school, but mentally they are still back in their tundra homes.” By including their pictures, Kuwajima builds a collaborative link with his subjects, revealing something about these kids’ identities and their innermost feelings.
As a whole, Tundra Kids presents an insightful, touching portrait of life within the boarding school, while also drawing attention to the complexity of the Nenets existence today and the uncertainty of their future.