“Virgin Lands” is a series about former prisoners and their families in a small town in northern Kazakhstan. Combining documentary content with a subjective point of view, the images depict moments affected by both the past and the uncertainty of the future.

For these families, often the biggest challenge is the acclimation period following the release from prison; previously incarcerated people are immediately thrust back into rebuilding their everyday lives after living at the prison for 20 years or more.

I took the name “Virgin Lands” from a plan in the 1950s that aimed to increase the agricultural production in northern Kazakhstan’s vast steppe—it sought to battle the food shortages plaguing the Soviet Union. This region was also very important during the time, as deportations were a daily reality; the harsh landscape made it an ideal location for labor camps, including the massive network of correctional facilities known as the Gulag. With this geopolitical history as backdrop, the images address questions of memory, longing, nostalgia and hope, both on an individual and collective level.

Between 2005 and 2012, I traveled to Kazakhstan several times to photograph these men and their families. In many ways, it was as if time stood still between my visits. On the other hand, some of the people I had met and photographed were imprisoned again, and others passed away, often due to alcohol-related diseases or tuberculosis.

—Mikael Hellstrom

Editors’ Note: This project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016—don’t miss the work from all 50 of these outstanding, international talents!

If you’re interested in seeing more work on this and similar topics, we’d encourage you to check out these previous articles: The Auburn System, a look at America’s “prison industrial complex” through the lens of a maximum-security prison and the community that surrounds it; Ta Cheio: It’s Too Full, Tommaso Protti’s documentation of Brazil’s immense prison population; and Apashka, Pavel Prokopchik’s series on a cult-like community in the far reaches of Kazakhstan.