German photographer Nanna Heitmann grew up hearing Russian fairy tales from her Russian mother and grandmother. A popular recurring character in these stories was Baba Yaga, a dangerous witch with an appetite for children who lived in a small hut in the middle of the woods. In one story, the witch takes a girl known as Vasilisa the Beautiful as her prisoner. However, with the help of a black cat, Vasilisa escapes. As the girl runs from the witch, she drops a magical towel and comb behind her. A deep, broad river emerges from the towel and a thick forest from the comb, so thick Baba Yaga cannot find her.
For her series, Hiding from Baba Yaga, Heitmann returned to her mother’s country of origin, to visit the remote region of her childhood fairy tales. She was delighted to find it reminded her of Ivan Bilibin’s illustrations of Vasilisa’s fable. Using this story as a starting point for exploration, she traced the Yenisei River downstream in a Russian Jeep packed with camping equipment, documenting life along its banks. Following the longest rivers in the world from the Tuva Republic northward through Siberia took Heitmann through the wilderness of the Siberian taiga, exposing her to the locals living in social isolation on the outskirts modern Slavic society.
Like Vasilisa hiding from Baba Yaga in a forest of her own creation, Heitmann’s subjects are sheltered by the isolation and harsh climate of the woods surrounding the Yenisei River. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this remote area has lost its infrastructure; residences have no access to goods, technologies, or government services, so the region tends to attract people hiding from society or seeking new realities—escaped criminals, recluses, and Eastern Orthodox Old Believers. Heitmann’s environmental portraits reveal how these people shape and are shaped by their surroundings.
Viewers may draw parallels between Hiding from Baba Yaga and Sleeping by the Mississippi, Alec Soth’s photographic journey along the neglected banks of his country’s longest river. However, Heitmann’s work also references distinctly Russian concepts and esthetics. Her wanderlust-based process echoes that of late-nineteenth-century Russian painters, such as Ivan Shishkin. Like Shishkin, her use of a light palette in the depiction of poverty and suffering reveals the beauty of resilient rural Russian folk culture. Her gentle eye conveys their dignity and humanity, allowing the viewer to consider them with curiosity and empathy. Ultimately, Heitmann combines elements of traditional documentary road trip photography with elements of Russian art and folklore, in her depictions of the eclectic mix of individuals, interiors, landscapes she encountered on her journey.