Alexey Vasilyev Photographs One of The Coldest Cities In The World, Home.

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Alexey Vasilyev lives in Yakutsk, Russia. It’s cold there, -45 degrees Celsius average temp in the winter cold. Alexey shared with us a photo series of life in his home town and streets where he chooses to find beauty in the natural scenes before him. I spoke with Alexey about what it’s like to make photographs in a land so unique and how it has become his daily therapy.

Photography by Alexey Vasilyev

Alexey Vasilyev

I was born and I live in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). This is the largest region of Russia, and the coldest point on the planet. In the northern part of the cold pole – Oimyakon village – the thermometer can easily drop to -60 C. I am lucky to live towards the South, in Yakutsk, where the average temperature in winter is -40 C to -45 C. But I still dreamed of leaving. Life in a city with a population of just over 300,000, albeit the capital of Yakutia, seemed unbearably boring.

Several years went by. I discovered photography. I no longer dream of running away from here. But life still seems a bit boring. The only difference is that I began to enjoy this life, capturing it with my camera.

Yakutia is a completely different world, with different conditions for existence. Winter has really become a brand that attracts tourists from all over the world: they are interested in how people live in a region with such a harsh climate and a population density of 1 person per 3 square kilometres. My photos are an attempt to show how we live – all year round, and not just in winter.

Summer is everyone’s favourite time of the year. In the summer we celebrate our national holiday – Ysyakh. This is a holiday as big as the New Year in Russia. It is celebrated for two or three days in the bosom of nature, in a special place designated for it, called Urasa. People wear national outfits and jewellery, meet with their families, drink kumis, eat a lot of meat, fish, dance in the Osookhai national dance and participate in sports and cultural competitions.

Winter also does not give way to boredom. However, at this time of the year, people prefer to spend more time in warmth. Because of the extreme cold, there is a thick fog in Yakutsk, and the almost deserted streets resemble Silent Hill. The residents stay at home, visit their friends and relatives, or attend recreational institutions, which are plenty in the city: theatres, cinemas, clubs and libraries. Towards the New Year, street life blossoms despite extreme temperatures. Two favourite places for entertainment are Lenin Square and Ordzhonikidze Square, where a Christmas tree, ice sculptures and slides are set up. When it becomes warmer in Yakutia, and the thermometer’s column rises to about -35 C, the weather is associated with the arrival of spring.

In my lens people can look a little gloomy, lonely, tired. The place where one lives leaves its imprint on one’s mentality, it seems that we are very closed and do not like to smile. When I photograph people, they ask with perplexity why I photograph them, and not beautiful girls. But they are beautiful just the way they are.

“I look at the weather, and if I see that the temperature is -40 C to -45 C, I know this is a good day to go out and take pictures.”

Gobe:

In your words, please tell us how you make a living?

Alexey:

For me, photography now pays the bills. These are mostly photo shoot requests from individuals, occasionally coming from local companies and more rarely from the media.

Gobe:

You live in one of the coldest cities in the world, what gets you up in the morning? And what’s the first thing you do when you wake up?

Alexey:

The first thing I do when I wake up is check my mailbox to find out if I’ve been sent any interesting offers of work. Then I look at the weather, and if I see that the temperature is -40 C to -45 C, I know this is a good day to go out and take pictures. With this precise temperature outside, my chances of taking some great pictures increase considerably. The city is engulfed in thick fog, and the streets seem empty, which is exactly what I like.

Gobe:

What does a typical day for Alexey Vasilyev contain?

Alexey:

These days I’m my own boss, so I don’t have an exact plan of what my day will look like. Today I can spend the whole day on the sofa watching films, whereas tomorrow I’ll spend a long day shooting.

Earlier, I wasn’t any different from other people. Like everyone else, I worked from 9 to 6, got paid, carried out tasks, mumbled under my breath about my idiot boss, counting the days until the weekend, when I could get on with what was really important to me – taking photographs. This year I quit my day job and am now ready to work on my own projects, trying to make some money from them.

Alexey Vasilyev

“Photography became my daily therapy, which it is to this day.”

Gobe:

You have said that when you began to make photographs, you stopped drinking and said yourself you would never drink again? Why inspired you to pick up a camera the very first time?

Alexey:

I’ve spent too much time and too much money on alcohol. It seemed as if I was destroying my own life. By drinking, I needed something to fill this void that had appeared after holding myself back. Then I started taking pictures on my phone. I loved wandering along the streets, relaxing after work and taking pictures of anything that seemed interesting, then posting those pictures on Instagram. There wasn’t a particular reason for doing this; I just needed to kill time and brighten up my depressed state. Now I’d be happy to delete these photos, but at the time I felt as if I was engaging in something more meaningful than just getting drunk. Photography became my daily therapy, which it is to this day.

Gobe:

What is the most unique and interesting situation photography has landed you in, so far?

Alexey:

I can’t remember any case that left such a deep impression on me. I think that if you take photos on your home turf, a lot becomes mundane for you.

Gobe:

Can you please name some inspirations, photographers or otherwise?

Alexey:

Russia has a lot of incredible photographers. Alexander Gronsky is one of my favourites. His urban landscapes made me view the place where I live in a different way. Young photographers who are starting out often dream of travelling, taking pictures abroad, and they think the buildings where they live hold no interest. I thought the same. However, I didn’t have any money to travel. The only option I could afford was a trip to a village not far from Yakutsk.

“The media is constantly talking about climate change, about how dangerous it is for us, but the mood of society still remains indifferent.”

Gobe:

Some Yakuts believe that there are spirits living within forests, trees, mountains and houses. Do you have a strong connection to the lands and nature that you make your photographs in?

Alexey:

Of course, I feel this connection, as it’s my native home. Could you really live here without this connection, when the conditions are so harsh? Every Yakut knows this.

Gobe:

I have read many articles recently that discuss the effects of climate change in Yakutsk, perhaps most alarmingly the melting of the permafrost on which most of the city has been built. As a people deeply connected to nature does this alarm you and do you see evidence of a change on the ground?

Alexey:

Now they are more concerned with issues of daily living, such as low wages, increasing prices for food and accommodation, meaningless politics, etc. Conversations about the climate take place mostly in professional circles. However, we are all experiencing the consequences of climate change. It’s not only expressed in the fact that winters are getting warmer, but also in other practical things. Each year the flooding problem in Yakutia is becoming increasingly pronounced, with more and more settlements at risk of flooding, with forest fires also becoming more frequent and lasting for longer. During the summer Yakutsk turns into a real-life version of Silent Hill as a result of the constant fires seizing the region. The media is constantly talking about climate change, about how dangerous it is for us, but the mood of society still remains indifferent.

“Now American culture has stepped aside, and our children love to listen to Korean music, watch dramas and learn Japanese and Chinese.”

Gobe:

Can you see yourself using your photographs as a tool to create awareness and generate conversations around environmental changes in Yakutsk?

Alexey:

To be honest, I didn’t think much at all that my photographs were evidence of climate change.

Gobe:

Where in the world would you most like to travel and make photographs?

Alexey:

I’ve dreamed about going to America since childhood. It’s probably because of the huge influence of American culture from films, music, and clothing that I was subject to, like many other teenagers growing up during the 1990s. At that time, we didn’t have the Internet, and I didn’t know much about the rest of the world. My friends and I loved to listen to rap: Onyx, Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature, Cypress Hill etc. We wore baggy pants and hoodies and tried to be like the guys from the ghetto, our idols, which we watched on videotapes that we swapped between each other, watching American films and reading Stephen King.

Now American culture has stepped aside, and our children love to listen to Korean music, watch dramas and learn Japanese and Chinese.

Gobe:

What cameras and gear do you most enjoy using at the moment?

Alexey:

For photo projects I mostly use a Canon 5D Mark III camera and fixed 35mm and 50mm lenses. Last year I bought myself a small Fujifilm X100F, which I always take with me, as you never know what you might come across.

Alexey Vasilyev

Gobe:

What is your favourite photobook?

Alexey:

I have so few of them that I have yet to find my favourite. Yakutsk just doesn’t have any shops that sell good photography books, which is an issue all over Russia. We mostly buy books through the Internet, but for me it’s not a genuine experience. I love flicking through a book to begin with, touching the pages before deciding whether to buy it or not.

Gobe:

What’s your favourite shot so far? And what’s the story behind it?

Alexey:

I liked the observations of one photographer, although I don’t remember his name, with the essential thought that the photographer’s best shots are the ones he will take tomorrow.

Gobe:

Can you tell us about a film/book/album that you’ve come across recently that left a lasting impression with you?

Alexey:

That would probably be The Salt of the Earth about Sebastião Salgado. You know, I knew about his work even before watching the film, I liked his incredible pictures from Africa and other places, but I hadn’t imagined the incredible scale of his personality, which stretches well beyond the realm of photography. Even if he hadn’t been a photographer, he would, all the same, have been a great person. It’s enough to watch the film to understand this.

Gobe:

If you couldn’t be a photographer, what would you be?

Alexey:

I don’t know, I’ve never asked myself this question, I think I’d work in an office while slowly losing my mind.

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Alexey Vasilyev