“We would never leave our homes if we didn’t have to. We’d stay at home drinking hot tea while waiting for spring. Life stops in winter. A dense fog clouds the sunlight for a few weeks and we experience months of severe frost,” photographer Alex Vasilyev tells It’s Nice That. Although Alex’s description may resonate with many of you – particularly our New York readers who suffered through this winter’s bomb cyclone – he is, in fact, describing his home of Yakutia, also known as Russia’s coldest region. Winters are long in Yakutsk, the district’s capital, often lasting five months with a temperature of around -40 degrees.
These extreme weather conditions have become a tourist attraction for many. Curious sightseers travel from across the globe to observe how people live their daily lives in the harsh climate. Alex’s series Uraankhai combats the region’s exoticised representation. Instead, Alex seeks to represent the local reality. “My images show that people live here all year round, not just in winter. A few years ago, my job began disheartening me. So I started walking around the city after work, shooting everything that seemed interesting to me. That eventually evolved into a more stylised project, Uraankhai, that documents the local men, women and children as I see them.” The series’ photographs are characterised by the Yakutis’ frank and direct gazes as they look into the camera’s lens with steadfast eyes.
Alex names German photographer August Sander as a key influence. Unlike Sander who took over 40,000 images of ordinary people in their workwear, Alex insists that his subjects wear the traditional local dress. “National costumes are an incredible insight into a country’s people and the times in which they live. Yakutis are very fond of dressing up in traditional costumes; they are worn by almost every member of a family. We even have our local couturiers who exclusively sew outfits for the Yakuti people.” Alex’s aesthetic choices function as a celebration of his own community and its rituals and highlight the strong sense of unity that permeates these people through the clothes they wear.
Alex’s decision to set his photographs against the region’s familiar scenery is also indicative of Uraankhai’s commemorative quality. “All the photographs were taken in the Amginsky district, which is the site of Yakutia’s main festival Ysyakh. Ysyakh is an annual summer fete that honours the deities of the “ayy” and the rebirth of nature. It takes place during the second half of June when the days are long and the earth is covered with green,” the photographer says. According to Alex, Ysyakh has great political, spiritual, aesthetic and educational value to the local residents and is particularly significant to Yakutia’s impressionable youth who love their home and their local traditions.
Uraankhai is more than a series of individual character studies. The photographs are tributes to the Yakuti people’s strong sense of identity in the face of Western influences. “Globalisation is absorbing the cultures of minor regions and erasing local traditions. I want to preserve the Yakutis’ small but extraordinary culture. Through my photographs, I hope to communicate the honour and respect I feel for the place I have lived my whole life.”