“An endless love story”: Claudine Doury returns to the Amur River to photograph its people
Having first travelled to the Russian Far East now 27 years prior, the French photographer decided to return for "introspective reasons" and to find the same people she'd met so long ago. This forms the crux to her most recent series, Une odyssée sibérienne, and newly released book, Amour.
- Ayla Angelos
- 13 December 2019
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
For Claudine Doury, a French photographer living in Paris, her creativity was sparked at the ripe age of nine, as soon as she’d met a professional working in the medium. “She was taking illustration pictures for the press and was coming to my village looking for children as models,” she tells It’s Nice That, reminiscing about the exact moment in time. Two years later, she’d also connected with her drawing teacher who was also by chance a photographer. “I had realised that photography was a fantastic medium to express myself and to get in contact with people.”
However, it wasn’t a quick and easy process for Claudine. She went on to study journalism, worked as a picture editor for Gamma Agency, based in Paris, then for Contact Press Images in New York, before pursuing a role at the French newspaper, Liberation. “I became a photographer in 1989 and joined (photography) Agency VU shortly after,” she says. Then, after a long stint working for the press, Claudine soon realised that she had a desire to build long-term projects that have an impact. She has since gone on to do many wonderful things. Her first monograph, Peuples de Sibérie, was published in 1999 and she has since produced Artek, un été en Crimée in 2005 and Loulan Beauty in 2007, plus Sasha in 2011 and various others. She also received the Leica Oska Barnak award in 1999s, the World Press Photo Award in 2000 and the Prix Niepce in 2004.
The year she departed from the press and moved into the realms of photography was also the year that the Soviet Union collapsed. She decided upon the Amur River, the world’s tenth longest river stretching the border between the Russian Far East and Northeastern China, as her next destination. “I instantly decided to go to the very end of this country-continent (Russia) of which I had seen no image. The other reason was because of this wonderful name, Amur (translated to ‘Amour’ in French) – I wanted to go to the river of Love.” Having learnt Russian during school, this enabled her to meet Siberian natives, named the Nanaïs, whose existence she was not aware of previously. After stumbling across a small museum in the city of Blagoveshtchensk, Russia, she’d laid eyes on an old photograph of an “Orochon woman and her child”, that instantly reminded her of Edward Curtis’ photographs of Native Americans. “This photo decided my first long-term project.”
Gallery© Claudine Doury-Peuples de Sibérie
With a project idea in tow and the desire to embark on a long-form photographic journey, Claudine then travelled to all four corners of Siberia with an aim to report on the lives of its native people. “From 1996 to 1998, I went to Kamchatka to meet the Evens and the Koriaks, in Chukotka, the Inuits and the Chukchis,” she tells us. “I returned to the Amur River in Nanai and Oultchi villages, then to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal where the Buryats live and finally to the Yamal Peninsula among the Nenets people.” These colossal adventures into all parts of the province has enabled Claudia to build the most incredible portfolio, which has been the subject of several exhibitions and also of her first monograph. “Twenty-seven years after my first trip to the Russian Far East I wanted to meet the people I had met so long ago,” she says. “I wanted to go back for introspective reasons, but also to find the same people and to see what had changed there.”
These motives form the crux of her most recent series, Une odyssée sibérienne – also part of her newly released book, Amour, published by Chose Commune. Discussing one of her most favoured images, she speaks of an 85-year old woman named Margarita. This is the former mayor of Nanaï Village, located in Nergen, whose grandparents left St. Petersburg for Khabarovsk during the “eastern rush” at the end of the 19th century. “Their daughter (her mother) belonged to the communist youth and participated in the construction of the city of Komsomolsk on the Amur. She studied the Nanaï language and was the first teacher in the village of Nergen to teach the Russian language to the Nanaï children,” says Claudine. “She married a Nanaï man against the shaman’s advice.” The photograph sees the woman gently wading through the river’s bay with her long and wispy hair parted beside her face. Claudine adds: “Margarita represents for me the Siberian spirit of the river Amur.”
For Claudine, this series marks the end of a cycle. At first conceived as a “mental diary", the project now recreates the livelihood of the families she had met so many years ago. “It does not follow a chronological sequence and has no captions or text to explain the stories of the subjects,” she concludes. “I didn’t want it to be a documentary; I wanted it to be like the opening of a poem, about the passing of time, transition and identity. The project Amour seems to be an endless love story.”