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Svetlana Bulatov: My Heart’s in the Highlands

Work / Photography

Photographer Svetlana Bulatova documents the environmental trauma of the Chechen wars

“I wish to explore the bond between human and nature,” says St. Petersburg-based independent documentary photographer, Svetlana Bulatova. Svetlana embarked on her career in photography as part of a charity foundation, and is a current member of Women Photograph, an international organisation for promoting the work of female documentary journalists.

Speaking of her work on human conflict, Svetlana states: “For me, it is more important to focus on the consequences of armed conflict and trauma than on the trauma itself.” With her most recent project for Calvert Journal, entitled My Heart’s in the Highlands, Svetlana’s initial intent was to visually report on the impact of war on the wildlife and environment of the Russian republic of Chechnya. What began as a wildlife photography project became a series focusing on human-nature relations through the figure of a forest ranger, Shahruddi, who cares for the animals that share their habitat with human settlements.

Svetlana tells us: “I first traveled to Grozny (the capital of Chechen Republic) in 2016, on assignment for a story about oncology in Russia. This was my first time in the mountains and my reaction to the landscape around me was so overwhelming. I can only compare it to the feeling of falling in love.” That feeling of awe is palpable in Svetlana’s photographs of Chechnya’s terrain and settlements – in the soft, dusky haze that falls over the scenery, in the attentiveness to subtle shifts in light and shadow, in the emphasis on topographic forms and textures, in the panoramic mountain vistas.

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

However, the landscape is not without its scars. During the Chechen wars, natural habitats became sites of human conflict, devastating the local animal population and causing much of the plant life and wildlife to become endangered. In the aftermath, the ranger Shahruddi maintains deer feeders around the village of Engenoy, tracks changes in the wildlife, and protects vulnerable animals against predators like wolves, bears and jackals. As Svetlana tells it: “In the first meeting, the forest ranger Shahruddi told me: ‘A wild animal will never attack a human first. It’s the human that will initiate.’ This statement became the central theme of the photo story. Chechnya’s wildlife has been ravaged by war. The forest ranger is helping it to heal. Though not immediately obvious from the photos, human violence lies in the background of this story, hidden in the first snowfall across the plains — and not just the violence of modern warfare.”

Going into more detail about the photographic techniques essential to her visual storytelling, Svetlana says: “For my particular process it is essential to shoot on wide film. I used the medium format camera Pentax 67 – I have found I get the best results when I work with film. Film takes me closer to the person that I’m making a photograph with. There is a real feeling of process and purpose to each frame that makes me consider my image more intensely. I find that film is a counter to a digital way of thinking, because you are forced to wait to see the images. I also love how well it deals with the differences between harsh shadows and highlights, and retains the details in both. I choose Kodak film (Kodak Portra 400, 160) for finer grain, improved sharpness and naturally rendered skin tones.”

The bond between human and nature is torn asunder by war. And the intervention of those attempting to reestablish the balance is not without its own conflicts – in the shooting of predators to defend other animals, for example. Mending that bond is an ongoing process of negotiation between both the shared and opposed interests of humans and the environment. In Svetlana’s words: “The story is one of home, healing, and finding harmony with nature; it’s also about the importance of care in the aftermath of conflict.”

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands

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Svetlana Bulatova: My Heart’s in the Highlands