Elena Chernyshova on extreme isolation of the city of Norilsk and her Panos print ‘River’
My interest in the north started in my childhood because my mum grew up in a very northern part of Russia, in Chukotka. She told me a lot of stories about it: the frost, temperatures of minus 60F, several metres of snow, the polar nights and polar days. It seemed like a fairytale world far from my life in Moscow. I was really interested to investigate this life one day and so when I became a photographer, it was my first documentary project. I went there three times over eight months, once during polar night, once during polar day and once in the intermediate period, to see different aspects of daily life there.
This image is from that project which is called Days of Night, Nights of Day, about Norilsk city. This is one of the biggest cities in the world above the polar circle, with a population of 170,000 people. It is situated in a kind of isolation, there are no ground roads, no railways, it is only accessible by aeroplane or by navigation by boat. People feel they are on an island and like to say the rest of Russia is the continent. It’s an industrial region with a lot of metal deposits. There’s very little unemployment because there’s a lot of work in the industrial sector. 56% of the population work for Norilsk Nickel which runs the mines there. There are open mines and underground mines that go from 300 metres to 2000 metres under the earth – it’s a huge labyrinth, very, very, very, very long. And there are two factories producing products for export.
In this image we can see a frozen landscape typical of the northern part of Russia. The flight from Moscow to Norilsk takes four hours, and it goes above the Yamal Peninsula, you can see frozen rivers and no traces of human life. It is like a glacial desert, it is very empty. This image is the opening of the project. I put it first because it shows the location of Norilsk, the city is completely insulated from the world. During the summer, plane tickets to Norilsk can be very, very expensive, 1000 euro and more, so for people who live there, travel out is very difficult.
Norilsk has very rich deposits of nickel, cobalt, copper and palladium, a metal that we use for our mobile phones – 40% of palladium comes from Norilsk. It’s really a big industrial city. The deposits were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, after the revolution. When Stalin came to power he organised two camps there that were part of the Gulag camps, so the first factories and much of the city were constructed by prisoners of the Gulag. The city has a very tragic history and some people call it a city built on bones. We still don’t have precise data about how many people died in the Gulag and how many people passed through these camps in Norilsk.
There are families here who have been here for four generations, their great grandparents were in prison in the Gulag. After the death of Stalin, many people decided to stay because they had actually lost everything in their native lands, they had no house, no links with their family, and no other place to go. When the Gulags closed it was very important to attract people to work here to maintain this industrial process. So the salaries then were high and people retired at a young age, between 45 until 50 years old, apartments were free and they had very cheap flights, thanks to this programme of advantages it was even hard to get a job there. It was a city closed to many Russians because Russians could enter there only by special invitation. Now it is open for Russians but it is closed for foreigners.
I started researching several months before I went there. I spent a lot of time talking on forums with different people locally and they were the ones who showed me their city. At the beginning I saw it through their eyes, and then I went off alone to places I was more interested in to construct the visual part of the story, but that introduction helped me a lot. The polar nights last for almost a month and a half, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. It is very hard to live in, I don’t know how to adapt to these conditions! During polar days the sun stays all the time above the horizon and it’s quite beautiful actually. The aim was to show now how an ordinary day is in these kinds of conditions, how people adapt. I wasn’t looking for particular cases, on the contrary, I was looking for the average sort of life, the everyday.
Photography is a very strong passion for me. I started taking pictures when I was a student in an architectural academy and step by step, it started to take more and more of my time and interest. When I finished my studies, I worked one year in architecture and realised that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do with my life. I went on a bicycle trip with a friend and we cycled through 26 countries in Eurasia over almost three years. During that time I took a lot of photographs and learnt a lot about photography. I’m self taught, I’ve mostly learnt from looking at other photographer’s work, there are so many projects I admire.