The 25-year-old Magnum nominee and winner of this year’s Ian Parry Scholarship documented the individuals and communities who inhabit one of Russia’s coldest regions
The Yenisei River in Russia flows 3500km through a region of diverse landscapes, from the southern border of Mongolia, and northward through Siberia until it reaches the Arctic Ocean. German-Russian photographer Nanna Heitmann spent three-and-a-half months tracing the river’s southern regions, creating a poetic documentation that introduces us to the individuals and communities who live in some of the coldest territories in Russia.
Heitmann is in her final year of the documentary photography course at the University of Hanover and has worked on commissions for international titles such as The New York Times, TIME Magazine, and The Washington Post. The 25-year-old photographer has had a rewarding year. She joined Magnum as a nominee, was awarded the Leica Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award, and, most recently, was granted £3500 for The Sunday Times Award for Achievement in the Ian Parry Scholarship.
Heitmann’s winning series, Hiding from Baba Yaga, is gentle and sensitive, but each photograph is evocative of a deeper story, about the land or its individuals. “Many of the people I met were isolated — either socially, physically, or spiritually,” says Heitmann. “The work is filled with many layers of isolation.”
“Many of the people I met were isolated — either socially, physically, or spiritually”
Under Soviet rule, the Yenisei was transformed into a place of exile and forced labour. The construction of two large dams in the mid-1900s sank whole villages and shifted natural ecosystems, and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the region suffered from further structural change; much of the infrastructure was abandoned, causing unemployment and poverty.
In recent years, the population along the Yenisei has declined, but for many resettling is not an option. Some of the people Heitmann encountered simply could not afford to leave, while others had lived off the land their entire lives, and felt they would struggle to adjust to an urban lifestyle.
In her project, Heitmann introduces us to Yuri, a nomad who lives off a landfill, in a hut built out of scavenged materials. “All my friends are in the cemetery — drugs or alcohol,” he says. “Here the air is clear, and not dirty from all the coal dust.”
We also meet Vaselisa, the daughter of two deaf parents, and the only nonbelievers living in a village of Old Believers — an exiled community of the Russian Orthodox Church. Vaselisa has one friend who lives in a nearby village, but they are only able to meet in the summer when it is easier to reach one another.
In a more urban region of the river, we meet Sofia, a former ballerina. Since injuring her ankle six years ago, Sofia has worked a striptease club every night from 9pm to 6am. Sofia is not ashamed about her new line of work — “the way she dances is beautiful, like a ballerina,” says Heitmann — but she does not want to do it forever. Like many of Heitmann’s subjects, Sofia’s gaze is detached, indicative of the spiritual isolation that was felt by many of the individuals she photographed.
Heitmann’s images have a soft and dream-like quality. “Some people say the pictures are melancholic,” she says. This was not a conscious decision, but the photographer believes her aesthetic was influenced by the landscape, and “Russian melancholy”, a cultural and literary motif that describes a collective feeling of loss and heavy burdens.
“I think the most important thing in my work is to show how people react and interact with the environment,” she says. In doing so, it would seem that Heitmann’s work is also a reflection of her own interaction with the environment, a vast region that she will continue to unearth over the next year.