A paradise for the Eyes. Dolgans and other indigenous peoples through the lens of Jimmy Nelson
Olga Bubich
Andrei, Igor, Sacha, Sadko, Konstantin, Danislav, Katerina, Polina, Varvara, Brigade 4, Nenet, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011
British photographer Jimmy Nelson [1] considers himself a photographer who creates something "far more than photographs." As a son of a geologist, he has travelled to the most hidden corners of the planet, soon realizing that a settled life in one place is not how he imagines his life experience. Throughout his decades-long professional career, Jimmy has visited every continent of the earth in an attempt to fulfil his primary mission: to document indigenous peoples on the brink of extinction.

However, the African Maasai, the Polynesian Maori, the Argentinean Gaucho, and the Yakut Dolgans are not the ones he photographs to explore their anthropological aspects. In lectures and interviews, he repeatedly admits that indigenous peoples and tribes interest him primarily from an aesthetic point of view: "I am infinitely fascinated by the beauty of both these people and the places where they live. Combining these two perspectives in frame, I want to share the result with the whole world." [2]
Beauty lives within respect
Climatic conditions are a significant parameter that influences cultures and the way people live. Favorability of weather conditions and visible landscape determine the variety and accessibility of natural resources (food, water and energy), shaping some cultural traits, such as the perception of time and distance, formal hierarchy and uncertainty or the strength of community ties. So it seems natural that Jimmy begins any conversation about the Russian North with a description of its physical inaccessibility and the temperature vicissitudes he has encountered.
Brigade2, Nenet, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011
Over the years of his travelling, the photographer has been taking pictures of peoples whose habitat is geographically connected with the coldest places in Russia: the Nenets people of Yamal, the Dolgans of Yakutia, the Chukchi people of the Chukchi peninsula, the aborigines of Chukotka. Recalling a visit to Chukotka in 2012, he describes it as "the farthest point on the map where you can go while remaining in places still inhabited by people." [2] However, besides the cold and complete absence of humans, Jimmy was struck by another thing - it turned out that communicating with the "last Eskimos of Siberia" was uneasy not only due to their geographical remoteness from civilization:

"After a 13-hour direct flight from Moscow and about a month of wandering among the ice looking for the Chukchi people (the guide warned us that there were about 40 of them in that area), we finally managed to find them, but, as it turned out, it was impossible to photograph them. "First, we have to meet, wait, get to know and ‘see’ each other!" - the locals said. So they did not let me get a camera until a few weeks later," Jimmy admitted in one of his public performances. [2]
Yakim, Brigade 2, Nenet, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011
With its independence, dignity and freedom, this attitude can probably be explained by the harsh past of the indigenous peoples of the ancient Arctic, who remained unconquered by their neighbors, claiming their territory and herds of reindeer, sort of northern wealth. The everyday life of the Chukchi people has for centuries been a constant struggle for survival, which could not but actualize the relevant values, among which Jimmy Nelson singled out respect:

"Observing the interaction between members of the same community, above all, I noted the close connection between generations and the complete absence of prejudice. In the harsh climate of the north, people needed each other badly. For example, because adults often had no teeth, children would chew meat for them all day long, and teenagers would take the weak elderly outside, helping them go to the bathroom. Within this kind of caring attitude toward each other, I witnessed the real beauty of the Chukchi people. Their beauty is in respect!"

The unity and close contact within the reindeer herding brigade was conveyed in Jimmy Nelson's portraits of the Arctic tundra inhabitants [4]. Many of the photographs were taken inside the yarangs, by the fire or other source of light, in the clouds of warm smoke and lifelike character of layers of fur coats and headwear. The people in the photos stand very close to each other, and their children almost get lost among picturesque folds of wool. Everyone is indeed part of something shared, more extensive and more potent than a separately existing unit.

It is also interesting to note that the poses and positions of the people in this series refer to the canons of classical ceremonial portraits in the visual arts. The reindeer herders look magnificent, proud and free, and they do not look directly into the camera lens, which may also emphasize distance, reluctance to contact the "big world", and an intention to preserve their way of life and values.
Nenet, Brigade 2, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011
Dialogue of Light and Beauty
The second location where Jimmy Nelson went to continue his visual exploration of the north was Yakutia, the Anabarsky District, where the Dolgans, who are the descendants of the Evenks, another local indigenous people, caught the photographer's interest. The Dolgans are among the smallest peoples of Russia: according to official data, they are about 8,000, unofficially, seemingly even less. [3] The traditional way of life is imperilled now for several reasons, such as globalization and the influence of the Russian culture, intensively manifested from the Soviet times (for example, the Dolgan writing based on the Russian alphabet was accepted at the end of 1970th).

Analyzing works [5] from the series shot in Yakutia, it becomes apparent that the author intends to fix, first of all, a unique nomadic way of life. Unlike the warm ceremonial portraits of the Chukchi, the Dolgans are shown mainly outdoors, in crispy frost, often in motion, walking next to reindeer sledges that pull a mobile home - balok.
Reindeer, Anabar District, Yakutia, Siberia, 2018
Besides the reindeer-skin-covered carcasses of "houses on the skids," the Dolgans transport on sledges everything they need to live in the Siberian tundra, including mobile toilets and closets. The constant relocations are caused by the search for food for the herd, which is vital for the everyday life of reindeer-breeding brigades. The one Jimmy followed on his 3-week journey handled a herd of over 3,000 deers and was changing stalls about every few days. Moving to a new location could take up to eight hours, depending on weather conditions; during this time, the animals pulling the load were replaced to avoid overstressing them.

You can learn more about the character of the northern nomads from the commentary on one of the photos in the series. It also reveals their desire for independence and their close relationship with nature. Roman Tupirin, a 44-year-old Dolgan, posing in the photo with a firearm, describes it all this way:

"We, Dolgans, are children of nature. Many people envied us. During Perestroika and in the last years of the USSR in the 1990s, the local reindeer breeders were the only ones who did not have any problems with food because the tundra always provided us with food. Nature is our resource. We do not need the government. Nowadays, we are afraid of losing the connection to nature because people come here looking for diamonds and oil. The connection to nature is the most important thing a person has. It is where we came from; it's our roots."

In the works filmed in Yakutia, nature is read as a separate self-sufficient character, no less important than the people who live in contact with it. Jimmy shoots mainly horizontally, often from the top and in panorama mode to better convey its size and atmosphere. Perhaps the most impressive of them depicts a small herd led by a reindeer herder, with three neat baloks in the background; work with a dazzling glow of the rising sun, as if coming from the very edge of the earth. The author himself considers this hypnotic silent landscape special, describing it as a "visual paradise" or "paradise for the eyes." In interviews and lectures, Jimmy Nelson often admits that one of the secrets of a successful photograph for him is light, a tool that allows him to capture the aesthetics of the frame perfectly, "to show the beauty of man and the world around him" [2]. In the series devoted to the Dolgans of Yakutia, the dialogue of light and beauty happens very delicately indeed.
"Real People"
The Nenets are the third northern people Jimmy Nelson has included in his visual catalogue devoted to the most remote corners of the planet. "The British photographer travelled to the Nenets twice, in 2011 [6] and 2018 [7], to shoot "real people," each time detailing their everyday life, clothing, traditional housing, and daily activities that are inextricably linked to reindeer. Interestingly that compared to the series on the Dolgans, where both reindeer and herding brigades are shown as part of some timeless, fluid metaphysical landscape-state, the reportage on the Nenets looks more like a classic and, in a good sense, "magazine" story of an admired, but still an outsider. Each picture with detailed cultural commentary takes its place and functionally meets the viewers' expectations: men drive sledges, women pose with red-cheeked children or feed the animals.
[1] Victor, Dolgan, Anabar District, Yakutia, Siberia, 2018; [2] Oxana Teyunrultett, Oleasya Etguest, Chukchi, Second Brigade, Chukotka, Russia, 2012; [3] Yulia, Brigade 2, Nenet, Yamal Peninsula, Ural Mountains, Russia, 2011
The Yamal Peninsula was the first place in the Russian North that Jimmy visited in 2011. At that time, the photographer was still searching for the right tone of the conversation about the undoubtedly picturesque but harsh life of people whose lives are spent surrounded by reindeer and dogs at -50 degrees Celsius. He will need more than one trip and more than one week to understand and see' those he shoots, as his Chukchi "models" will later demand. The romance of the northern lights over the chum will not be quickly replaced by the ringing light of the "visual paradise" of the reindeer herders' teams abandoned in the snow - lonely but still on their way to their goal, people who know their worth.

In a recent interview, Jimmy was asked how he sees the future of the people he has photographed over the years. The photographer answered with a mixture of hope and sadness. The beauty of indigenous peoples and wilderness in many different climates is now threatened. "Smartphones will inevitably come into their lives, their connection to the big digital world is inevitable, but I want their culture to be preserved," he notes. I hope and dream that they will not lose the legacy they have gathered over the centuries on their path to the future.