Interview Evgenia Arbugaeva

Tiksi – a Siberian fairy tale told through pictures. This year’s Leica Oskar Barnack Award goes to an evocative set of images – part documentary, part fiction – taken by Evgenia Arbugaeva and set in the town of her childhood. Located in the independent Sakha Republic, Tiksi lies on the shores of the Laptev Sea, on Russia’s Arctic coast. Although the town is shrinking, around 5,000 people still live in the settlement, dealing with harsh climatic conditions on a daily basis. LFI spoke with Evgenia Arbugaeva about her award-winning series.

LFI: How autobiographic is your work and what was your motivation?

Evgenia Arbugaeva: In a way it certainly is autobiographic. I was born in Tiksi and spent my childhood there. When I was eight, my family moved to a bigger city – Yakutsk, where my parents still live. The move was very painful – I missed Tiksi a lot: I couldn’t forget the vast, tundra stretching to the horizon, the wind so strong it felt like it could pick you up and take you to far away places, the snowstorms, outer space during the polar night, the magical Aurora Borealis, my friends and neighbours. Later on, my life took me to live in big cities like Moscow and New York. I travelled extensively but always remembered Tiksi – my special and perfect world. As often happens, childhood memories began to transform into surreal images, and I wondered if this place really existed as I remembered it… Nineteen years later I went back to find Tiksi nearly abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. The bright colours of the houses had faded, windows were boarded up and ships left to rust in the seawater.

LFI: Who were the people you photographed for the project?

Evgenia Arbugaeva: The protagonist of the story is a girl called Tanya. I met her when I first arrived in Tiksi. Tanya and her mother were sitting by a fire at the seashore, looking very sad. So I started up a conversation. They told me that Tanya’s older brother and sister had left that same day to go to college in the big city. I shared my own story with them. Tanya reminded me of myself when I was a kid. She had a similar fascination for the sea and the tundra, and a similar urge to explore her environment. She soon became my friend and guide around Tiksi. Uncle Vanya is a neighbour I knew from my childhood, though I never talked to him back then. Other people I encountered by chance while wandering around the town.

LFI: Can you describe how you work?

Evgenia Arbugaeva: I don’t take a lot of photographs and rarely carry the camera with me. When I see a place or a setting I like, I keep returning to it over and over again – at different times of the day, in different seasons, with different moods, and with the tremulous hope that, at some point, it will open up to me. I can be very stubborn. In this series there is an image I have in about 30 variations, taken at the
same place and angle, over the two years. I even started talking to the unmade photograph: “Come on, please appear!” When it did, it was pure happiness. While working on the Tiksi project I was groping for the right tone for the series. I was searching for photographs that would match the virtual images stored in my memory.

LFI: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions of the Tiksi project?

Evgenia Arbugaeva: Yes, there will be exhibitions at Kunsthal Sint-Pietersabdij in Ghent, Belgium, a former Benedictine monastery (June 6 to September 1), and during the Rencontres d’Arles Photo Festival (July 1 to 7). The pictures will also be shown at the In Camera Galerie in Paris, from January 30 to March 15, 2014.

Evgenia Arbugaeva

Born in 1985, working as a free-lance photographer between Russia and New York. In 2009, she completed the photojournalism and documentary programme at the International Center of Photography in New York. In 2012, Tiksi earned her the Magnum Emergency Fund.