Interview to Womankind magazine (Australia)

The latest issue of Womankind magazine is dedicated to Russia. “Into Siberia” is a story about six Arctic expeditions completed by Standartstudio.


It’s windy, stark and the winters are long. Windchill can freeze bare skin in a matter of seconds. But humanity has thrived in these conditions for centuries.

In 2002, photographers Maxim Shapovalov and Slava Schoot began preparations for their first exhibition into the Tundra. Located just below the polar cap, and covering some 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface, the Arctic Tundra is home to nomadic reindeer herders, Nganasan and the Nenets.

Today, preserving the unique culture, dreams, language, myths, and beliefs of the world’s indigenous cultures is as urgent as actions to save our biosphere from pollutants and industrial destruction. While there are almost 6,000 languages spoken in the world today, only half of these languages are being taught to children. Losing another language from the planet means losing its unique human perspective, imagination, spirit, and mode of reality. It shrinks human possibilities to a monoculture.

“As visual ethnologists, our goal is not only to record daily lives of people, but also to create a space for conversation about the value of these cultures to the world - ultimately rising awareness about the fragility of their continued existence,” note the photographers.

Please describe for us everyday life for indigenous Russians...

Maxim Shapovalov: Work, work, work. No weekends or vacations. What would you take a vacation from? Life?

In the subarctic climate, there are no banana trees, so in order to survive humans must follow and look after a flock of reindeer. This animal is perfectly adapted to arctic conditions; they can withstand extreme cold and windy conditions.

Moving after a flock of reindeer is the nomad’s way of life. The reindeer gives them food, shelter, clothing, transportation and life purpose; it means they are self sufficient. The only requirement for the reindeer is yagel (Arctic moss), which protects them from common threats like bee stings. They will cover hundreds of miles in search of it.

The temperature is typically between -20 and -50 degrees Celsius. Indigenous people wear light, comfortable clothes, made out of reindeer skins. The most difficult time is when black purga starts, which is a strong wind, mixed with snow, which normally lasts a few days but can sometimes last weeks.

A Nenets once told us a story about the purga; one day he went out to tighten his sleds to his house and he got lost. He spent three days in a snow cave, and had to dig himself out with his bare hands. When he got out of the cave he found that he was standing just 20 meters from his house.

When did you first know that you were going to be a photographer? Upon discharge from military service in 1989, I attended an exhibit of Helmut Newton in Moscow. I served my duty in the middle of nowhere on the far east of Russia, so my thirst for cultural events was especially great at that time. I fell in love with the pictures, I read the autobiography of the author and realized that photography was what I wanted to do in the future.

Do you think that it is important for photographers to study?          I never went to school to study photography. My previous engineering degree allowed me to educate myself with technical details. When I moved to New York City in 1991 my first job was at a photolab, where I worked for two years. Then I met a great old-school photographer Peter Castellano and became his assistant. I learned how to manage the studio, build sets, and organize photoshoots in the studio and on location. I think it is much more rewarding to learn photography from another professional than spend time in the classroom.

How do you know that a scene will make a good photograph? When I take pictures, I keep in mind a few things. First, if there is something in my frame, it must have a reason. Pictures should be meaningful. I have to be able to explain why I took this picture and why this subject is in my frame. Second, for a successful shot, every part is important. You may have a great subject, but it is important what kind of background you choose. Lighting is just as important. If you’ve got that covered, it is still important to catch the right moment, to bring your picture to life. Third, I double everything. Any piece of my equipment is doubled (except lenses). I always have two camera bodies, at least two sets of lights, multiple cables, filters and so on. I even have a partner who can shoot just as well as me.

The people in your photographs look so natural. They do not look staged. How do you achieve this?

Ever since I picked up a camera, I wanted to learn a photo-technique where I could capture any moment. But by the time I became technical, I lost this spontaneity. My pictures looked very staged and still. It took many years to loosen up and be able to react quickly to any kind of situation. I got enormous help from my partner who has a great sense of style and ability to place the photographing subject in the “given circumstances”, as he call it. Every photograph we take is staged. We remove unnecessary things away from it, bring things that will play out, set the lighting, make sure people look genuine, and then communicate with them, while taking photographs.

 You have taken gorgeous photographs of women collecting berries in the tundra. What do indigenous cultures enjoy that ‘developed’ cultures do not? In other words, what have ‘developed’ cultures lost over centuries of ‘development’?

Every time I visit remote locations and communicate with local people, I feel this strong connection. It’s almost an instinct, which sleeps in urban environments and awakes in the wilderness. It’s like a genetic sense of eternity, which we are all part of. We forget what is it like to live a simple but meaningful life in connection with Mother Earth. I never noticed a sign of depression amongst adults nor ADD amongst children. Kids are busy all day playing outside, no matter the temperature. Adults work from sunrise until sunset and never complain about the amount of work they have to do. A family of ten sleeps in a little shag covered with reindeer skins and never grudge on one another. Not a single person I’ve asked has wanted to relocate from the tundra. “We have here everything we need”, they say.