Assignment 4 – A picture is worth a thousand words

My initial submission for this assignment was based on a photographer by Alexey Vasilyev.

© Alexey Vasilyev

The image is one from a series entitled My Dear Yakutia by Russian photographer Alexey Vasilyev. Vasilyev (1985 -) was born, and still lives, in the Republic of Sahka (Yakutia), a vast region in the north east of the Russia. After graduating in Philology in 2008 he went on to work for a local children’s newspaper The Voice of the North. Vasilyev’s interest in photography started quite late and it was not until he was nearly thirty that he started posting images on Instagram. In 2017 he became a member of the Russian Union of Photographers and in 2018 he enrolled at the School of Modern Photography in St. Petersburg.

According to Vasilyev’s website (www.alexey-vasilyev.com) his work ‘… focuses on the daily life of people in the far North and their national identity in the global world’. The defining feature of the region is its harsh climate, with average temperatures of -35°C in the long winter and searing temperatures in the short hot summer. The national identity of the people is forged by their environment and the challenges that this imposes. By Vasilyev’s own admission, My Dear Yakutia is a photographic ‘love letter’ showing the region and the impact its environmental factors have on the inhabitants.

The photograph is a landscape image taken at an outdoor market and shows a man dressed in dark clothing shifting empty boxes, some of which partially cover his head. To either side of him are food stalls, to the left in the foreground is one that appears to be selling some type of berry and on the right there are sections of seemingly frozen pig carcasses on a pallet. In the middle of the frame there are people gathered by a stall of items that are initially difficult to identify but which on closer inspection turn out to be frozen fish and on the opposite side there are stalls selling frozen cuts of meat. In the background there is a large windowed building, possible an office block, which appears faint with no signs of life. Several of the stalls are lit with electric lights and this combined with the other elements gives the impression that the picture was taken early in the morning.

The composition of the photograph is based on the rule of thirds with the image divided into three sections, the stalls on the left, the man in the central third and more stalls on the righthand third of the picture.

The most obvious themes that the image conveys are about surviving in a harsh environment and the industriousness and tenacity required to do so. The clearest signifier of the cold is the clothing worn by the people in the image. The central character appears to be wearing two coats and padded trousers as well as thick boots and gloves. The figures in the background are all wearing hats with as little of their faces showing as is possible and looking more closely at the image it is becomes clear that there is a covering of snow on the ground as well as on top of the stalls. What also signifies cold, though in a less obvious way, is the food that is for sale, the fish in particular, which are standing upright, something that would not be possible unless they were frozen.

The industriousness of the Sakha people is best signified by the man in the centre of the image, who appears to have only one arm and is using his visible arm and head to move empty boxes, signifying an eagerness to ‘get on with the job’. The other elements that point to the survival instinct of the people in this region is the food itself. There is no place for portioned fillets in small plastic trays, instead there are large cuts of frozen meat and pieces of frozen carcass; the link between the dead animal and the meat for sale is obvious, unlike shopping in a modern western European supermarket where meat and fish is often sold prepared and portioned and link between the animal and the final product is not so stark. In contrast, in the image, it is clear where the meat and fish come from and that it is necessary for shoppers to have butchery skills as well as being able to cook the meat and fish they have purchased. From this point we can also connote that this is not a first world country, that daily life is harder than going to the nearest convenience store or ordering food online, that there is greater effort required to survive.

There is an element within the image that I believe is the punctum and which signifies that despite the inhospitable climate and the remoteness, the people of Sakha are impacted by globalisation. That element is the banana boxes being pushed and carried by the man in the centre of the image and on closer inspection that seem to be used on most of the stalls. The Dole bananas that would have been in the box being pushed on the ground would have been grown in countries close to the equator. The reference to bananas not only punctures the overriding sense of cold in the image but also the presence of tropical fruit grown thousands of miles away is an indicator of international trade, globalisation and a possible  threat to the traditional way of life of the Sakha people.

Looking at the image in the context of Vasilyev’s stated aim of portraying the daily lives of the people of the far north and their national identity in a global world, I think that it partly succeeds and that it would be difficult for a single image from a series completely to be able to achieve these aim in its own. The image does illustrate a scene from daily life and in doing so gives some insight into the identity of the people from this remote region. However, by making the image available to view by a global audience online I think that it looses the element of national identity as to many viewers it could be an image from any cold region around the world and not specifically Sakha.

Sources

Alex vasyliev | lensculture. 2019. LensCulture. [Online]. [10 September 2019]. Available from: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/alex-vasyliev-my-dear-yakutia

Alex vasyliev. 2019. The Calvert Journal. [Online]. [10 September 2019]. Available from: https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9654/everyday-yakutia-siberia-photography-documentary

Felix-schoeller-photoawardcom. 2019. Felix-schoeller-photoawardcom. [Online]. [10 September 2019]. Available from: https://www.felix-schoeller-photoaward.com/en/artpage/id:3300/year:winner

Mymodernmetcom. 2018. My Modern Met. [Online]. [10 September 2019]. Available from: https://mymodernmet.com/alex-vasyliev-yakutia-photography/

Fstopmagazinecom. 2019. F-Stop Magazine. [Online]. [10 September 2019]. Available from: https://www.fstopmagazine.com/blog/2019/06/interview-with-photographer-alexey-vasilyev/

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