In Yiddish, the expression “like last year’s snow” refers to something that is no longer relevant. It’s a phrase photographer Oded Wagenstein chose to title his body of work documenting a settlement of former nomadic reindeer herders in a remote village of Yar-Sale in Northern Siberia. While men of the community are usually more encouraged to remain within the migrating clan, for these women, the days of wandering are long gone. Despite their isolation, they welcomed Wagenstein into their homes with warmth and gratitude. “Like Last Year’s Snow” is a melancholic account of the loneliness they face. By capturing the women in their homes among their meaningful possessions, Wagenstein creates empathy for them. He explains, “I was hoping to share their longing for belonging.”
The series earned Wagenstein a win in the Personal Work category of the 2018 PDN Photo Annual. Here, Wagenstein goes in depth about the process of traveling to a remote tundra and connecting with the women who spend most of their days in solitude.
PDN’s Photo Annual is now open for entries for 2019. Visit www.pdnphotoannual.com to learn more and enter.
PDN: Your work was honored as the best in Personal Work in the 2018 PDN’s Photo Annual. Congratulations! What brought you to Northern Siberia for this project?
Oded Wagenstein: Thank you! I have always been interested in the subject of aging. This has led me to ask these kinds of questions: How do different communities perceive aging? What are the things we long for as we age? What are the things we regret? How do we cope with the reality that we are mortal?
For the last five years, I’ve been on a journey to meet and photograph elderly people in communities around the world. For the project in Siberia, I wanted to know what it means to long for something that can never be realized. While this topic can be explored almost anywhere, I felt like Siberia’s dream-like landscape and remoteness would be suitable for a project on longing. It was also a way for me to push myself into unfamiliar territory in order to progress in my work.
PDN: How did you find the Nenet community and did you travel with them during this series? What were the physical conditions of this environment?
OW: I live in a small village in Israel between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem so I am used to a warm climate. My trip to Siberia came after working for a few years on a story about an aging community in Cuba. I knew that the light, colors and rhythm of life in Siberia would be different than what I was familiar with.
I chose to travel to Siberia by train which took 60 hours from Moscow. It was quite an experience! The landscape changed along the route, and I was able to slowly adjust my eyes and my mind to a new environment.
Once I arrived in Siberia I had the help of a wonderful local fixer. We traveled on a wooden sled attached to a snowmobile.I was wearing so many layers of clothing that I felt like the Michelin Man! It was difficult to feel so far from home. But I believe that all the elements of the project made their way into the shoot—the harsh environment, the sense of remoteness and the fact that I ate almost nothing during the project.
PDN: Can you describe the process of interviewing your subjects? How did you communicate with them and get them to open up to you?
OW: The local fixer helped me communicate with the people I met, but like any other community, you cannot just knock on doors and take pictures. It’s critical (and respectful) to establish a bond before the camera gets involved.
My interactions always started with a conversation and tea. (I’ve never had as much tea in my life.) I asked to hear the women’s stories, memories and what they long for; I also shared some of my longings. At first, I thought that I might encounter suspicion, but the women were so excited that I was showing interest in their thoughts. Some of them gave me gifts of small, handmade artwork. I was really moved that they invited me into their lives with so much warmth and insisted on giving me something. I think they were saying, “Thank you for seeing me.”
PDN: What gear did you use? How did you keep everything safe in such harsh conditions?
OW: My approach to equipment is very minimalist. On this project, and in most of my other work in the last decade, I’ve worked exclusively with one lens (the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM), and one camera (the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV). I used only natural light. I believe that by working with minimal, high-quality gear, I can focus on the aspects I find most important: composition, light and the way I tell the story. Working with less gear also makes the person in front of the lens more comfortable.
My gear worked well in the harsh conditions. The main problem in cold temperatures is keeping batteries alive since they drain faster than usual. I kept them warm in my pockets and close to my body.
PDN: What’s next for you? Will you continue to work on this series?
OW: I plan to continue working on age-related issues in my future work. I believe that our society is often too focused on the younger generations in the media and in the workforce. We miss the opportunity to learn from our elders. In the time I’ve spent with the seniors, I have learned that feeling old is not only about age; it’s also about the sense of purpose we feel in our home and community.
As the world’s population gets older, I want to raise awareness about the challenges and opportunities of aging in my work.
PDN: Is there anything else about this body of work you’d like the PDN audience to know?
OW: Being part of the PDN Photo Annual awards was such a wonderful experience for me! Between the massive exposure, the ceremony in New York and getting to know so many talented photographers, photo editors, artists and awesome people on the PDN team, it has been such a great experience.