It took photographer Oded Wagenstein a long flight, a sixty-hour train ride, and a seven-hour, bone-breaking drive across a frozen river to reach the remote village of Yar-Sale in Northern Siberia where a group of elderly women live in isolation – the subject of his evocative series 'Like Last Year’s Snow'. Once part of a nomadic community of reindeer herders, now in their old age, they spend most of their days in seclusion, disconnected from their community and the world they loved. Wagenstein immersed himself in the community, getting to know the women who, over several days and many cups of tea, shared with him their stories, lullabies, and longings. The series that came out of this journey is a visual representation of their stories, poetically combining their memories of the past, represented by the wild landscape they once canvased, and their current reality as reflected by their intimate portraits. Yatzer recently chatted with Wagenstein about his project, his fascination with aging and the power of photography.
(Answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
What drove you to such a remote place in Northern Siberia? Where did you hear about this particular community?
I have always been interested in the subject of aging and the emotional challenges that this period holds. I have documented several aging communities around the world, including a specific community in Cuba which I followed for a few years. These years were meaningful for me and for the project, but I felt that I was getting too comfortable and that I needed to move away from my comfort zone. I do not remember exactly, but I suppose I saw a picture of Siberia and I knew that it was going to be so different from everything that I’d done before.
What challenges did you face in entering such a closed community? How were you welcomed?
These women live in a very remote village. Surrounded by snow (in winter) and rivers of water (in summer). Therefore, it is natural to think that a stranger would be met with suspicion. But all I found was great acceptance and warmth. It seemed as if the women were just waiting for someone to come and ask to hear their stories and memories.
How did you come up with the series title? What is its significance?
Like Last Year's Snow is a translation of a common sentence in Hebrew (my native language) and in Yiddish. This sentence is used when discussing something which is not relevant anymore. Like the snow of last year, which is long gone. It felt right for a series about longings and loneliness and of course, with that clear connection to snow.
How different are the struggles that the community’s women face in comparison to the men?
It is essential to understand that this is a patriarchal society, which is based on ancient traditions and beliefs. So, while both men and women have to deal with the great struggles of living in such a remote and extreme place, it is mostly the women who have to cope with the fact that their voices and opinions are rarely heard.
The series is part of a larger exploration about aging. Why are you fascinated by such a subject?
After losing my grandfather, who was a significant role model in my early life, I became both interested and frightened by the subject of Aging. Not long after, I discovered the power of photography and I was fascinated by the ability of the photographic image to freeze time and preserve a memory.
In my work with elders in the aging communities, I use the camera as my passport, but the actual photo-making takes only a fraction of the time we spend together. I am more interested in hearing their stories, memories, and longings and asking them my unanswered questions about aging.
I believe that our society is often too focused on the young generation - in the media and in the workforce, and by doing so, we miss the opportunity to learn from our elders. One must remember - we all age, and as the body betrays us, and our memory fades, that sense of belonging might just be all that is left.
When it comes to memory photography can be a useful tool. Do you think there are limitations on the medium’s mnemonic value?
That's a wonderful question! Sometimes I'm very jealous of painters. As they are only limited by the power of their talent and imagination. But I think that this is exactly what makes photography so unique. That ability to walk on the thin line between reality and fiction. I once read that photography can be used as a window and as a mirror. A window to the world (the camera as a mechanical device that captures physical things) and a mirror (that world is brought to us through the point of view of the photographer).
When I think about your question, it is like a memory – it is based on real events but through a heavy filter of subjectivity. This is why I admire the work of photographers like Alec Soth, Tod Hiddo or Michal Chelbin. While they are photographing objects in the real world, it is obvious that they are in fact telling their own story and memories.
What are you working on right now? Any new trips on the horizon?
I plan to continue my exploration of aging and memory, but this time, closer to home.