Photographers' Blog

Notes from the pole of cold

Oymyakon valley, Russia

By Maxim Shemetov

One loses all bearings when faced with the shroud of white that obscures all things mid January in the Siberian city of Yakutsk. Only the traffic lights and gas pipelines overhanging the roads help you to find your way. Wrapped in frosty fog the city life seems frozen in a sleepy half-light. It is -48 C (-54 degrees Fahrenheit) outside.

Before venturing out, I put on two layers of thermal underwear, trousers, two-sweaters, pants winterized up to my waist, and huge low-temperature boots. I pull close the hood of my down jacket and fasten it so that only my eyes are exposed. Lastly, I slip on two pairs of gloves and head for the entrance hall – the airlock. Now only the ice-bound door separates me from the cold. There is Space outside and I feel like an astronaut.

However I do not have enough time to freeze today – the minibus is waiting for me at the corner and I pile in with my gear. Our routes lies along a Stalin-era road that is officially called “Kolyma Federal Highway”. Locals call it “the road on bones” after the thousands of Gulag prisoners who built it in the middle of the 20th century perished. The sights that it passes by are “terra incognita” even for the most of locals. As we travel further and further northeast towards the snowy foothills from the provincial capital of Yakustk, the signs of life appear less and less frequent. Down the road, one can travel over 200 kms (124 miles) without seeing a homestead. The cell phone coverage cuts out when we arrive at Handyga. Fifty kilometers (31 miles) later we load up on tanks of fuel at the petrol station that is the last human outpost at the edge of the vast and mountainous taiga. Only the occasional UAZ minibuses (bukhanka – bread loaf as it is called there and trucks break the monotony of the endless, empty road.

After two days on the road, we finally arrive in the Oymyakon valley – the Pole of the Cold. This is the coldest known place in the Northern hemisphere. Thermometers registered a record chill of -67.7 degrees Celsius (-88 degrees Fahrenheit) in 1933 – shortly after weather monitoring began here in the end of the 1920s.

And yet, here are schools, a post office, a bank, even an airport runway (albeit open only in the summer) – all the trappings of a civilized life in the valley’s center at Tomtor. I could not help asking local people how they carried on a normal semblance of life in such extreme conditions. What I heard as a response was an anecdote from Sergey Zverev, a smiling villager in his 40s. Class was cancelled once when he was a school boy because the air temperatures had dropped to -65C (-85F). To celebrate he and his classmates got together to play football on the icy streets. Did I need any better answer?

The hero of Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali

By Benoit Tessier

In order to get to Timbuktu I chose the most arduous route, 800 kms (500 miles) of tracks in the desert, because it was the only way possible. Along the road I saw more French flags than during the Football World Cup in 1998. Two days later François Hollande was arriving in town.

The local VIPs, from the wealthiest families of Timbuktu, waited along with other figures of the city (or at least the last remaining few) for the arrival of the French president in front of the big mosque. Since April and the fall of Timbuktu into the hands of the MLNA rebels and Islamist groups, the town suffered and emptied itself over the past 10 months.

The memories of the “punishments” (lashes) that the Islamists inflicted on couples accused of committing adultery or on smokers had now faded. In front of the Sankoré mosque, thousands of people were here to say thank you to France and its hero of the day: François Hollande who enjoyed a walkabout on the esplanade. The crowd was jubilant and screaming “Mali France! Mali France! Long life daddy Hollande.”

A village hunted by wild elephants

Kyar Chaung village, Myanmar

By Minzayar

It was a fine winter evening and the first frame I took was a silhouette of a farmer and his wife wearing ta-na-ka, riding on their cow carts, so at once, I thought this is a very nice village. But in fact, its people have been living in fear for several years.

Kyar Chaung village is 64 miles north of Yangon, Myanmar. Most villagers have two houses. One on the ground to stay during the daytime and one in a tree to protect themselves from a wild elephant’s attack.

As I went to see the head of the village, people were already gathering in front of his house and chattering about a man who had to run for his life as he was chased by an elephant just a day ago.

The tragic legacy of KISS

Santa Maria, Brazil

By Ricardo Moraes

It was an unforgettable end to enormous pain and a ravaged mind. The last day of coverage of one of Brazil’s greatest tragedies touched me so much that I’m only going to tell how the story ended.

The morning of January 30, 2013, I met a woman who was devastated, confused, and completely lost inside of herself – wounded to the heart.

The first contact with her was moving. We arrived at a building on the outskirts of Santa Maria and knocked on the door of apartment 121, on which there was a message left by children offering help and consolation for a woman named Gelsa. In spite of the obvious clue that inside lived the mother of a disaster victim, we hadn’t reached that place by chance; we were led there by Carlos, a friend of Gelsa, the woman whose small family had now been reduced to just one, herself.

The KISS that ended in tragedy

Santa Maria, Brazil

By Edison Vara

It was early Sunday when my cell phone began ringing nonstop. Reuters called to inform me of a tragedy that was happening in the Kiss nightclub in the city of Santa Maria, with more than 70 known dead initially. That number would soon rise past 230. After more than 30 years as a photojournalist I was still jolted by the news, grabbed my equipment, and left for the site three hours away.

When I reached the gymnasium in Santa Maria where the bodies were being taken for identification, I was shocked to see the parents, children, brothers and sisters of victims searching for information, but I had to photograph all these moments of desperation, with respect for those who didn’t want me to.

The gym’s courtyard was soon transformed into a two-way street of coffins entering and leaving, difficult scenes to photograph. Four soldiers passed by carrying a body barely covered with a white sheet, without a coffin, to a waiting hearse.

Germany’s one man bank

Gammesfeld, Germany

By Lisi Niesner, editing by Victoria Bryan

Peter Breiter, 41, is not your typical bank manager. He wears jeans and a jumper to work, he writes everything out by hand, and he’s also not afraid to use a mop to clean the floor. But neither is this a standard bank, staffed by a row of anonymous employees behind glass screens. The Raiffeisen Gammesfeld eG cooperative bank in southern Germany is one of the smallest in Germany and a visit here is like stepping back in time.

From the waiting area with ladies sharing local gossip to the office, where Breiter still uses a typewriter and an adding machine, the surface enamel worn away by years of use, things do not seem to have changed much since the bank was founded in 1890. Even the price list is shown in deutschmarks, with the euro equivalent hand written on.

The bank nearly didn’t make it this far though. At the end of the 1980s, Germany’s bank supervisory authority withdrew Gammesfeld’s operating licence as it didn’t have the requisite number of staff to meet the ‘second pair of eyes’ principle to double check transactions.

Shrovetide: a rough and tumble game

Ashbourne, central England

By Darren Staples

There are rules – even if there is no referee to enforce them. One of the ancient ones is said to be: ‘committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited’. Royal Shrovetide Football is not for the faint-hearted, either for players or the spectators who can quickly become caught up in the scrum.

On the face of it, the game played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday each year will sound familiar to anyone who knows what happens at any English Premiership venue on a Saturday afternoon.

There is one ball, two teams – the Up’ards and the Down’ards – and the goal is to score goals. In these parts, it’s like Manchester United playing Manchester City, with all the passion and pride that comes with it.

Living in a tomb

Nis, Serbia

By Marko Djurica

Although graves are for the dead and not for the living, a man in Serbia’s southern city of Nis has chosen a tomb to live in.

Bratislav Stojanovic, 43, a Nis-born construction worker never had a regular job. He first lived in abandoned houses, but about 15 years ago he settled in the old city cemetery. Stojanovic says homeless life is difficult and that everything he owns and needs he finds in garbage containers and on the streets. He does not have much, but highly values whatever little he has.

“As other homeless people robbed me on several occasions, I’ve decided to find a place where no one would bother me, not even police,” he said.

Meet Miss Malini

Mumbai, India

By Vivek Prakash

Where I live is not the India of most people’s imaginations or memories, and it’s hardly the India I once knew as a kid.

My Mumbai has easygoing cafes, organic markets, swish malls, expensive restaurants serving great food and wine, fabulous nightclubs and raucous house parties. The idea that this India is any less “real” than bad infrastructure or the world of Slumdog Millionaire is misguided.

India has many crosses to bear – I acknowledge that. I’ll be the first one to complain about crumbling roads, horrid traffic, corrupt politicians, impossible bureaucracy and the gulf between rich and poor. But you’d better get used to the idea that slowly but surely, generational change is taking place. My Mumbai is probably the India of the future.

Naked ambition on Capitol Hill

Washington, D.C.

By Jonathan Ernst

Police were shutting down intersections. Tensions were high as I begged an officer to let me down a back alley to a secret parking lot I know about – this is Capitol Hill, but it’s also my home. I found my way to the church’s back lot, threw open my trunk, grabbed a pair of bodies and lenses and made sure I had a few memory cards.

The U.S. Capitol was a blur on my right behind the pulsing lights of police cruisers as I hustled over to Pennsylvania Avenue. In the tony northwest quadrant of the city, the White House is this street’s most important landmark, but here in the gritty Southeast is where the real city rubs up against the federal government.

It was brisk, and the wind was really blowing through the breaks in the buildings around me. I was excited. My blood was pumping. This is the city where important people do important things. A city of naked ambition, exposed agendas, bold truths and bald lies.