Photographers' Blog

Owners of The White Silence

By Anton Golubev

When I was a little boy, I adored the books of Jack London. The Nature of the North – that was the thing that captivated me. The White Silence; a chilling title, words that are hard to appreciate for a city dweller used to the din of cars and neon lights. The majority of Russians seldom leave cities further than to go to the dacha, the country houses that most people own just outside the city limits. Some might travel to some mountains or woodlands. Only a few will visit such a godforsaken place as the Russian North. The land where The White Silence reigns.

The North is a cruel place. Here, where the population density reaches one person per ten square kilometers, there is no transport links, there is nobody to ask the way, there is nobody to ask for a light or hot food, and there is little chance that anybody can help you if something happens. You can count on yourself only. The White Silence is a jingling calm when you can’t hear any sound around, it’s a thin line of a low northern wood on the horizon between two halves of the white nothing, it’s a blizzard when the boundless white Tundra flows together with the overhanging northern sky, it’s a half-strewed snowmobile track which you follow to reach the light and warm of a human dwelling.

It’s hard to imagine that somebody can survive in this cruel land except wild animals but there are some people who live there – the northern tribes people of Nenets, Khanti, Komi, Dolgany, Chukchy; the owners of The White Silence. These people arrived in the far north more than a thousand years ago, when the Roman age was finishing in Europe, and they became the owners of this severe land. They pasture reindeer and catch fish as their ancestors did for tens and hundreds of generations.

Free people, they need almost nothing from the world outside the tundra. The tundra gives them almost everything they need: furs to wear and for covering of dwellings, reindeer bones are good for harnesses, stunted tundra trees are for their sledges. Some of them have snowmobiles and satellite television and phones but in general these things are the little good trifles of the cities’ civilization and they don’t influence their way of life.

I arrived to this land to make a story about early voting in the reindeer farmers settlements. I arrived there for this, but came back with quite different material. It’s because the events and the news of the Big Land, as they call the other world outside the tundra, don’t concern them at all. The great distances that the electoral officials travel on snowmobiles to reach them don’t bother them at all, and they are similarly indifferent to the presidential candidates whom they need to vote for. Nothing will change in their lives because someone will become a president. Nothing will change and they will live in the boundless spaces of the tundra under the enormous northern sky as their ancestors did.

A break in choreography on the campaign trail

On tightly-choreographed campaign trails there aren’t many photo moments that haven’t been carefully planned beforehand by spin doctors, so when Gordon Brown made an impromptu visit to a hair salon in Oldham, there was a ripple of excitement.

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown accepts an invitation from Sue Fink to visit her hair salon as he speaks at the Honeywell Community Centre in Oldham, northwest England April 28, 2010.  REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Such unscripted moments create great opportunities for photographers because they offer a glimpse of reality and inject a human element into often monotonous days of speeches, handshakes and platitudes.

Brown had been pressed into visiting the Academy hair salon by owner Sue Fink, a brassy woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer when she collared Brown at a community centre. Brown, appearing embarrassed, mumbled his consent.