Evgenia Arbugaeva – Tiksi, 2013
After almost 20 years, the photographer returned to the place of her childhood: Tiksi in Siberia. In the series, for which she was awarded the LOBA in 2013, Arbugaeva links her memories with the present in a special visual language; reality merges with fictional moments. Everyday life becomes extraordinary through the intentional use of a child’s eye and imagination.
The sound of a Siberian fairy tale: this impression arises soon, as the photographer combines documentary and fictional elements in her impressive colour series. The coastal settlement of Tiksi lies to the east of the River Lena delta, where it flows into the Arctic waters of Russia’s Laptev Sea. Formerly an important military and scientific base at the heart of the Siberian tundra, the erstwhile importance of the port is no longer visible. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis of the 1990s, the population of the town fell dramatically. Around 5000 people live in Tiksi, dealing with harsh climatic conditions on a daily basis. While its location makes the climate somewhat milder than in Central Siberia, the average temperature only rises above freezing during four months of the year – June to September.
“I was eight when we left, but I was never able to forget Tiksi. The scenery, the colours, and that time when pure childhood imagination reigns supreme, left a lasting impression on me.”
Arbugaeva spent her first eight years in Tiksi, till her family moved to the town of Yakutsk. “I missed Tiksi a lot. I couldn’t forget the vast tundra stretching to the horizon, the wind so strong it felt like it might pick you up and carry you to faraway places, the fierce snowstorms, the polar night, the magical aurora borealis, my friends and neighbours,” she remembers. Today Arbugaeva lives and works in Great Britain; she has travelled widely, but the memory of Tiksi has always remained alive. For this reason, she decided to return to this place of fond childhood memories. But did it really exist as she remembered it? During her first visit to the little town she met Tanya, who would become the protagonist of the series as well as her friend and guide. “She was sitting with her mother by a fire on the seashore, looking very sad, because her older brother and sister had just left to go to college in the big city.” Arbugaeva shared her own story with them, and soon discovered that the sea and the tundra held the same fascination for Tanya as they did for herself. Tanya became her friend and companion through the Tiksi of the present.
“Later on, my life took me to live in big cities like Moscow and New York. I travelled extensively but always remembered Tiksi – my special and perfect world.”
Arbugaeva’s work reveals a place both melancholic and magical, yet real. She does not hide the harsh conditions, yet her poetic compositions soften their impact, creating a colourful fairy tale within a true setting. “While working on the Tiksi project, I was looking for the motifs and images that matched my childhood memories,” the photographer explains. It took two years and five visits for the place to open up to her, allowing her to complete the award-winning project.
Evgenia Arbugaeva was born in 1985. After receiving her BA in Moscow, she graduated in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the International Center of Photography in New York in 2009. She is a National Geographic Society Storytelling Fellow and winner of the ICP Infinity Award. Her work has been exhibited internationally and appeared in magazines such as National Geographic, Time and The New Yorker, among others. She lives and works as a freelance photographer in London.