Evgenia Arbugaeva | Tiksi, The Far North

Country of origin: Russia
Project location: Russia
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2012

Evgenia Arbugaeva spent her childhood in Tiksi, a Russian town situated on the Arctic coast of Siberia. Tiksi, once an important military and scientific base for the Soviet Union, now faces government shutdown as it drains state resources without serving any purpose. Having recently returned to Tiksi, Arbugaeva’s work follows the life of Tanya, a girl with a fascination for the sea and tundra. As Tanya and her family move out of Tiksi to a bigger city, Arbugaeva documents this journey–the same journey Arbugaeva’s family made nearly two decades ago.

Unlike traditional documentary photography, Arbugaeva attempts to capture Tiksi the way it appears in a child’s imagination: the way Tanya sees Tiksi and the way Arbugaeva remembers it, before the dwindling town ceases to exist.


On November 10, 2012, Evgenia Arbugaeva and Tanya spoke with Emma Raynes, program director of the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund about making photographs in their hometown of Tiksi, Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, Russia. Tanya, a young teenager, is a native of Tiksi, where she lives with her parents and siblings. She is the main subject of Evgenia’s project on Tiksi.

Evgenia: For people who don’t know much about Tiksi, it’s hard for them to imagine where it is. Can you describe where Tiksi is on the map of the world?

Tanya: It’s located in the north of Russia, close to Kamchetka.

Evgenia: Where’s Kamchetka?

Tanya: Kamchetka is also in the north, and it has geysers and volcanoes.

Emma: How did you first meet Evgenia?

Tanya: My mom and I were on the shore of the ocean and we were making a fire, like a bonfire. We were really sad that day because my sister and brother left to study (at university) in other parts of Russia. Something was missing, and we felt empty inside. Then we saw Evgenia sitting and looking at the sea. At first we thought she was just some strange woman sitting there and smoking, which she was not. She came over to us, and we started talking. My mom recognized her and remembered her parents from when they used to live there.

Evgenia: What is happening in the community right now? Are there any changes happening as a result of people leaving Tiksi to go live elsewhere?

Tanya: I’ve noticed that people have actually started to be very helpful to each other; they try to help. There is this sense of friendship among people, and I’ve started to notice it because of the situation that Tiksi is in right now. The people who used to operate the airport were military people, and they recently moved from Tiksi because the military base was relocated. There were no longer people who could operate the airport, so it was kind of closed for a while, and now there are only rare flights by helicopters. People also always have heating and electricity problems quite often.

Evgenia: So why do people stay?

Tanya: There are plans to have a new life in town, and we believe that things are starting to get better. The mayor and other people in charge promise us that it will become better. We’re expecting some government or state people to arrive soon, so some houses were repainted and a cinema opened. I already went to see one movie there.

Evgenia: What do you imagine for the future of Tiksi? Do you think that more people will come to live there, or do you think all the people will eventually leave?

Tanya: I think that in ten or fifteen years there will be more people. There are promises that the seaport will start running again, and I believe that that will happen. I also believe the airport will be fixed, and then everybody will be happy and come back.

Evgenia: Would you ever want to stay and live in Tiksi?

Tanya: I like Tiksi much more than big noisy cities. I don’t know if I’ll stay forever, but I like Tiksi because I feel in cities everybody’s rushing somewhere; here it’s very calm and there’s lots of space and I like the nature. I haven’t seen this kind of nature anywhere else.

Evgenia: What’s the history of your family coming to live in Tiksi?

Tanya: My grandparents—my father’s parents—are from Tiksi, and then my father went to another town up north to work, and there he met my mom, and then they moved back to Tiksi. My grandparents were doctors, and at that time Tiksi was different, very vibrant. I’ve been told that at night it was all glowing with lights, and many people were coming here.

Evgenia: What about your parents?

Tanya: My father is a doctor and my mom is a teacher.

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Evgenia: What are your dreams and aspirations for the future? What do you want to be when you grow up? I know you change your mind all the time. What did you think you wanted to be, and what do you think you want to be now?

Tanya: Right now I want to be a lawyer or an economist, which was not the case a couple of months ago. A couple months ago, I wanted to be a chef. My biggest dream is to travel everywhere, to see how people live in different parts of the world.

Evgenia: What was it like to work with me on this project? Can you describe one of your favorite moments, and maybe also one of the most challenging moments?

Tanya: It was okay to work with you. It was fun to walk around together—you showed me a lot of new things in Tiksi.

Evgenia: I showed you? I thought you showed me more.

Tanya: No, you showed me some new things that even I didn’t know about the town.

Emma: What were some of the new things?

Evgenia: In one of the images there’s this military training spot, and I’d never seen it. But I was walking one morning and I saw this place and we went there. Tanya and her sister and her friends came, so that was new.

Tanya: You also found that interesting field with those pink flowers, because we were walking all over the place but this exact spot was so densely flowered, you know? And also we went together where they store all the garbage in town.

One of the nicest things about working with you was when we, starting from the morning, went walking around all day and took some food with us and had picnics. But it was challenging when you wanted to walk around more and photograph when I needed to go to music school. It was difficult when our schedules didn’t work.

Evgenia: Can you describe how the changes in the seasons affect the feeling and colors of the landscape? The difference between when there’s no light at all and when it’s light all day?

Tanya: I can feel the changes in the seasons very well, because for example, right now it’s the start of polar night and the days are becoming shorter and shorter and I want to sleep more and more—it’s harder and harder to wake up. The bed is like a magnet. And yesterday it started to become really cold. There’s a big change because of global warming, also. There is stuff growing in the tundra that is as tall as I am. It’s strange, but we don’t have any snow right now. It’s cold, and there should be a snowstorm, but it says “storm without snow” today. So that’s very strange for this time of year.

Summers can also be really cold, but some summers can be really hot and we go and swim. My sister and I say that the tundra is like the head of a bald guy because there are no trees, no nothing.

Emma: When you were working with Evgenia, could you imagine what she was like when she was a child growing up in Tiksi?

Tanya: I absolutely could imagine Evgenia as a child in Tiksi. I can imagine her wearing a dress and brown shoes, and also wearing braids in her really dark hair. Just looking at her now, I can see that she’s curious about everything, and everything interests her as she walks and climbs around. When she was little she was probably just the same but even more so. I’m also sure that she was a brat. [Laughter]

Evgenia: What’s one of your favorite images from the project?

Tanya: There’s one where the sky is very dark; it’s an absolute space photograph, like a cosmos. The rocket in it is like an alien space ship. The carousel next to the rock looks like somebody’s sitting on it because it’s kind of leaning to the right. It feels like somebody’s spinning on it. I think that a ghost named Alex is on it, dressed in an invisible cape. And in the background there is some snow, and when the alien ship was coming down it left traces from the landing in the snow.

Emma: Evgenia, why did you photograph this playground specifically?

Evgenia: Because it’s my playground. I played there when I was young; the little carousel was already somewhat broken at that time as well. And it was so crazy to find that it’s still the same way, because I was always so mad at this thing. You couldn’t really spin very well on it. When I was young I would climb inside the rocket and play with my friends and spin on this carousel.

Tanya: They are building new kindergartens. This playground is the territory of the kindergarten—they are building a new playground, so now this rocket doesn’t exist anymore. Now this is a new playground.

Emma: What do you think about that, Evgenia? Do you think they’re hoping to have a new generation of young people grow up in Tiski?

Evgenia: I really hope so—it depends on the plans the government has for their Arctic territories. I feel like there is more interest in the Arctic every year because of petrol and the seaport. I think it’s going to be given some help, but it’s sad that this playground doesn’t exist anymore.

Emma: Well that’s fantastic that you were able to make the picture before the old playground was replaced, to preserve your childhood memory. Tanya, can you tell us about this photograph of the abandoned lighthouse?

Tanya: The day we asked my father to bring us to this place on a snowmobile, I remember it was super, super cold. We went to the cemetery of old ships, and then we begged my father to go to this lighthouse. So we went there and climbed to the top of it. It was very scary because the stairs are very old, and I was afraid that they were going to break. But when looking at the picture, I feel like this looks like an alien ship and me and my sister are aliens walking toward it—you see the stones on the ground? Don’t you think they look like a moon landscape?

Emma: So you actually climbed to the top of the lighthouse, Tanya?

Tanya: We didn’t climb to the very top because the stairs were old, and we thought they would definitely fall down. But we climbed to the middle of the stairs.

Evgenia: What was this lighthouse used for? It seems like it’s not being used anymore.

Tanya: Like all lighthouses, it was built to signal the ships. But nobody is taking care of it—that’s why it’s in very bad shape. It’s rotted, and to have it stay in good shape people would need to take care of it, change the lamps, keep it in good condition but nobody did, so…. But climbing on the ships was a lot of fun. It was quite amusing to be there. And my sister, Olga, looks just like the girl from the movie Titanic, only a man standing behind her is missing.

Evgenia: So what’s the ship doing there? Why is it covered in snow and ice? Tanya:The old ships were brought to this island—Brusneva— it’s like a cemetery for them. When I look at this image I feel happy and some kind of hope, and at the same time it feels like there’s a certain calmness to it. Do you plan to have a continuation of this project, like a second part?

Evgenia: You just want me to come back.

Tanya: Yes!

Evgenia: Is there anything that you think would be interesting for people who don’t know a lot about Tiski to know? Is there anything that’s like a secret about Tiksi?

Tanya: I want people to know that this is the land of the strongest snowstorms in the world, and that this is the land of unending ice and snow, although today there was no snow. I want you to know that it’s a land of polar night and also the aurora borealis. The aurora borealis can maybe be considered a secret of Tiksi. Once we took a photo—you know the image with the pink, kind of crazy-looking aurora borealis? Nobody saw those lights except for us, because the streets were empty and everybody was home; only we saw it.

Evgenia: Before we end, I want to talk a little bit about Uncle Vanya. Vanya was working on the ships-he came to Tiski on a ship and he stayed there. He is known in town as Uncle Vanya; everybody calls him Uncle Vanya. A lot of people in town don’t know him, but you and I know that he is very creative, actually, and very kind. Super kind.

Tanya: I remember the first time I met Uncle Vanya. It was when we were going to the ocean shore with my dad, and we saw this lonely figure dressed in all-dark clothes, and my dad said hi to him, and I was wondering who he was, and my father said, “This is Uncle Vanya.”

Evgenia: He is a very lonely person—he doesn’t have anyone, only his dog. He always walks around with his dog; his dog is his best friend.

Tanya: I haven’t seen him in town for a while. I know we both worry if he’s okay. I’ve seen his dog, Shake—he’s running around town by himself, which is very rare because usually they’re always together.

Evgenia: I can’t even talk to him, because he doesn’t have a phone or anything.

Tanya: It was strange for me to be in his company because he’s very isolated; he doesn’t really communicate with the rest of the world. I think that he communicates more with nature. He likes to be by himself and talk with nature, and I’ve learned a lot from him because of that. Also, one thing about him has stuck in my head. He told me there were some people from the town, like some kids, that broke his little shack, the one that’s in the picture. I was very surprised that there was no anger in his voice at all when he told me.

Evgenia: When you grow up and become a woman, like me, and look at the pictures from this project, how do you think they will make you feel?

Tanya: I think that I will have a feeling of magic, because every picture shows some part of my life, certain moments in my life, and I’ll be very happy to look at them.

Emma: Do you think you’ll feel like you want to live this time again? Or do you think that it will be quite nicely in the past?

Evgenia: Oh, I think that’s a really good question to ask, Emma, because Tanya is interesting. She realizes the preciousness of childhood. She doesn’t want to grow up, unlike her classmates, who are so eager to be grown-ups. She isn’t, and that’s one of the things that is so interesting about her. I’m kind of the same way. Tanya, do you think you will want to return to this time?

Tanya: Yes, of course I’ll want to go back.