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It's not a matter of nationality, but rather of cultures which are constantly interchanging. Interview with Fyodor Telkov

By Maya Hristova & Anastasiia Malkova

Fyodor Telkov's work is an engaging dialogue with the multiculturality of his native Ural region in Russia, a mountain range forming the natural border between Europe and Asia. In his long-term photographic projects, different worlds are coming together not only spatially, but also in terms of time: he is able to reveal the deepest layers of the region’s history, going back to its pre-industrial period. With black and white, haziness, deep shadows and blur, his photographs become timeless, not referring to any particular decade or century. They are real and fictional at the same time. His depictions of the peoples of the Urals explore the transformations of their cultures through the industrialization process and the subsequent penetration of the Soviet system in the region. His approach to the various groups of indigenous people is resembling that of a scholar, who collects and carefully studies their way of life, traditions, folk tales and sagas and literary conducts a field study on their current and historical existence.

  • Couple of old believers

  • Log | 'Tales'

  • Forest spirit

How did your interest in folk tales and mythology of the Urals emerge?

Mainly from my concern with the disappearing culture of the indigenous peoples in the region. Some time ago a friend of mine and I worked on the exploration of modern life in the Northern and Trans-Urals. My wife collects children books, so I was also supporting her research by bringing home tales by the Mansi, the Khanty, Nenets and the Selkup from these expeditions. These stories amazed me, since they were so different from the Russian folk tales that I used to read as a child, most of which were rewritten in the 19th century and conveyed a completely different culture and ideology. On the contrary, these indigenous tales were shaped neither by traditional Christian ethics, nor by distinguished conceptions of good and evil. They shared an ethos unknown to me, a culture of people who live surrounded by the powers of nature. I realized that in their world, the human is a neighbor of the spirits and all the natural forces. I guess it was at that moment that I became interested in the intersection between the mythology of these different folks and the modern influences on their way of life.

When did you start becoming aware of the links between all these aspects and their influence on the region?

It was a long process, which I was able to accomplish with the help of Alexey Ivanov’s book 'Ural's Mining Civilization'. Here is a simple example from local toponymy: various locations in the Middle Urals contain the word 'shaytan', which is used in Turkic languages for 'evil spirits'. The Bashkirs, which are Muslim would most likely call the ritual places of the Mansi (the heathens) this way. Nowadays, this word has lost its emotional connotation and is used to mark certain locations, like Shaytan Stone, the Shaytan mount or village, or even some factories and mines.

'Tales'

What appeals to you most in black and white photography? Factory culture plays a substantial role in your visual storytelling, are there any references to the time of the industrial revolution and the invention of photography?

In the context of the 'Tales' series, yes, the decision to shoot in black and white was an important aspect of the concept. I was aiming to make it look timeless, not specifying if the photograph was taken a few days or a hundred and twenty years ago. None of the motives in these photographs should indicate any time marks, so the viewer doesn't get a sense of a particular time. I was trying to evoke the impression that these images are the finds from a secret, mysterious life. And I certainly got some inspiration from the photographers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the popular motives and photographic styles of their time. For instance, in Yekaterinburg, there was a photographer Veniamin Metenkov, who was capturing ironworks and the miners’ culture. I also drew on ethnographic photography, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

How did the stories of the Ural Mari or Mansi people become the focus of your work?

It is partly a personal story. Since I was a child, I could remember an odd faded image in a family album, with two women and their daughters on it, all in strange costumes. I always found this picture stood out among all others. In my childhood, these people looked almost like Indians to me, like our old ancestors. As it turned out in the end, my father’s grandparents were Mari, they were dispossessed and sent to the Urals. His grandfather Efim was working in the mines in the village of Rudnik Tretyego Internationala (now a district of Nizhny Tagil), Efim was a heathen, whereas his wife was baptized, and according to the story, that caused some arguments in the family. Efim was known in the settlement as a magician and was healing people and livestock. It’s probably due to my sustainable interest in these folks, and the Mari people in particular, that I started to feel connected with them. Once, when I was drinking with them, I even tried to imitate their folk dances. The project on the Mari started in 2010, but the book will be issued just this year. By now, it’s a group project, in which three photographers are involved and supported by a foundation. The next stage began later with the people of the North, and also Tatars and Bashkirs, and I think I’ll continue working on them within the framework of the 'Tales' project.

  • Rain during the holiday | 'Ural Mari. A Concealed People'

  • Portrait on the background of the car | 'Ural Mari'

What is your position regarding photography and its power of documenting the vanishing cultures?

I was recently watching a TV-show about the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. I was shocked and fascinated, to my shame as I didn’t know that before, when I learned that there are still some tribes who have never been in touch with global civilization and are still living in a Stone Age lifestyle. Their story was told by a scientist who dedicated his whole life to the exploration of indigenous peoples and was even wounded by an arrow during one of his expeditions, nearly loosing his life. So, a modern human was directly injured by a human of the Stone Age — if you think about it, that arrow has passed through thousands of years. And this scientist shows great respect towards the life of the Indians and takes extreme care of preserving the tribes from any intervention of unprepared people, who are not aware of how important it is to preserve these cultures. The scientist in no way praises his education above the knowledge of the Indians.

We all know why some cultures happened to disappear — one civilization just adsorbs the others with lesser resources. Yes, these processes have taken place and will further do. This is how Russian culture came to the Ural region, by the way. It happened within a colonial policy, where the land and resources were seized from the local inhabitants. When we were doing our research on the peoples of the North, we learned that the Soviet government had forcibly taken children from their families and put them into special boarding schools, in order to 'educate' the Northerners and integrate them into Soviet society. Children could get back to their parents only during summer. Just recently, the present Russian government started to make efforts about possible changes in this system. As a result, children could not receive an essential life, working and cultural experience from their parents, but also couldn't run a household in the severe conditions of the tundra and the taiga. At the same time, they were not able to find themselves in the urban environment, since they grew up separately and remained outsiders. In the end, we have lost generations and endangered cultures.

And yet, I see it as my task to preserve and transmit these cultural experiences. For instance, I am sure that our project 'Ural Mari. A Concealed People' will become a point of preservation, a file which the Mari people themselves might make use of in the future.

  • The office of the chief | 'Ural Mari'

  • Lunch in the field | 'Ural Mari. A Concealed People'

You have a beautiful book published by Ediciones Anomalas from your project '36 Views'. How did that come about?

In 2016 I won the prize in Fotocanal Photography BOOK Contest, which took place for the first time back then. I felt very lucky, since the '36 Views' series wasn’t successful outside Russia at all. So, I just participated in the contest automatically, with no hope for anything. And then I received a mail from the publishers, saying that I had won the contest, and at that moment our pleasant and very enriching work on the book started. The publishers took over all the editorial and promotional work, which was really great. The final product turned out really nice, to be honest, I didn’t expect the book to enjoy such a success.

'36 Views'

What does the Ural region, as the border zone between Europe and Asia, reveal to you about Russia’s ambiguous, semi-European, identity?

The Ural region is vast and includes the Republic of Bashkortostan, Yamal peninsula and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. That means that few different worlds are intersecting and merging here, which is still an ongoing process. Even if you focus on a smaller part of the region such as the Sverdlovskaya Oblast, you can find Yekaterinburg — a typical modern European city with a downtown and tourist attractions, but if you move a bit further, you can find some places where the main inhabitants are Tatars, or Bashkirs, or the Mari, or the Old Believers (if you consider them as a distinguished ethnicity), or the Mansi. You can look out of the window in one village and see another one, the people in the one go to a mosque, and people of the other — to a sacred wood or an orthodox church. And if you keep in mind the huge migration wave of people moving to Russia from Central Asia… It is much more difficult to find Russian cuisine in my region, than, for example, Uzbek or Caucasian. It is not a matter of nationality, but rather of cultures which are constantly interchanging. Funnily enough, a recent walk with our child in the neighborhood looked like that: me, partly Russian and partly Mari, a Lezgin neighbor (a Northern Caucasian ethnic group), his wife — a Bashkir Mari, and my Russian wife. So what kind of identity do we own?

  • Cloud | 'Blood of the Narts'

  • Hotel Madrid, Yekaterinburg | 'Descendants of the Dream'

What part of your creative work resonates the strongest with your personal life experience?

I think, all my projects resonate with my life especially strong at a certain point, simply because they usually take years of work. And this is a so-called 'immersive' shooting process when you observe the context from the inside. Each project leaves traces in my life, actions, and thoughts. For example, currently I'm working intensely on my project about the Old Believers in the Urals, and it again transforms my worldview. It is similar to moving to another country, living there long-term, and then coming back.

This interview was prepared by Anastasiia Malkova and Maya Hristova. Introduction and translation by Anastasiia Malkova.

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