How do people adapt to life in one of the most polluted cities in the world, in sub-zero temperatures, during extended periods with no daylight?
Photographer Elena Chernyshova recently set out to explore those questions in Norilsk, Russia, a city of more than 170,000 people located above the polar circle.
Norilsk is home to a massive mining and metallurgical complex—workers extract and process vast amounts of nickel, copper, and cobalt, making up more than 2 percent of Russia’s GDP. But the history of the area is bleak. Soviets originally profited from the area’s resources through Gulag labor. From 1935 to 1956 more than 500,000 prisoners were forced to work in the freezing cold under inhumane conditions. Many died. Now, most people live in Norilsk by choice—they have strong social and familial networks and can make a decent wage.
However, the relatively good economy comes with a price—the city is so polluted that residents suffer high rates of cancer, lung disease, blood and skin disorders, and depression. The amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is so high that vegetation in an almost 20-mile radius has died, and residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to high toxicity.
Chernyshova recently spent eight months in Norilsk between 2012 and 2013, over three separate trips. I caught up with her over email to learn more about her project, as well as the surprises she encountered while documenting this unique place.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
COBURN DUKEHART: What was your inspiration for this project?
ELENA CHERNYSHOVA: My mother lived in Chukotka (far northeast Russia) in a small town above the polar circle for 10 years. As a child, I was fascinated by her stories about the polar night, polar day, Northern lights, frost descending to -60 degrees, sparkling crispy snow, and food delivered in dry form or powder. These conditions seemed to me unusual, almost fairy-tale like. I wanted to experience this life long before I became a photographer.
Five years ago I met a girl from Norilsk. Her stories re-awoke my curiosity, and from that moment I couldn’t say whether I wanted to do a story about the adaptation of people to the hostile environment of the North, or about Norilsk itself. It was inseparable.
COBURN: What story were you trying to tell through these pictures?
ELENA: I wanted to show the particularities of this city: its isolation, extreme climate conditions, polar night, history of its creation, architectural particularities, huge dimension, and the daily life of people involved in its operation. I also wanted to show the ecological catastrophe, and the domestication of this environment. The complexity of Norilsk inspired me a lot.
COBURN: Was there anything you discovered about the people of Norilsk that surprised you?
ELENA: The people of Norilsk are full of affection and deep nostalgia. I couldn’t understand how a place that looks like a hell on earth could awaken such sentiments.
When I was in Norilsk, people often complained about the city, its administration, awful ecology, tough climate, isolation (plane tickets are so expensive, that some people can’t leave for several years), slow Internet, etc., but they were also deeply attached to, and sincerely loved, Norilsk.
There is also a spirit of brotherhood. Difficulties unite people. A simple trip from the house to the shop can be an extreme challenge, and these extremes teach us to appreciate many simple things that seem banal in other conditions, like daylight, warmth, or a cup of hot tea. Overcoming hardship makes us stronger—awakes personal potential.
Also, there are not a lot of places to go out, and the old Russian tradition of meeting in somebody’s flat and having a kitchen party is still alive. The Internet is bad, so people spend much more time communicating in person. I am still in contact with lot of people from Norilsk—some have become really good friends.
COBURN: What were some of the challenges you faced in shooting this story?
ELENA: The main challenges were ecology, climate, and the polar night. During the summer, the gas from the factories stays in the lower levels of the atmosphere. Sometimes the pollution was so high I got an asthma attack and couldn’t breathe.
For about two months there is no sun, no light at all. I was completely disoriented all the time and had a horrible insomnia for more than a month. I was very tired all day, then couldn’t fall asleep because my body hadn’t actually woken up. Psychologically it was hard—I had an unreasonable anxiety, an almost animal fear that the light would never come back.
Norilsk people consider your first polar night as a test. If you make it without difficulties you can live in the region. I have not passed this test.
COBURN: What do you hope people will learn from these photographs?
ELENA: I hope these photos awake some questions. Where are the limits of human ambition in the race for natural resources? How much are we willing to damage nature and the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the drive for riches? What are the limits of human adaptation to extreme living conditions? For example, after two months in Norilsk I didn’t pay much attention to the things that had surprised me at the beginning. They just became habit.
A selection of these photos were published in the Nov. 2013 Russian edition, and the Jan. 2014 French and Italian editions of National Geographic. They will also be published in the Feb. 2014 Dutch and Mongolian editions. View more of Elena Chernyshova’s work on her website.