Endangered Ancestry on the West Siberian Plain
Using oil-containing liquid from Siberian oil pits to develop his photographic film, Igor Tereshkov destroys the surface of his images in the same way the spilling of oil disfigures the environment, destroying animal habitats and trees in the process.
A Greenpeace volunteer in Russia, photographer Igor Tereshkov was asked to join the NGO team on a trip to the West-Siberian region of Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (KhMAO) – the ancestral land of indigenous people - in order to document the environmental impact of oil production on the environment. According to his data, Russia produces roughly half of its oil in KhMAO, resulting in about 1.5 million tons of oil spilled on to the land every year. As a comparison, this represents twice the volume of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
This was not Tereshkov’s first trip to KhMAO. He had already been the previous year and decided this time to shoot using film. “My previous reportage didn’t show the whole problem so I decided to take films”, he explains. Analog photography imposes a process that would help Tereshkov visualise the destructive impact of oil on the environment. “I used liquid from oil spills in KhMAO when developing the films”, he says. The rest is left to chemistry - the oil randomly destroys the gelatin of the film, leaving some scars on the final photographs. “The oil deforms the negative with holes and scratches, just like the environment is deformed by the oil spill.” Deep dark stains cover the final images, as uncompromisingly black as the oil pits spread all around the region.
“The intoxication of the land is somehow visible there”, he relates. In his photographs, we notice seemingly burnt trees and large black ponds. Yet, the extent of the disaster is less obvious. “Most of the region is covered with swamp and moss, which makes it difficult to notice the oil”, he explains. “This is not to mention that no journalist or photographer is allowed near the wells. The oil companies have created checkpoints all around the region and only allow access to indigenous people who own the land.”
The land is theirs but they don’t have a voice, Tereshkov noticed, and decided to speak for them. His images, beyond carrying the damages of the environment, work as a testimony of Khanty’s way of life, based on reindeer herding and nomadism. Wrapped in flowery scarves, women stride across large fields, while reindeers run around freely – or are they running away from further disasters? “The main problem for families with the oil spills is the dissemination of their livestock, who fed on moss that is impregnated with oil. The family who hosted me had seen their herd shrink from about 150 animals to only 30 to 40”, Tereshkov recounts. In the end, the photographs, taking on the look of old photographs damaged by the passing of time, work as anticipated nostalgia for a world surely meant to disappear.
Igor Tereshkov is a Moscow-based photographer and editor. He works with documentary and post-documentary mediums, experimentng with alternative photo processes, cyanotypes, and different film developing techniques. His work is primarily concerned with themes of ecology, the environment, and indigenous communities. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.
Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.