Pursuing a Myth from the Russian Far East
In a book recently published by Dewi Lewis, Alvaro Laiz recounts a traditional tale from Siberia that becomes a reality along the pages.
© Alvaro Laiz, from the book, The Hunt
The scene unravels in the Russian Far East wilderness, where Kurosawa shot his Oscar-winning, Dersu Uzala. “This is the only place on earth where Siberian tigers and human beings cohabit”, photographer Alvaro Laiz says. Having worked on shamanism and animism in Mongolia and Venezuela, he was triggered by this charged relationship.
He first read about a Russian poacher called Markov who, in 1997, appealed by the possibility of changing the course of his economical struggle, decided to hunt tigers that sell for a lot of money in China. His quest, though, awoke what local tales call the Amba, the dark side of the tiger, who tracked him down, killed him, and turned him into smoke. “They only found a small piece of his leg. His thick leather jacket was gone, and his cabin destroyed. Even the pots he used to cook were chewed by the tiger”, Laiz explains, basing his details on interviews he made with professional hunters who are members of the Tiger Patrol and found Markov.
© Alvaro Laiz, spread from the book, The Hunt
Laiz’s book mixes documentary assets along with poetic components, inspired by sayings from both local hunters and indigenous people - the Udege - who have been living in close proximity with tigers for centuries. “If you see a tiger for one second, he has been watching you for one hour”, they say. Awareness and a deep knowledge of nature is thus a condition of survival, and Laiz immersed himself with the hunters for several months in order to grasp this complex wisdom - half mystical, half logical.
“There is a huge difference between seeing and watching. I saw a tiger print while they saw the size, age and gender of the animal, as well as where it was heading. They do the same with boar and deer, and it really makes a difference. If you want to hunt an animal, you have to be very smart because it can take several days walking on your own in the snow. So, you can probably die of starvation if you can’t read the signs”, he recounts. Locals put it in a more metaphorical way: “For those who know how to read, everything is written in the White Book”, they say.
© Alvaro Laiz, from the book, The Hunt
The book follows the rhythm of a pursuit, while also shifting from myth to reality. To the sayings that dominate the first half of the written content, Laiz moves on to transcribing unsettling testimonies. “I remember our eyes met, and then I felt a very strong blow that threw me into the air, but I did not feel any pain. I covered my head with my hands and got into the fetal position thinking that he was to stick his fangs in my neck, just as had happened with the rest of his prey. There I was, skin to skin with the tiger when I remember hearing “tac-tac-tac-tac”. My friends were shooting”, an injured member of the Tiger Patrol remembers.
The photographs follow the same pace, from metaphors and representations of local folklore to a stressful stalking in which maps are read, paw prints are deciphered, evidences are found, bloody archives are shown, and danger is at a palpable distance. Served by a inventive design, the book invites us to track down the various patterns of coincidences and synchronicities that Laiz encountered along the way. “I had the illusion to follow my own path but at some point it felt like someone was pulling the strings”, he says.
The Hunt by Alvaro Laiz
Publisher: Dewi Lewis/RM // Design: Ramon Pez // Date of Publishing: 2017
Hardcover // 18 cm x 24 cm // 108 Pages // £35.00
See a video of the book on Vimeo.
Álvaro Laiz is an artist specialising in anthropological photography.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.