Road of bones

With untold numbers of Gulag prisoners buried beneath the Kolyma highway “Road of Bones” the region’s residents seem to exist in pure defiance – it is this way of life, these people surviving under extreme conditions in the shadow of a gruesome history, that I wish to engage with and portray.

Searching for traces of life and humanity along the “Road of Bones”.

Running 2031 km from Yakutsk to Magadan, the “Kolyma Highway” has a dark past. With untold numbers of Gulag prisoners buried beneath the highway, the “Road of Bones” continues to claim new lives every year. In literally one of the coldest parts of the inhabited world, the Kolyma region’s residents seem to exist in pure defiance – it is this way of life, these people surviving under extreme conditions in the shadow of a gruesome history, that I wish to engage with and portray.

In April 2014, I left Copenhagen to complete my photo project Arrivals and Departures by taking one final journey – or so I thought – from Yakutsk to Magadan along the "Road of Bones". My goal was to venture deep into Siberia and finally reach the eastern coast of Russia.

As part of my long-term project, I had previously completed four separate, month-long trips across the Asian continent between 2012 and 2014. While preparing for this last leg of my journey, I was convinced that my travels from my childhood home in the suburbs of Copenhagen through northern Poland, the Baltics, Russia, Mongolia, and northern China was coming to an end.

Instead, the completion of Arrivals and Departures turned out to be the beginning of a new project focusing on the residents of isolated, Siberian communities established in the midst of a dark period in Russian history.

From 1932 to 1953, millions of victims of the Soviet repression were sent to forced labor camps in Siberia. 80 of Stalin’s Gulag camps were established in the Kolyma region alone holding a mixture of ordinary criminals and political prisoners from all over Europe. One of the largest Gulag operations was the construction of the 2031-km-long “Kolyma Highway”. Built by prisoners who were literally worked to death, it connected Magadan with the mountainous interior, opening up the region to gold mining while at the same time connecting it to the outside world.

Untold numbers died constructing the highway across the frozen ground. Buried where they fell, the prisoners’ corpses were often incorporated into the foundation of the road to protect it from the permafrost, giving the road its most common nickname: Road of Bones. Prisoners said that there was one body for each tree cut down to clear the forest.

Traveling on the "Road of Bones" today, you see more tributes to the many recent car crash victims than to the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who died building it. Still, when you drive down this road, through the stunningly beautiful landscape, you are painfully aware of the bones beneath the surface. This deadly route to the back of beyond is lined with abandoned villages as well as a continuously growing number of monuments for all the drivers who die on the road. Every town or village along this route was once home to a prison camp, and it is impossible to escape the dark atmosphere of the place.

Without gold mining or slave labour from the Gulag, the region would, to this day, consist entirely of vast areas of undisturbed nature, the sole inhabitants being the indigenous people and the area’s wildlife. The Russian Far East is one of the most inhospitable environments known to man, and the retreat is currently in full swing. In recent years, the population of the Magadan region has declined by two-thirds and many urban-type settlements and villages are today on the resettlement list; the inhabitants waiting to be relocated to the rest of Russia. But for many, leaving is not an option.

Some people quite simply cannot afford to leave, some are born here and call it home, while others have tried leaving only to end up coming back, because they could not adapt to life in the relatively temperate conditions of the rest of Russia after decades of struggling to survive in one of the coldest places on earth.

My photo essay will focus on the life of the resilient people who remain, the gruesome history of the place, the nomadic way of life that came before, the staggering beauty of the landscape – and the contrasts of it all.

Having learned from my recent journey on the “Road of Bones” and realising that the multi-layered project, I am now taking on, requires both thorough research and a great amount of time in the field, I am planning a more in-depth trip this coming winter.

I wish to go back to Siberia during the coldest months, from January to April. This time of year temperatures go down to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and human life is tested to the limits. Spending the entire winter in Siberia, my aim is to document life as it is lived every day on the border between civilisation and wild, unforgiving nature.

Instead of leaving for Siberia with a tight schedule and a route planned out in advance, I want to allow myself time to explore the region, to search for opportunities to get involved and to connect with the people, I meet. I want to be able to go where events and people take me. Balancing the different layers of the project, I will travel to far-off mountain villages, abandoned Gulag camps and mining ghost-towns. I will venture north, deep into the wilderness and stay with bear hunters and reindeer herders for weeks on end to show daily life in isolated, native communities that can only be reached on reindeer sleighs – and where only a few people have ever been.

Having spent three years living as a hunter, fisherman and photographer in the small settlement Tiniteqilaaq on the east coast of Greenland, I am well equipped to handle the extreme conditions of a Siberian winter. Feeling a deep attraction to Siberia and its people, my approach to this project – as well as my previous work – is personal.

Shooting in black and white, creating stark visual and emotional contrasts, I will use my camera as a tool to create contact, closeness and intimacy in order to express the inter- connected, universal story that I always strive to tell.

In stark contrast to history and the “Road of Bones” itself, I will show the life and the love that exist here in spite of everything – without, however, loosing sight of the dark past that is, paradoxically, the reason for life in the first place in this remote region.

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