The Yenisei, one of the longest rivers in the world, was the guiding line that Nanna Heitmann followed through Siberia. Along its banks she met loners, dropouts and dreamers, and heard of the myths that are still very much alive there. The outcome is perceptive images from a distant world.
How did you come up with the idea behind your story?
My mother in Russian. Even so, with the exception of Moscow, Russia was like a empty blank space on the map for me. So I decided to do a semester abroad in Tomsk, Siberia. Up until then, my idea of Russia was mainly based on Soviet children’s movies and Slavic fairy-tales I read as a child, though they also served as inspiration for Hiding from Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is an important figure in Slavic folklore. She is an unpredictable and dangerous witch, who lives in a little hut in the middle of the forest. One day she imprisons a girl called Vaselisa. Vaselisa is able to escape with the help of a black cat. While Vaselisa is being hunted by the witch, she remembers advice given to her by the cat, and drops a towel and a comb on the ground behind her. A deep and wide river, bordered by a high and thick forest, appears just where the items fell, and Baba Yaga was unable to pass.
What role does the river play in your series?
The Yenisei is one of the longest rivers on the planet, and it served as the thread that guided me on my journey. It has its source in the Tuva Republic, on the Mongolian border, and meanders north through the whole of Siberia, before emptying into the Arctic Ocean. Following its course, it led me through the harsh wilderness of the Siberian taiga, a region rich in old myths and rituals. I saw my journey as a documentation of life along the river, but primarily of the mythology of the region. I looked for dream-like images. It soon became clear that the river itself was not the most important thing. On the whole, I was looking for interesting characters with interesting lifestyles.
How did you prepare yourself for the journey?
I took a Russian jeep that belonged to friends and camping equipment, then drove towards Tuva with a few inspiring pictures and places I wanted to go to in my mind. Once I was there I got a lot of help from the mother of a friend of mine. She works as a geologist there and directed me to people and places I would never have found otherwise. On the whole, however, I just went with the flow.
What did you find particularly fascinating about life around the river?
Siberia is incredibly large and most of it is unsettled. It’s probably one of the few places left on earth there there are still unexplored areas. The climate is extreme. In summer it can rise to +50°C, and in winter the thermometer can plunge to -50.
Nowadays, people are drawn to the big cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg. This makes the interesting characters you find in Siberia where you can find these wide spaces, and the way they have organised their lives, all the more fascinating.
What was the particular challenge involved in telling this story?
The subject was a very open one. You are confronted with millions of impressions and can easily get lost in the flood. The photographer Mads Nissen wrote the following about this: “The important thing is to know what you’re really looking for. To accept that you can’t tell a cohesive story – but to have a feeling that you are chasing after. What is it? These are the questions you must ask yourself day and night.” I found this advice very helpful.
How was working with a Leica M?
I can’t imagine working on this project with any other digital camera. I worked in a much quicker and more concentrated manner. I appreciated the 50mm lens in particular. The bokeh is the most similar to an analogue, large format.
What does the Magnum nomination mean for you?
Magnum has always been a photographic legend for me. An agency that represents all the photographers who I have admired since I was a child. On one hand their photographs stand for me as historical documents where so many of them have become icons, and on the other hand there are so many different hand writings combined in one agency that are so inspirational to me.
Born in Ulm in 1994, Nanna Heitmann studied Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at college in Hanover. She spent a semester abroad in Tomsk, Siberia. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the Lensculture online magazine’s Emerging Talents Award for her work. The same year the series shown here earned her the Vogue Italia Prize of the PHMuseum’s Women Photographers Grant. She became a Magnum Agency nominee in 2019.
A portfolio with Heitmann’s work just appeared in LFI 3.2019.