Yakutsk is considered the coldest city in the world, and it is also the setting for a photographic series by Jakob Schnetz. Whether the subject is militarism, furs, violence or the cold – his staged pictures capture typical cliché images, reflecting how the West sees Russia; thereby questioning the authenticity of such clichés. A search for clues caught between fiction and apparent reality.
What kind of challenge does the cold represent for a photographer?
During the winter months, which include February when I was there, the temperatures in Yakutsk oscillate between -35° and -55°C. This extreme range depends upon the strong winds, air humidity, and other microclimate factors. In addition to wearing warm clothes, this kind of cold means you have to keep the camera batteries warm. I always kept the replacement batteries under the many layers of clothing, in my sleeves next to my skin. I also changed batteries every half hour, so that they wouldn’t drain too quickly, and to ensure that they would even function at -50°C.
How do the people there manage to live in such cold conditions?
In the half year I spent in Russia, I learnt that extreme cold is also a question of habit; and that you can acquire the ability to assess the temperature, duration and nature of an activity, and then dress adequately. From a distance, it’s hard to imagine this kind of cold; and that fact probably gives rise to exotic ideas of hardship and deprivation. Yakutsk is a large and wealthy city of around 300,000 inhabitants. It has an impressive cultural scene with many theatres and cinemas, and a relatively extensive film-making scene. I believe that this cultural programme is of enormous significance for the city and the people there.
You studied in Tomsk, Siberia. How did your photographic eye and understanding change when you were there?
When I arrived in Tomsk, everything was new to me. It was my first time in Russia, yet a lot of things seemed not unfamiliar. This deceptive feeling of recognition led me to repeatedly question my perceptions and my motivation for photographing something. This series came about towards the end of my semester abroad, as a result of that process.
The series presents people in their daily lives, but goes beyond classic reportage photography. Does it have more of a symbolic character?
I didn’t choose the relationship to reportage photography by chance. This type of photography is always linked to a special promise of authenticity, which is the subject of the series, just as much as the Western ideas and stereotypes of Central and Eastern Siberia are. The stylised imagery seen in many of the pictures was a strategy I adopted in order to give certain signs, stereotypes and clichés the attribute of something “constructed”.
What criteria did you use to select your motifs?
My motifs are an incomplete mishmash of my own and popular Western stereotypes; and the pictures are a mixture of supposed everyday life and an artificial world. I looked for places and events where the links between the dots are particularly evident, such as in theatres and on film sets; but also, while taking walks. In the process, I was trying to photograph staged situations as “normally” as possible; and everyday situations as artificially as possible. In this manner, I wanted to level out the supposed boundaries between them, in terms of visual language. Very specifically, for example, I went through stereotypes in my mind, such as furs, hunting, provisional solutions, oil, and connections to nature. I asked myself how these could be translated photographically, and where I might find them: in an escape room; a natural sciences museum; on the film set of a zombie movie; and also in everyday life.
The stereotypes seem to disappear within the overall artistic concept, tending more towards the abstract and the surreal…
I wanted to present these clichés and stereotypes – which I also carry inside me – and, at the same time, describe them as something (re)produced and mediated; something that is not static, but changes within the context of other images in the series. Consequently, some of the clichés disintegrate, blur or migrate to other images that are not directly related to them – a bit like my assumptions about Russia migrated into my everyday perceptions, once I was actually there.
How was your experience with the Leica M for this project?
The Leica M, with its advantages as a reportage camera – robust, precise, light and quiet –, was very suitable for my hour-long walks in the cold. It even functioned without any problems at close to -60° C. Because of its small size, I was able to carry it under my jacket and pull it out easily. The quietness of the trigger was also perfect, when I was working on the filmset.
Each one of your photographs appears to be an individual work of art. Even so, is there a connection between all the pictures?
Based upon the micro-context of each one, some of the motifs really have little to do with one another; so that, at first glance, there appears to be only an aesthetic and formal connection. However, at the macro level, the motifs are connected through the Western clichés and stereotypes, which became the overall theme of the series – even though the images seem, at times, rather contradictory. The connection, though it may initially appear intangible, creates – I hope – an empty space between the individual images, which the viewer is invited to both fill and also question.
Born in Germany in 1991, Jakob Schnetz studied Photojournalism in Hanover, Germany, and in Tomsk, the Russian Federation. He is currently studying History and Theory of Photography at the Folkwang University of the Arts. In addition to editorial and corporate assignments, he primarily works on personal long-term projects, at the intersection between journalistic and artistic strategies, and with a main emphasis on economy and representation. His clients include the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Dummy Magazin, GEO, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Taz, die Tageszeitung, and WIRED. Find out more about his photography on his Website and Instagram channel. His series Chronology of a Failure, shot in Minsk as well, appeared in LFI magazine 2/2018.