Zheleznaya doroga – the iron road: in Russia the railway is named after the raw material used to create the tracks. A symbolic product of industrial progress, an expression of life, wanderlust and dreams. Photographer Grigoriy Yaroshenko’s pictures show the power and beauty of this indispensable system, and speak about the people associated with it.
Why is it that in this era of modern cars and cheap flights you have decided to devote yourself to the traditional railroad?
This series is a great example of a collaboration between business and photography. On the one hand, it was absolutely a personal project. I had artistic freedom and made all the decisions. Where, when and how to shoot. On the other hand, it was commercial work that I was commissioned to do for the railway holding company, the PTK Group. The task was to show the daily life of the railroad, with its beauty and power, as well as the regular people who work in its various segments. Drivers, switchmen, stationmasters, repairers, electricians, and the people who work on the tracks or in the depots.
What is it about the railway that fascinates you?
Of course, like all boys, I have loved the railway since I was a child. I can still remember the smell of timber sleepers soaked in a mixture of coal, diesel and cresol. I dreamt about having my own miniature railway set, and having trains running around the house, from one room to another, similar to the one my youngest sons have now. I grew up in an average Soviet family. We weren’t rich. No one was. During those times getting a railway set seemed virtually impossible, yet somehow my father managed to get it for me, and he built a landscape out of paper-mâché, with mountains, forests, tunnels, stations, and the railway line running through all this beauty. I guess that’s how it all began.
What significance does the railway still have in Russia today?
There are still places where the railway is the only route that connects a small region, town or village with other parts of the country. We were able to travel to some of these places; for example, Eletskaya Station, which lies beyond the Polar Urals. There is no connecting road, so you can’t even register a car there. People drive inside the settlement without number plates. For such places, the railroad is the only link to the outside world; life can only go on there with the railway. Sometimes, when, for whatever reason, a station gets closed down in such a remote area, the place gradually dies.
How many kilometres did you travel?
Russia has a branched rail network, which consists of 16 different railroads divided into smaller links. We visited just about half of them. We were on the island of Sakhalin and in the far east, on Lake Baikal and in Siberia; in the far north and the south of Russia. The full length of the Russian railway system extends for 85,500 kilometres, 43,000 of which are electrified. Of course, there is a vast number of areas where it can expand to; it’s still going to be a while before the clang of iron wheels and the signal of a locomotive are heard there for the first time.
How did the journey go?
First of all, we contacted the Russian railway’s press department and listed the places we wanted to visit. Once we had permission, we were ready to start. Sometimes we went by train, sometimes we flew, and once we took a ferry to get to the mainland from the island of Sakhalin. We often drove and rented a boat a couple of times. The most difficult part of the trip was the logistics and timing. Sometimes we had to wait for a train to arrive for hours and hours; including one occasion when it never came at all…
In addition to the trains, people are at the heart of your work…
The people who work on the railway are what interested me the most. They may not all be constantly in love with the job, since it is really tough and exhausting at times; but almost every person I met had a close connection to their work and life with the railway; some families have been in the profession for generations. I respect each person that I photograph because for me making a great picture is always a collaboration between myself and the subject.
Your pictures are monochrome – what made you go for that?
At the beginning I was still undecided, so I started with colour; but then, at some point, it became clear to me that it should be in black and white. There were too many colours that didn’t mix well together– especially the orange-coloured jackets of the railway workers. It would have been a lot more difficult for me to maintain control over the image and the project would have taken even longer. We also didn’t want it to be showy and “dressed up”. We wanted it to be real: powerful and raw.
You photographed with both the Leica M9 and the M10…
I’ve been taking pictures with a Leica for a long time – around 12 years. The M9-P was my first digital camera, then came the Monochrom, the Typ 240, and the M10. Now I’ve got four cameras and four lenses. Generally speaking, I use the 35mm or 50mm Summilux, the 21mm for landscapes, and for portraits sometimes the 75mm as well.
What impressed you most on your journey?
The size of our country. When you fly for eight hours, or spend a week on a train travelling from west to east, that’s really impressive. I was seeing Russia properly for the first time in my life; I felt the beauty and diversity of its nature, the friendliness and the sympathy of its ordinary people.
Born in 1971, Grigoriy Yaroshenko is a Russian documentary photographer, curator, teacher and film director. After graduating in Cinematography from the Sergei Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, he ran the Leica Akademie Russia from 2011 to 2013. In 2019 he published the book ЖД The Iron Road – a year-long journey by train through Russia. Yaroshenko took part as photographer and film director in the 64th and 65th Russian Antarctic expeditions (2019-2020). He has won a number of awards, including The Silver Camera. Yaroshenko is a member of the Russian Union of Art Photographers. Find out more about his project on his website, and the website of the Iron Road.