This is the place that births chess grandmasters. The place of closed cities that jealously guard nuclear secrets, and where inhabitants wrestle with year-long polar weather. Outsiders know it as the Kola Peninsula, or the Murmansk Oblast, or Russian Lapland; a land located at the northwestern most point of Russia, bordered by the Barents and White Seas.
This curious and desolate region became an obsession for Céline Clanet, who spent five years continuously returning to photograph what she calls the ‘Great North Utopia’: where Sámi people settled thousands of years ago with their reindeer herds. Nowadays, Clanet describes it as a “fragmented land” – parcelled up between miners, military and reindeer herders.
Borders are both physical – Clanet could never gain access to the closed cities, where weapons programmes are said to be in resurgence – and metaphorical. “Inhabitants of the Kola Peninsula stay in their own area,” says Clanet, noting that when friends from Murmansk took her to the Sami areas, they told her they had never been there before – despite spending their whole lives in the region.
“You come out of a preserved tundra with reindeer in the wild, and in a couple of hours you’re in a heavily industrialised area with huge chimneys throwing up black smoke,” she says. “This place is crazy.”
Practicalities of shooting were challenging: Clanet struggled to avoid lens condensation in temperatures that plunged below -25°C. “In wintertime you can get just a few minutes of light,” she says. “But in summer there is no night at all, and shooting can go on forever…”
Basing herself at a friend’s flat in Murmansk and what she calls: “very, very basic guestrooms”, Clanet took five years with the project, travelling by snowmobile to the more remote locations, staying in huts or tents at the reindeer camps.
The resulting imagery is at times political, at times beautiful, at times humorous. Though allowing Clanet a glimpse at its practices, one senses that this is a land that will forever remain just a little enigmatic.