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Life After Nomadism: The Elderly Reindeer Herders Of Siberia

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Name
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Last Year's Snow
Location
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Words

Israeli photographer Oded Wagenstein traveled to Yar-Sale, a small village in northern Siberia, to document a group of elderly women who have settled there after long lives spent traversing the Arctic tundra as nomadic reindeer herders.

The title of the series is drawn from the Yiddish expression like last year’s snow—a fitting emotional aphorism for the documentary project, given its focus on longing and loss. The elderly women Wagenstein met and photographed in Yar-Sale are Nenets, also known as the Samoyed, an indigenous nomadic community native to northern arctic Russia. Each year they herd large groups of reindeer from summer to winter pastures across some of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes.

Traveling such vast distances in such extreme conditions is physically demanding, and when women reach old age they are often retired to permanent homes. Such relocation, though well-intentioned, means that “they spend most of their days in seclusion, isolated from the world they loved, and their community”, Wagenstein explains. Whilst aging men are encouraged to remain with the migrating community, women are left to face what Wagenstein terms “the struggles of old age” alone in towns that are not their own.

Meeting these women was no small task: “It took a flight, a sixty hour train ride from Moscow, and a seven hour bone breaking drive across a frozen river to meet them”, Wagenstein explains. There, on a remote peninsula in northern Siberia, he spent days conversing with the women whose portraits follow. “I immersed myself in their closed community”, Wagenstain says. “And for days, over many cups of tea, they shared their stories, lullabies and longings with me.”

“I immersed myself in their closed community, and for days, over many cups of tea, they shared their stories, lullabies and longings with me.”
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A convoy of reindeer belonging to the Serotetto (white reindeer) family, during their migration over the frozen river of Ob.

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A young Nenets woman gathers the reindeer before migration.

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A framed picture of a Nenets herder with the reindeer. For the Nenets, reindeer are considered part of the family and have a place of honor in local culture and folklore.

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Pudani Audi (born 1948). Pudani was born on the tundra and roamed since birth. In this portrait she is wearing a fur hat, the sole object she is left with from her wandering days.

“I feel that my part is over. That I am no longer needed”

– Pudani Audi

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An official sign warning the local villagers that “going out on the ice is prohibited”: meaning that from this point, the tundra begins.

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Autipana Audi (born 1941). Autipana lost her husband, son, and daughter to disease, and a few years ago her entire reindeer herd perished from starvation during a cold snap. Almost unable to walk, she spends her days mostly limited to her bed.

“I miss summers when we used to fish. I miss my family and the reindeer, but the thing I miss the most is walking. Walking in the snow.”

– Autipana Audi

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A Nenets boy plays on an old sled, during his lifetime he will cover thousands of miles as he traverses the tundra.

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An abandoned tank.

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Angelina Serotetto (born 1942). Angelina is from a family of shaman women, her mother taught her to read the future using sacred objects from nature.

“I view everything with a loving eye. I think you learn it as you get older.”

– Angelina Serotetto

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A forgotten couch.

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Zinaida Evay (born 1946) and her cat Persik (“peach” in Russian). Zinaida was married for many years, and she shared with Oded that she had a beautiful and loving bond with her husband. Today she lives in the small apartment with her cats.

“All that is left are the lullabies I sing to myself.”

– Zinaida Evay

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The 'Chum', home of the Nenets.

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Necla Audi (born 1928). Although Necla was 89 when this portrait was taken, she wishes to return to life with the migrating community. At the far left of her bed, a picture of her two sons, taken when they were young. Now, both of them are herders in the tundra.

“I was born in the tundra and spent all my life there, it’s the only way of living I know.”

– Necla Audi

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An improvised cross marks the border between the village and the tundra. For tundra people, this marker delineates the line between their world and the world of the “others” (non-tundra people). Crossing this border is accompanied by many fears and superstitions, both by people of the tundra and those who live in the village.

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Liliya Yamkina (born 1944). As a teenager, she was the only one in her clan who knew how to read. She said she still remembers how important she felt when she read everyone their letters and formal documents. Her ability to read was also the reason her father prevented her from going to college, it was an invaluable skill for their community that they could not afford to lose. Now in her apartment, she writes love songs about the tundra and her dream is to publish them in a magazine.

“I did not fully understand the importance of tradition and family when I was young, I argued so much with my parents. I wanted to escape from my roots.”

– Liliya Yamkina

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A packed sled, ready for migration.

All images © Oded Wagenstein