A life amidst reindeer skins, snowmobiles and evening telenovelas on a flat screen: equipped with a Leica M10, Zorana Mušikić accompanied the daily life of a Nenet family, capturing the interplay between tradition and modernity.

How did you come across this Nenet family?
The first time I was in Siberia, I was following the so-called Stalin railway for my Ghosts along the dead track project. As I travelled, I realised how complicated it is to even get around in the tundra: during the few frost-free months, there are no connections between many places, because the terrain is an impassable swamp; and many connections only exist when there are paths on the ice. So I planned my next trip for winter. I found out that, during the winter months, the Nenets and their herds of reindeer migrate south of the Ob River; and that, some of the time, their routes take them along the former Transpolar Railway line. I then contacted a fixer, who established the connection to a family on my behalf. He also took care of all the logistics. It’s only possible to get around there by a special vehicle called a trekol – a kind of all-terrain buggy that can go through snow and ice. We used one to drive ten hours from the nearest town to the meeting point, where we were picked up with snowmobiles by Yuri Serotetto, whose family we were staying with. He then took me to a campsite made up of six chums (as their tents are called), and there I spent a week living in his family’s tent – with his wife Yelena, their little son Vladimir, and his parents.

How did you manage to get your protagonists to open up to you?
We were together day and night, so a certain intimacy could hardly be avoided. We all lived, ate and slept in the same chum. I was immediately integrated to help, wherever I could, with small things – collecting wood, melting snow, and so on. And because I was involved in all the daily chores, I was always in a great position to take photographs.

Please describe the Nenet way of life for us…
Of all the indigenous people in West Siberia, it is the Nenets who have been most successful in preserving their way of life, language and culture. At the same time, they seem to live in a sort of “best of both worlds”. They have quite a fascinating mixture of wooden sledges and snowmobiles; power saws and cordless screwdrivers; satellite phones and – in each chum – a flat screen on which to watch Russian telenovelas in the evenings, thanks to satellite reception. At the same time, reindeer are captured with a traditional lasso and slaughtered by hand, before being refined with a ready-mixed selection of herbs de Provence; while warm reindeer clothing, stitched together with reindeer sinew, conceals jeans and T-shirts. The level of education among the Nenets is very high. At 7 years of age, all the children go to boarding school, and many finish with high grades and do further studies. Then they decide whether to go back to the tundra or stay in the city. This means that all of the Nenets, except the very old, know life in the city. On average, about half the children choose a life in the tundra, while the other half stay in the cities. Many of those then go into politics, or to institutions and companies, so they can be active and lobby for the rights of the Nenets. Yuri Serotetto’s brother, for example, works for Gazprom.

What impressed you most about their daily life?
The community is very involved in working, and there is virtually no free time. Living conditions are extremely tough, since temperatures can sometimes drop to -50º Celsius. That really impressed me, because they have chosen that life themselves. I also hadn’t expected to find that the four-year-old Vladimir, despite his nomadic life, was just as obsessed with his parents’ smartphone – watching kids’ videos and playing games – as my own son in Berlin; and that the eldest daughter’s big dream is to be able to take part in the Voice of Russia competition.

Do you have a favourite picture?
I love the picture of the young man looking at the two ends of the satellite dish cable that he’d severed in two, while digging in the snow, for example. He’s wondering how to repair it, because the telenovela is about to begin in 15 minutes, and Yuri’s mother is hopping mad that the TV has no reception. Together, we managed to fiddle and fix it, and then isolate it with duct tape – and the evening was saved.

The contrast between the harsh whiteness outside and the dark interiors must have surely been a photographic challenge…
I was lucky to have a Leica M10 for the journey. It’s so incredibly light sensitive, and takes beautiful pictures, even with very high ISO settings. Without that camera, I wouldn’t have been able to photograph in the chum; many of the pictures were taken at ISO 6000.

How satisfied were you with the equipment?
I had the Leica M10 with me, and it proved perfect for the project. As I mentioned before, the temperature in the tundra can even go down to -50º Celsius. I was there in April and it was “only” -20º; but the cold didn’t bother the camera at all. The batteries also lasted for a really long time, which was something I had, in fact, been worried about. I had to deal with the extreme brightness of the endless snowy landscape, as well as the stark darkness inside the chum, with only limited light sources – yet the camera was able to draw enough detail out of the bright white, while also producing great pictures, when set at ISO 6000. On top of that, the camera is so compact. I believe that contributes to the fact that you always function a bit below the radar – quite different from when you’re out and about with a large mirror reflex camera and a chunky zoom lens. I had a 50mm and a 25mm lens with me. The 50mm is my favourite lens, especially for photographing people; if you’re close, you’re really close – the closeness or distance to the people portrayed is conveyed in a very real way. I like that.

Please complete the sentence, “Photography is (for me)…
…an opportunity. I believe in pictures as catalysts for narratives that are shaped into a new reality.”

Born in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, in 1976, Zorana Mušikić first studied Graphic Art and Painting, as well as Modern German Literature & Media and Philosophy, in Marburg. She began to study Photography at the Neue Schule für Fotografie Berlin in 2009, and graduated in 2013. She has received numerous grants and awards for her work, which has been exhibited internationally. Mušikić lives and works as a freelance photographer in Berlin, where, among other things, she is also a freelance lecturer at the Neue Schule für Fotografie.