A window into the life of indigenous women in the Siberian Arctic

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Photographer and anthropologist Alegra Ally accompanied the Nenets during their seasonal migration, a tradition under threat from the climate crisis

In October 2016, Alegra Ally travelled to the Yamal Peninsula in northwest Siberia, Russia, to join the indigenous Nenet tribe during their seasonal migration. Clad in hooded fur and heavy boots, every year the Nenets herd their reindeer more than 800 miles across the Arctic tundra, following the same route as their ancestors did for centuries before. But now, due to global heating, the Arctic Circle is rapidly transforming, and many Nenets are unable to complete this seasonal tradition.

As part of her ongoing global project about indigenous women, Ally spent seven weeks with a Nenet family, documenting their daily lives as they prepared for their winter migration. As her project is published in a photobook, Ally discusses her experience and explains the changing climate’s effects on the Nenets’ lifestyle.

Why did you want to go to the Arctic to document the Nenets?

Since 2011 I have documented the traditional practices and beliefs that underlie major life events of indigenous women in a larger body of work called Wild Born. From their early rites of passage through to pregnancy, birth and postpartum rituals, these experiences have been the inspiration and foundation for my work as both an anthropologist and documentary photographer. My intention is to raise awareness of and appreciation for traditional practices, and to contribute to the revitalisation of these traditions for future generations.

I’m fascinated by human adaptation to the environment, and how the environment influences and shapes every aspect of our lives, not just in terms of practicality and survival — what we eat and how we dress — but also our belief systems, our ways of life, our language and culture. I chose the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia because it is one of the world’s most extreme environments, and I wanted to migrate with the Nenets during winter to experience and witness their way of adapting and thriving in one of the most challenging climates in the world.

What were some of the challenges you faced when adapting to their lifestyle?

In the framework of an ethnographer, my goal is to immerse myself in the ways of life of the people I visit, but nothing could have prepared me for the harsh conditions of the Arctic. I started working in remote locations two decades ago and each time I arrive in a new place I have to adapt to a new environment, and learn a new set of local beliefs and rules. I’ve learned that I need time for adjustment and to get to know the culture, the people, and the challenges the environment brings.

One big challenge that people might not be aware of is loneliness. It is a complicated issue, but learning to embrace it and not resist it allows for personal growth. It’s partially what gives the experience its intensity and potential for learning.

In what ways have the Nenets adjusted to modern life?

The Nenets are masters of adaptation, and we can all learn from that. Learning how to survive and how to employ every resource they have for survival is admirable. Being so adaptable has gifted them with the ability to know how to balance their lives so accurately and these abilities translate to other aspects of their behaviour. So when progress was introduced, they struck a balance between what complemented their lives and how much they could consume without losing a big part of their identity and culture. I think that the Nenets are a riveting example of how two worlds can merge, and how to retain pride in cultural identity along the way.

The Arctic region is under threat. How has climate change affected the daily life of Nenet families?

For the Nenets “to move is to live”, and normally they will move two to three times a month in seasonal migration. Life in the arctic circle is fragile, and timing is everything for the Nenets, whose lives depend on their migrations. For thousands of years, this way of life has sustained them. They work hard and efficiently every minute of the day to maintain their basic comfort and survival requirements, however, climate change may end this way of life that they are so well adapted to.

I realised that I was witnessing the impact of climate change on the Nenets first-hand — their herds, their migration, and their adaptation to this new reality. Several times during my seven weeks stay I watched the family pack all of their belongings and prepare their sledges for migration, only to then unpack everything again due to unstable weather conditions. I began to wonder if I would migrate with the family at all during my stay, in the end, we were able to migrate once and for a very short distance.

Why do you think it is important to shed light on these narratives and why is photography a good tool for this? 

As an ethnocentric society (evaluating other cultures according to preconceptions originating in our own culture), we have the idea that the world should evolve to become the model of our reality —  that all societies should become us. This model, which values progress through achieving advanced technology, comes at the expense of our environment. Living alongside indigenous people like the Nenets amplifies the idea that there isn’t one right model of reality and that there are many ways of existing, of being in the world. None of them is more or less of an “ideal”.

Photography is a form of art as well as a form of storytelling. Photos capture moments in time. Photography for me has always been a means to complement my projects, not the other way around, I’ve never let the camera lead and instead let my subjects dictate the interaction. The camera is one more method of sharing the stories beyond my writing and in-depth ethnographic fieldwork.

My work takes me to some of the most remote parts of the world, to communities and environments in which most people will never have the opportunity to witness themselves. It enables people across the world to take a visual tour of these otherwise inaccessible cultures.

New Path by Alegra Ally is published by Schilt.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.