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They live at the edge of the sky, somewhere lost in the past: Emil Gataullin‘s series took him into the Russian province, where he observed the everyday lives of people living on the banks of the Mezen River. Nothing seems to have changed there in centuries – a journey into a time believed gone forever.

LFI: Does your series represent a miniature version of Russian society?
Emil Gataullin:I think it’s impossible to use the situation in the Mezen region to get a sense of life in Russia, as a whole. It is pretty isolated and far from the big cities, and the centres of commerce and culture. This is probably why the Mezen
villages have been able to preserve their identities and traditional lifestyles to this day. On the other hand, the fate of many Russian villages, in particular those in the north, is reflected in the examples along the Mezen. With the collapse of the USSR, state support for agriculture was cut tenfold; people lost their jobs, and the villages gradually started to die. Those who were able to head for the cities did so; while those who stayed behind feel abandoned. They live in a state of timelessness, caught between a lost past and an insecure future.

How did you approach the people there?
It’s hard to remain unnoticed in a village. The locals recognise the photographer as a stranger. That’s why it’s important to connect with them; to make it possible for them to like you. It was relatively easy in the Mezen villages, because the people there are open and hospitable; they invited me to visit, gave me food, and also accommodated me overnight. While taking pictures there, I had some useful new experiences: rather than simply observing, I integrated myself actively and purposefully with those I was photographing. This led to a dialogue, where both sides – the photographer and the protagonist – were involved in the creation of the images.

What was your photographic approach?
My main interest lies in the lives of simple people; the relationships they have with each other, and to the place where they live. At the same time, I’m not researching social phenomena. Instead, I observe life and capture my observations. I never know where I’m going to find an interesting motif for a photo: I don’t have an advance plan; there’s no particular picture that I want to find. I consider photography an exploration – searching for moments that reveal the meaning and beauty of everyday life.

What role does this project play in your overall oeuvre?
Mezen: By Sky's Edge is a sequel to the story of the Russian province, which I’ve been working on since the beginning of 2000. This is also one of my first colour projects. For 15 years, I only photographed in black and white; but over time, I had the feeling that my approach was too conservative, and that I was using old techniques and simply repeating myself. New pictures became increasingly less satisfying. In 2016, I began taking pictures in colour; and that proved to be the solution to finding new motivation, and looking at the world from a different perspective.

Despite the colour, the pictures convey a feeling of wistfulness…
It must be the sadness of something fading, and saying farewell to the past. I am a melancholic person, and I like to feel the resonance between my inner state and the sad reality that surrounds me.

All images on this page: © Emil Gataullin
Equipment: Leica Q, Summilux 28 f/1.7 Asph

You can find the portfolio and the entire article in the current
LFI Magazine.
© Renat Gataulin

Emil Gataullin

...was born in Russia in 1972 and lives in Moscow. His work is published in renowned international magazines such as Geo, The New York Times, and Ogonek. Towards the Horizon, his book of poetic images of Russian villages, appeared in 2016. He is continuing his travels along the Mezen River, while also working on a long-term project about Kolyma, where the most brutal of the gulag camps was located from 1930 to 1950.

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