Exploring Ikuru Kuwajima’s ‘Tundra Kids’ photography series

Since the dawn of the millennium, the world has changed at a faster rate than any previous time in human history. Culturally, climatically and in just about every other guise, a sweeping global transition has been underway. However, the Russian Tundra seems so far-flung and impenetrable that its place in the global consciousness as the world’s last outpost of the past has wrongfully remained. 

It is a measure of our current interconnectedness and the binding ties of climate change that even the Tundra is a region in rapid transition. 

Moscow-based Japanese photographer, Ikuru Kuwajima, travelled to the far reaches of Russia to capture life for the impacted masses of children living there in the post-digital age. In the process, he offered a unique glimpse into the lives of people who are rarely viewed in a three-dimensional sense. 

We’re looking at Kuwajima’s stunning images from his Tundra Kids collection and catching up with the man himself to trace the journey that led him to the Arctic and the method behind his stunning images. 

An interview with Ikuru Kuwajima on his Tundra Kids collection:

For Out: We’re focusing on your series ‘Tundra Kids’. Could you explain where this idea came from? 

Kuwajima: “Back in 2014, when I was living in Kazan, I made a trip to Vorkuta in the arctic region with friends from Moscow to explore the place with photography or video. I didn’t have a concrete idea of what to photograph there. On the other hand, I didn’t want to do a typical arctic story of hooded indigenous people with reindeer in the Tundra or a typical Russian story of a depilated northern town, which became sort of clichés by that time. 

“During the trip, we came across the boarding school, and I was fascinated by it because the place was very symbolic of the current state of the indigenous Nenets people. You may think indigenous people in polar regions are still living like nomads with reindeer and tents in the Tundra, but many of them became settled a long time ago, though some still keep nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles.

“So, the boarding school is a transition place from the nomadic to the settled lifestyle, as the students were studying the boarding school because their parents in the Tundra wanted them to have education, and some of the children never go back to the Tundra to live after the schooling, although many of them actually do go back to the Tundra, as well.”

What did you seek to capture most in your series?

“I tried to capture their changing identity in this increasingly globalised world. I tried to show this boarding school as the middle point between their nomadic and settled lifestyles — tradition vs modernity.”

(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)

Could you run us through your process? What distinctive imagery are you looking for?

“Access-wise, it was quite difficult. When I was there for the first time, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to photograph there unless I get a permit from the governor. Then, I tried different channels, and after 8-9 months, I got a permit and went back there to photograph. 

“Photography-wise, I stuck mostly to portraits and stills mostly to keep consistency in the series because I needed to have some control to show the main concept that two different worlds — nomadic and settled — exist in the boarding school. 

“Then, I also collected archive pictures and scanned children’s drawings and ethnic ornaments, which are shown in the book. I finished all the shooting process in one week or so. I think it would have been impossible to get enough good pictures for a week if I did in a reportage style, which would require much more time and even better access, which was impossible to get at that time. 

“After the photoshoot, I spent about a half year making a book dummy by myself in Kazan, and another half year or so to get published copies in Vienna. So, it took about two years, which was actually quite fast, I think.”

Generally speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?

“It mostly comes down to curiosity. I’m curious to see and know something new. And I’m also curious to see what I will make from the findings. I’m also attracted to subjects that would allow me to experiment with form, technique and/or concept. Also, I always hope to work on projects that would have some positive social impacts. Those are my main drives.”

Is there a specific moment that you can recall that made you want to pursue photography?

“Actually, I started photography out of necessity — when I was studying journalism in the US, I realised that it would be very hard for me to compete with native English speakers as a reporter because of the language barrier (my first language is Japanese). That’s why I started taking pictures. Then, I turned out to be good at it more or less and decided to continue. 

“Although I always have some doubt whether I really want to pursue photography, I somehow continue it because it’s a convenient medium. I’ve been less active in photography these days, but I’m hoping to get back to it one way or another, possibly in a more multi-disciplined manner.”

(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)

Detail, if you could, how your life living in Russia has changed and how this experience opened your creative process?

“First of all, I think I should speak of my life living in ‘post-soviet instead of ‘Russia’. Technically I’ve been living in Russia since 2013, but I moved to Ukraine, the first post-Soviet space for me, in 2008, and started speaking and thinking in Russian there. 

“Since then, I’ve been living in the Russian speaking regions without a break. Incidentally, between my Ukraine and the US college periods, I lived in Romania for a year, and it was a good transition period. That being said, the first five years in the post-Soviet (two years in Ukraine, three years in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) really changed my life, worldviews and creative process. 

“Life-wise, at first, it was a series of problems, which seemed to never end. I had to deal with not only the language problem but also corrupted cops, scammers, burglars, stray dogs and so on, but the better I spoke Russian, the fewer problems I had. Those problems are also the legacy of the ’90s, and in the 2000’ and 2010s, many cities noticeably developed and became safer — that’s maybe another reason why my life got easier. 

“I live in Moscow now, and it has changed a lot since I was here for the first time in 2010 when some skinheads were still wandering around with the intention of beating up or even killing people from Central Asia or the Caucasus, and I, as an Asian, didn’t feel very safe. But now you’d rarely run into this type of problem, ironically thanks to all the surveillance cameras watching you everywhere. 

“After moving to Ukraine in 2008, I also stopped smiling to strangers at some point because it would make you look naïve and have ‘them’ take advantage of you or would make others think you want to profit from ‘them’, but now Moskvish in certain communities are as smiley as Europeans even to unfamiliar faces, and now I often feel stupid for not being able to smile easily. I unlearnt many things to get adapted here, but now I have to relearn what I unlearnt years ago. Basically, things change so fast here, and I have a hard time keeping up with it. Another example is that a lot of people in Russia no longer drink much, let alone vodka, and I too consume much less alcohol these days, feeling like I’m getting sober together with Russia, for better or for worse.

“Photography-wise, when I moved to Ukraine, I wanted to make a career as a photojournalist. But, over the years, I realised that I wouldn’t be the best fit for this genre of photography for multiple reasons. First, I became aware of the colonial discourse in the post-Soviet context and had to face the dilemma — sellable and contest-winning pictures tend to oversimplify the representations of non-Western countries and often end up spreading the stereotypes instead of solving problems. I also found out that some well-known foreign photographers did some quite unethical things when they were working in the area, and I was quite disillusioned by photojournalism.

“In my first year in Ukraine, I did a story on drug addicts with a fixer, who turned out to be a vicious scammer. The story I did hardly helped reduce drug addiction problems in Ukraine either. I was quite lost and desperate around that time, but then this incident helped me become more independent — I continue to learn Russian in order to work without a translator/fixer to avoid sketchy situations and save money. 

“Also, I got beaten up and had cameras smashed by mobs when I covered a conflict in Kyrgyzstan, and after a few other incidents, I came to the conclusion that I’m not really a good fit for news photography either. Then when I was in Kazakhstan, I was given a chance to participate in Reflexions Masterclass, art and documentary photography masterclass in Europe, and it helped me take a more artistic and conceptual approach in photography. Gradually I shifted from straightforward photojournalism to documentary to art-documentary photography. 

“Friends also helped me change my approach. In Central Asia, there was hardly anyone who was doing the kind of documentary photography I was doing. So, instead of becoming friends with photographers, I got mingled more with local artists, writers and journalists. That expanded my vision and interest. Even in Russia, there is no solid photography institution, so a lot of photographers, especially younger ones, tend to get influenced by contemporary art. Even before I moved to Russia, I often hung out with photographers from Russia, and that was also a main source of inspiration.

“So, when I moved to Russia in 2013, I was already quite experienced, but I was exhausted physically and mentally after all the problems. I then quit journalism and commercial photography completely and decided to concentrate on personal works while making a stable income out of online translation work. Also, in a repressing state like Russia or most of the Central Asian countries, there are some subjects risky to photograph or show — especially if you are going to live there longer, and I had to take that into account, too, because I moved to Russia to immigrate there. 

“Photography-wise, Russia was also a bit harder to photograph than Central Asia — over there, it was easier to find some interesting texture and landscapes, and people and places were still less influenced by globalisation. It’s like you just snap pictures in certain places, and you could get good pictures. However, it turned out that Russia was more modernised and globalised by 2013, and a lot of places seemed quite ‘static’ and ‘normal’ after Central Asia. 

“Basically, not much was there at first glance, and my eyes were already very used to the post-Soviet landscape. So, I felt that just travelling and taking pictures wouldn’t be enough. Subsequently, I started to take a more conceptual and artistic approach — adding something in the frames, using archive pictures and so on. I also read a lot of books from Russian literature to contemporary European philosophy to Japanese culture in different languages — Russia is a great place for reading, thanks to the dark and cold winter and cool summer, and I got inspiration for the projects from readings in the past years. 

“The culmination of all that was the work called ‘I, Oblomov’, in which I made a reference to a Russian classic novel [Oblomov] and made a self-portrait of myself lying like the novel’s hero Oblomov in different places. And, also ‘Repatriatsiya’ — it’s a mixed-media installation about driftwoods from the Gulag in Siberia travelling to Iceland and then back to Russia. I made some 3D videos, printed pictures on woods and fabric, collected some objects in Iceland and put them together. It worked out well, and I was hoping to do more 3D related works. But, I realised that 3D was too tedious for me to work, so I’m going to go back to a less digital approach these days…also, I’m still not a very big fan of digital aesthetics.”

(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)

You clearly have a lot going on, pulling inspiration from a number of sources. With that in mind, what do you think makes a particular photograph stand out from the norm? What makes a specific picture memorable? 

“It’s ‘rarity’ that makes a photograph memorable. I mean rarity in terms of both form and concept, or aesthetic and information. War photographs are a good example. They really shocked people even 15 years ago or so because you didn’t see so many pictures of them, but now there are not only so many wars but also so many similar war pictures that they don’t shock people as they did before.”

How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic?

“My aesthetic has been changing all the time. and I think it still changes. I first imitated the aesthetic of American photojournalism because I was studying to be a photojournalist in the US context, although I never really felt this American style was close to my heart. Then, I moved to Eastern Europe, and since then, I have been surrounded more often by Eastern and Western European aesthetics than before. 

“I felt much closer to the European aesthetic than the US one, and my aesthetics in photography changed accordingly. But, in the past four-five years, I think I became more of an anti-aesthetics person, at least ideologically. I feel close to some of the left-leaning critics of anesthetisation and all that sort of stuff in general, and that’s perhaps one of the reasons why I do less photographic works these days.

“I’m not that fundamentalist, and I’m trying to find a middle point somehow. Of course, I think my Japanese background should also have some influence on my aesthetic. On the one hand, I didn’t do anything arty in all my school years in Japan, except martial arts, if it’s also considered “art”; on the other hand, I definitely grew up with all the comics and anime just like most of the Japanese in my generation, and that should have added something to my vision and aesthetic.”

Do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of city life you may be exploring next?

“I’ve been working on some historic subjects, which include exploration of avant-garde architecture in East Prussian cities, which are now in the territory of Russia (the Kaliningrad region). 

“Also, I’d like to travel again and explore Russia’s Far East, where I haven’t been to. I’m especially interested in Yakutiya and its cities and how their national identity is visible in the city landscapes.”

For more information and images of Kuwajima’s Tundra Kids collection and other works, you can view his official website by clicking here.

(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)
(Credit: Ikuru Kuwajima)

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