Russian photographer Natalya Saprunova grew up in the chilly Artic region of Murmansk. As a pre-teen she recalls documenting life on disposable cameras, eventually adapting to digital photography at 19. Later moving to Paris, she spent almost a decade away from photography – studying Communications at university instead. Today, she’s a French citizen and a member of French photographic agency Zeppelin. She’s since returned to the medium and, through her work, to Murmansk.
Situated in the far northwest of Russia, Murmansk is home to the country’s Indigenous Saami community (also spelled Sámi or Sami), who, since the arrival of the Soviet era, have been relentlessly displaced and had their livelihoods disrupted. There are currently just 1,500 Saamis in Russia, of whom only 200 are able to speak the Saami language. With Saamis Portraits, Saamis, We Used to Live in The Tundra and Kildin, a Language for Russian Sámis Survivors, Saprunova documents the effects of these ongoing changes, and how Saamis today are taking action to protect their culture.
VICE: What was your relationship to the Saami people growing up?
Natalya Saprunova: I didn't hear much. Even as a fan of museums, the only room in the regional museum devoted to the Saamis didn't [leave a mark on] me. Much more was said about the Pomors people who lived on the coast of the Kola Peninsula and lived on fishing. It was after a trip to the sacred Saami lake Seidozero, that I discovered the culture of the Indigenous people of the Kola Peninsula. I then became interested in their festivals and history.
And how did you arrive at this project – when did you first start taking photographs of the community?
The first time I went there was 2006. Later, the editor-in-chief of The Messenger of Murmansk offered me work for the newspaper, being a special envoy to Lovozero to cover the Saami festivals. It was the year before I began studying Communications and Journalism in Paris, and I exhibited my first Saami photos at the Visa Pour L’image festival in the amateur section. I didn’t do photography for about eight years, then took it up again in 2016, doing documentary projects. In 2019 I went to Lovozero – it was a dream to go back and do a real reportage. Last year I was there March, June, July, August, and from November to February. I followed this girl, Uliana, during summer vacations, as well as covering traditional festivities.
Uliana is at the centre of the series. How did you meet her?
I knew the family years ago, then was in contact with Uliana’s father, Valdimir. He was a guide in Lovozero, a fixer who told me a lot about the culture. In 2019 I photographed his parents, and after his mother died [last March], I came back and he authorised me to take pictures at the funeral – they even used my earlier photo of her for the ceremony. I saw Uliana then, first with all the family and then during the summer. It was natural, I took pictures everywhere. Her mother was a bit sceptic at first, but little by little but I gained trust.
How did the wider community react to your camera?
The children were very natural, and I was discreet. Sometimes I was afraid to take pictures, during the funeral for example – it was my first time shooting with all the family, and we were in the church – so I was discreet, and they didn't realise maybe. For portraits I asked permission; it was a mix of portraits and moments when I was really observing.
In Kildin, you highlight the issues facing the Saami people today, adapting to modern life and the threat of the climate crisis. What were the most common concerns of the people you met?
They talked about their rights as Indigenous people and the transmission of the language, the knowledge of reindeer herding and of driving the reindeer team and the transmission of craftsmanship. Also about their place in the collective memory of the Murmansk region, the land preservation, ecological problems on Kola Peninsula, the consequences of global warming on their living conditions and on reindeer herding, the rights to fishing and hunting. They worry about mass tourism, which uses the ethnographic image of the Saami people but without respecting the real visual codes, nor the authenticity of the rituals.
You won the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award for the series. How significant is this kind of recognition?
I was very happy, very touched. It's a real recognition and great support. I invest a lot to realise my reportage, so it gives me additional forces to continue, and now I can show the story to more people, because it's important to cover this subject and the problems of these people. I will continue, it will move and change. I have some events where I would like to take pictures – now I have a budget to go there.