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Interview with Aleksey Kondratyev
Tell us about the concept behind Ice Fishers…
For generations, Kazakh fishers have set out on to the frozen Ishim River in the hope of catching fish beneath the ice. The Ishim flows through the country’s capital, Astana, a high-rise, futuristic city that was built essentially from scratch in the 1990s, when Kazakhstan started to benefit from the exploitation of its oil reserves. It’s supposed to be an emblem of post-Soviet modernity, a hallmark of the country’s nationhood. Many of these fishermen venture on to the ice, braving temperatures that often reach -40 degrees (north-central Kazakhstan is the second- coldest populated region in the world, after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). While they fish, they protect themselves from the harsh weather with salvaged pieces of plastic, patched together from discarded packaging or rice bags that you can find outside markets selling western, Chinese and Russian goods.
I was interested in examining the aesthetic forms of these improvised protective coverings and the way in which they functioned as inadvertent sculptures. I chose to focus on the materials and their surfaces as signifiers of underlying global influence and the improvisation that occurs from economic necessity. Kazakhstan was once a nomadic country, and vestiges of that way of life still exist despite the country’s embracement of modernity. These ice fishers improvise and adapt to their environment in ingenious ways, just as their forebears did.
What originally drew you to Kazakhstan and how did you come across the Ice Fishers?
I came across the ice fishers while I was traveling through the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia working on a different body of work, Formations. During that initial trip, I spent two weeks in Astana. I came across the ice fishers then by accident, and began photographing them on the side of this other project I was working on at the time. The following year, I returned to Kazakhstan and spent a month focusing solely on the ice fishers.
These fisherman are protecting themselves from the elements in a unique way that’s unfamiliar to most western viewers. There’s a unsettling quality to seeing human figures inside of plastic bags…
I think that was one of the things that initially attracted me to photograph them on my first trip. At first the practice seemed interesting and unsettling, looking at it as an outsider.
Tell us about your shooting process… What was it like interacting with the fisherman? What did they think about your project?
It was funny, at first many of the guys were reluctant when I would ask if I could photograph them because they thought I wanted to take a portrait of them. After I explained that I just wanted to photograph their tents—they thought it was a strange request to want to photograph something that to them seemed so banal and utilitarian—they were happy to let me take the photos.
What type of equipment are you using?
For the first trip, I used a Phase One DF body with a P65+ back, for the second I used a sony A7RII.
How do you feel that equipment effects your image making?
I used to shoot only medium format and 4×5. I feel like switching over to shooting digitally has allowed me to take more risks and be less rigid in my approach to photography.
How do you see this series in relation to your previous body of work, “Formations?” How do you see this work in the context of photographic tradition?
Formations looked at Central Asia, and how on a very broad scale, the region has adapted to the era of multinational capitalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Ice Fishers, I’m looking at the same idea but on what I feel is a much more intimate level.
When I started working on this project, I was beginning to look beyond artists who were working indexically, and was thinking a lot about sculpture. I was particularly interested in work by sculptors from the 70’s, like Eva Hesse and Robert Morris, who had this idea that the final form of an artwork should be dictated by the physical properties of a material rather than its creator’s intent. With this project, I tried to consider that notion through the context of photojournalism.
Do you have any plans for future bodies of work?
I’m going to be attending the University of California, Los Angeles in the Fall. I don’t have anything too concrete planned yet, but I’m doing research now for a project that will look at materials appropriated by migrants crossing the Mexico—United States Border.