Central Asia is a territory of harsh winters and a semi-nomadic lifestyle, shaped by historical events and cultural overlapping. Aleksey Kondratyev captures the beauty and the daily life of an area that, for the photographer, is resisting economic and social currents and is defined under its own terms. We meet him to talk about photographing in extreme temperatures, what excites him most about Los Angeles (his new city), and a bit of history.
First of all, I’d like to talk a bit about your origins and where it all started. You’re originally from Kyrgyzstan, a country known for its vast and varied landscapes. How do you think growing there influenced your decision to become a photographer?
Central Asia was a nomadic region that lacked large-scale ethnic cohesion until it was colonized by the Russian empire in the 19th century. Fearful of the difficulties to control a pan-Turkic population, the Soviet Union delineated central Asians along ambiguous linguistic and ethnic categories between Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Tajiks. This process forged clearly defined ethnic boundaries in an area where questions of ethnic identity and language were never clear-cut. I think what’s influenced my work more – rather than one specific cultural lineage – is the overlapping of many separate histories, and that’s what really directs all my work.
Your photography series, apart from being impressive and insightful, seem to reflect on aspects of daily life in Central Asia. Why did you choose this part of the continent for your pictures?
I’m interested in Central Asia because economic and social systems intersect in this part of the world in a way that I feel really resists categorization and definition.
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Snow is featured in almost all pictures of your two series, Formations and Ice Fishers. Is there any particular link between your work and snow?
I wanted to use the snow as a framing mechanism. With the ice fishers in particular, the snow removed the subjects from the landscape and made it much more about the materials I was photographing.
You’ve published photobooks of your two main series until now: Formations (Fabrica, 2016) and Ice Fishers (Loose Joints, 2018). How do you feel a book tells the story differently from, let’s say, an exhibition or your own website?
Touch is an extra layer of information. I like the book because you can use its the materiality to further inform the work. Exhibitions are different because instead of that added layer of tactility you get with a book, there are spatial relationships between the prints and the room they’re installed in. I like going between both modes and thinking about how images function in each context.
Are you planning on publishing more photography books in the future?
Yes, thinking of projects in a book helps keep me on track and functions as a good metaphoric structure to relate the images through.
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Ice Fishers, which revolves around the difficult working conditions of the fishermen in Astana, has been internationally acclaimed and published in many publications. Why did you decide to show the world this precise phenomenon?
The bags the ice fishers used interested me because I felt this phenomenon captured the intersection of the contemporary present of global capitalism in Central Asia with its nomadic history.
The series is very striking. To see these men covered and wrapped in plastic to survive the low temperatures (they fish in some of the coldest parts on the planet) is very unusual, and I actually can feel the cold getting through my bones. How did you take these pictures, technically speaking? Were you covered in plastic sheets as well?
(Laughs) No, but I did have a very thick jacket though! The first time I went, it was actually so cold that my camera kept turning off due to the temperature, so I had to bring a different one when I went back the following year.
I’m not sure if you had much contact with these fishermen. How were they? What did you learn from their resistance, strength, and will?
I spoke with each of the men before I photographed them. A lot of them lived there since before Astana was named the capital in the mid-1990s, and when it was the centre of Nikita Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Initiative, which began in the 1960s. At that time, the city was called Tselinograd (‘virgin land’ in Russian), and it was a farming town that was meant to lead grain production for the USSR. Most of the people that have lived in the area since then have stayed and have had to adapt to a completely changed economic and physical landscape. I’m interested in how this dynamic adaptation to a shifting economic system relates to adaption to a physical environment present in a region with a nomadic history.
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Your work has been exhibited in a large number of galleries and museums, such as the Galleria Foto-Forum in Bolzano (Italy), this one being your first solo exhibition. What do you think the public worldwide can learn when seeing your work?
In response to the transnational aspect of your question, photography can show people how subjectivity differs between place.
You are currently living in Los Angeles. Has the West Coast served as an inspiration for your work?
Definitely, Los Angeles has had a huge impact in the way that I think about photography. Los Angeles doesn’t have an established photo or art historical narrative in the same way that cities like New York and Paris do. Because of that, I feel like there is more work that’s being produced in reaction to the here-and-now rather than in response to art historical precedent. I also like it because it’s a city that lacks a singular identity due to its decentralized nature, and that kind of spatial disorientation reminds me of Central Asia in a way that I find exciting and comforting.
You are also a candidate for an M.F.A at the University of California. Do you have any new projects in mind that you can tell us?
I’m currently working on a project photographing body shop workers from the post-Soviet world, both in the United States and various countries throughout the former republic. It’s still in the beginning stages, but I think it’ll build off of the ideas I explored in Ice Fishers.
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