When Emile Ducke read Kolyma Tales, the short stories series by Varlam Shalamov that describes life in Russian labour camps, he was inspired to go and discover the place in which they are set. Shalamov spent 17 years in the camps, and between 1937 and 1951 was imprisoned for much of the time in the arctic Kolyma region of northeastern Siberia. Ducke says that Shalamov’s prose conjured such a visually evocative image of this desolate part of the world, where thousands of Soviet dissidents were shipped and incarcerated, that he wanted to see it and photograph it.
‘This is when I learned about the Kolyma region as a whole and this road, the so called “Road of Bones”, that was built by prisoners, which would then bring even more prisoners to the region’s camps and mines to extract resources like gold, tin and uranium,’ explains Ducke.
The ‘Road of Bones’, official name the Kolyma Highway, is a transport link constructed between 1932 and 1952, a 2,000 kilometre stretch of road connecting Magadan and Yakutsk, said to be the coldest city on the planet. Those who built the highway worked in terrible conditions; the average temperature here in the winter ranges from minus 19 to minus 38 degrees Celsius, and it can drop to minus 50.
Ducke, a 27-year-old German, has been living in Moscow for four years now after moving there to study photography. He was drawn to Russia by an interest in post-socialist society, but the issue was, how do you photograph the past?
‘As a photographer, I was faced with a challenge – how to photograph something that has happened decades ago,’ says Ducke. ‘That is very difficult to visualise today. But then I came across Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.’ The idea of this harsh, frozen landscape and the construction of the highway offered a solution. ‘Simply, this book and learning about this region, and then about this road, this land – I knew that as a photographer I suddenly had a red thread: something I could hang my work on and follow.’ He would head out there and travel along the length of the road documenting what remained of the forced labour camps – the Gulags – the people who survived them and today’s Kolyma residents.
There was, he explains, a time imperative too – those who witnessed the camps are old and dying out, and as he puts it, the remains of the camps are sinking further into the snow. Soon the history of the ‘Road of Bones’ and the people who built it will be gone.
So, choosing winter as the season most appropriate in which to experience Kolyma – he comments wryly that a camp saying held that Kolyma had 12 months of winter, with the rest as summer – Ducke made the trip east and found a driver. The logistics were challenging. They had to be off the highway before nightfall so that they were never the last on the road, as a breakdown then could result in freezing to death. (At one point when shooting in Yakutsk, his camera did actually freeze.) And there were places that were virtually inaccessible. To get to the remains of the Butugychag labour camp Ducke had to hire the only thing able to tackle the task: an old Soviet army truck. The resulting shot, of barbed wire and buildings being swallowed by the snow, is one of the stand-out images of the portfolio. Here, after World War II, prisoners worked in uranium mines for the Soviet nuclear weapons programme.
Ducke’s body of work, titled Kolyma – Along the Road of Bones, has just won him the Newcomer Award at the Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2021, the annual competition run by the legendary German camera firm to honour those who work in a reportage style and document the relationship between humanity and the environment. We are talking on the afternoon in November before the evening ceremony at which the young photographer will receive his gong, as well as a Leica Q2 camera and some funding.
The Newcomer Award goes to a photographer under 30, and it is one of the striking things about Ducke that he seems to have been beguiled by the memories of the very old in this project. He talks of one shot of a woman, Antonina Novosad, born in 1927, who is pictured holding a photograph of herself as a young woman taken in a Kolyma labour camp. The encounter profoundly affected him: ‘She got sentenced for 10 years and spent nine years in the camps and got released. At some point, she moved back to Ukraine, where she was from, but then realised that much had changed, and that she had become much closer to Kolyma. So, she moved back.’
In Ducke’s images there is the suggestion that this place, so harsh in climate, so imbued with terrible history, gets under the skin. They are bled of colour, a permafrost grey permeating everything, and there is a mood of isolation as well as desolation. A picture of descendants of prisoners gathered at the Mask of Sorrow monument above Magadan, commemorating those who were victims of political repression, speaks of shared memory, while one of a lone local shopkeeper visiting a prisoner’s graveyard where a giant wooden cross marks the spot suggests quiet introspection. Meanwhile, daily life continues – a woman stands in front of her market stall in Yakutsk, wrapped up against the cold, selling frozen fish; a man in swimming trunks readies himself on a diving platform at a sports complex built during the time of the Soviet Union for those who worked in a power station nearby.
And in a remarkable shot, a group of elderly women sit in a dimly lit interior in front of red curtains and under red balloons, beneath two large images, one of Stalin and one of Lenin. ‘It was at the local Communist party’s headquarters. And they were celebrating the 101st anniversary of the Komsomol – how would you translate that? The labour organisation that would later send workers from different parts of Russia to build railway lines, work in factories, and many of the people pictured there, those old ladies, also came by this programme. They voluntarily accepted the offer to go to Kolyma, partly because of the idea of Communism and driving on for the future of Communism, and partly because there were several wage groups in the Soviet Union, and the Kolyma region was in the highest because it was so remote, so workers would be paid higher.’
This image, taken in Magadan, at the start of the Kolyma Highway at its western end, shows how history can be interpreted differently by different people. The fact that Stalin presides over the scene is striking, given the suffering the people incarcerated in the region experienced under his government. This is, of course, the point of the photograph’s inclusion, and Ducke talks about how, as time passes, nostalgia can start to overshadow the memories of the terror of the Stalin years. He says that these days, instead of the focus being on the horrors of the repression carried out by that regime, there seems to be greater emphasis on the victory of World War II and the establishing of the Soviet Union on the world stage as a world superpower.
Kolyma – Along the Road of Bones is, then, an attempt to document what really went on. Before time and the snow wipe it out. And Ducke has not finished with the subject. ‘The unfortunate story of the Gulag system is that it was basically all over the Soviet Union, camps everywhere. So, I’m still trying to see whether I could make this into a bigger project where I’m going to different regions. When I started it was already the crucial moment. Where I knew that this is the time if I want to talk and photograph people who are witnesses and victims of that time – because when I went to Magadan there were less than a dozen former victims, and only a handful were able to still communicate fully, Antonina Novosad being one of them.’
You can see the images of Kolyma – Along the Road of Bones and pictures by all the finalists of the Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2021 at leica-oskar-barnack-award.com. To see more of Emile Ducke’s work visit emileducke.de . For more information about Leica cameras visit leica-camera.com.
The Oskar Barnack Award is named for the engineer who, in 1913, designed the portable camera that would become the debut Leica, the first 35mm photographic camera available to the public.