Eince my teens, I have been fascinated by indigenous peoples. Growing up in Murmansk, I knew the Sami, who are traditionally reindeer herders from the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia, but there are also Sami in Finland, Norway and Sweden. In Russia, I was first fascinated by Sami religious places like Lake Seydozero, which is sacred to them; then I became interested in their history and how the Soviet era had restricted and changed the Sami culture.
Communism effectively destroyed their entire nomadic existence and their reindeer herds were organized into collective farms called kolkhozes. They received quotas for fishing on the tundra and were forced into a sedentary existence, housed in freezing apartment buildings with no heat. They were forbidden to speak their language, wear their traditional clothes or celebrate their culture – so it has almost completely disappeared. Gradually, however, some Russian Sami began to appreciate certain “comforts”, such as helicopters to reach remote places, boarding schools where they could leave their children while working, and bonuses for animal husbandry. reindeer herds.
Today, it is a rather damaged group that the authorities have completely forgotten. There are around 1,500 Sami people living in villages in northern Russia, but very few are able to speak the language – around 200. Now they are trying to revive it and their culture.
This photo was taken in March when there is still a lot of snow and the Sami hold a two-day festival called the Festival du Nord. They practice traditional winter sports, skiing and sledding, and organize reindeer sleigh races. The people running are professional reindeer herders who have passed down their secrets from generation to generation. If you don’t train the reindeer expertly, they will go off in all directions.
When the Sami were nomadic, reindeer were essential to their life, not only for food, but also for clothing and tools, and things like belts, shoes and even buttons. The reindeer is a sacred animal to these people and only selected ones bred for this purpose are killed – they do not kill those bred for racing or sled pulling. Before killing the reindeer, there is a ritual in which they ask the animal for forgiveness.
This photo is part of a report entitled Kildin, a language for Russian Sami survivors which won the Marilyn Stafford FotoReportage Award, and explores how the Sami of Russia are adapting to modernity while preserving their culture and traditions according to their own terms.
It shows a young man, Andrei, bringing wood to the shed which they use to smoke fish during the festival. He did not speak Sami, which was not taught in schools in Russia, but he is now taking lessons. The fuselage was from a damaged plane brought to the village by his father, who had worked for Aeroflot in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR.
The war in Ukraine was economically difficult for the Russian Sami and divided opinions. Some are against the war, but because some are for it, the financial aid they received from Sami groups in neighboring countries has stopped.
I bought my first camera when I was 19. The editor of the local newspaper, the Murmansk Messenger, noticed me and asked to see my photos. He liked them and sent me as a special envoy to photograph the Sami.
It has always been my dream to do this kind of report on the Sami. It’s a labor of love, because I’m passionate about it. I am interested in all indigenous and nomadic peoples and I work on several projects. I myself live a sort of nomadic life.
CV of Natalya Saprunova
Born: Murmansk, Russia, 1986.
Qualified: Graduated as a French teacher in Russia, studied marketing and communication in France then documentary photojournalism at the EMI-CFD school.
Influence : “Pieter Ten Hoopen, Jane Evelyn Atwood, as well as French humanist photographers such as Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
High point: “Returning to photography after an eight-year break while studying in France.
Low point: “When my lens jumped out of my pocket into the river in the middle of the tundra.”
Trick : “Seize the providence of the circumstances. If something isn’t working, let go and rebuild.