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1000 Reindeer - 1000 Miles, by Bryan Alexander

1 January 2021

This is an image from a shoot I did twenty years ago. I had stumbled across an idea for a story while I was at an indigenous peoples’ conference in Moscow. A Siberian friend of mine told me about an ambitious project, to move 1000 reindeer 1000 miles from the north of Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula to the Khanty Mansiysk region. The main objective of this project was to help re-establish reindeer herding among native communities in an area where it had been decimated by the oil and gas industry.

Moving reindeer from one area to another in Siberia wasn’t new, but previously it had been done using planes and large MI-6 helicopters. Reindeer are very susceptible to stress, and moving them in aircraft had resulted in a high mortality rate. The plan this time was to drive the reindeer at their own pace with accompanying herders travelling by reindeer sled. It was an epic journey that would take six months complete.

I felt it would make an interesting man and nature story, but I needed to get it assigned. When I got back to the UK I called the editor of International Wildlife magazine in the US. I had a good working relationship with him, so I was able to pitch the story idea to him over the phone. Fortunately, he liked it and after we exchanged of a couple of faxes, he commissioned me to photograph and write the story. That, as it turned out was the easy part. The logistics of joining up with the herders in such a remote part of Siberia with limited transport was to prove much more challenging.

The reindeer drive was to be carried out by two separate groups of herders. The first group would drive the reindeer south from the Yamal. They would then rendezvous with a second group from Khanty Mansiysk who would travel up from the south and continue driving the reindeer to their area. For me, the most practical plan was to join the second group. That, I estimated, would give me about one month travelling with the herders, enough time to get the images I needed.

I flew to Russia in late January 2000 and travelled to the herders’ village in Khanty Mansiysk. We left two days later, a group of ten of us; six men and four women, travelling together in a line of reindeer sleds heading northwest. Our route took us across open tundra and through snow covered forests that looked like they were straight out of a Swedish fairy tale. Travelling by reindeer sled was also a wonderfully quiet and peaceful way to experience this northern landscape. The only sounds were the reindeer's hooves on the snow and the tinkling of bells on their harness.

Because I was travelling by reindeer sled, it was important to keep my gear as light as possible. I brought along two Canon F-1 bodies, a 24-70mm zoom, a 70-200mm zoom, a 24mm f1.4 wide angle lens, a small flash unit and 90 rolls of Fuji Provia film. Each camera was powered by a single zinc and air battery. They were a fairly new type of battery at the time, but I had used them on a shoot the previous winter in temperatures as low as -58°C and they had performed well. I did not bring a motor drive or power winder with me as film becomes very brittle at extremely low temperatures and rapid winding tends to break it easily. You then end up with small pieces of film like broken potato crisps inside your camera.

Every evening we made camp with all ten of us sleeping inside a single tepee-style tent. Space was at a premium, so apart from my sleeping bag and a change of footwear, I kept all my gear outside on one of the sleds. I kept my camera bag there too, placing it in a black bin liner every night to protect it from any blown snow. Keeping it outside avoided the problem of condensation which one gets from taking cameras from extreme cold into a warm environment.

We met the other group of herders and the reindeer at the rendezvous on the 14th February and after counting the animals we took over the herd and began the journey south to Khanty Mansiysk. Our travel developed a rhythm, we would drive the herd one day, rest them the next day, before moving on again the following day. Only the occasional day of bad weather altered that. While we were on the move, the herders kept a close eye on the reindeer and were constantly rounding up stragglers. We were fortunate not to lose any.

We were lucky with the weather. Apart from a couple of stormy days, it remained fine, with temperatures in the -25°C to -35°C range. Our destination was a corral about 25 miles from the village of Numto. We arrived there at the beginning of March to find a lot of people had gathered and the process of dividing up and distributing the reindeer began. The long reindeer drive was over.

From time to time over the years I had wondered whether this reindeer project had been a success. In February 2020, twenty years after the reindeer drive, I returned to Khanty Mansiysk for a reunion with some of the herders that I had travelled with. All of them sounded very positive. They told me that the tundra reindeer had adapted well to their new forest habitat and hadn’t run off back to the Yamal. They had all been paid with reindeer for the work they did moving the herd. Vassilly, the leader of our group told me he had only owned about a dozen reindeer before the journey. The 30 reindeer received for his work helped him increase the size of his herd up to the 150 animals he has now. That in turn enabled him to provide a better life for both him and his family.

Photographer and writer Bryan Alexander studied Photography at the London College of Printing. After receiving a Royal Society of Arts travel bursary, he travelled to northwest Greenland in 1971 where he spent four months photographing in an Inuit community. Since then he has returned to the Arctic every year, travelling extensively around the circumpolar north to document the Arctic and the life of its indigenous peoples. His photographs and articles have been published in magazines & books in over 40 different countries. Bryan and his wife Cherry, who is also a photographer, live in the Scottish Highlands. Together, they run Arcticphoto.com, a photo library that specialises in the Polar Regions.

See more work by Bryan Alexander

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