It took three polar winters to shoot this series of photographs in the Peninsula of Yamal in the Russian Arctic, where natural gas is being produced and French photographer Charles Xelot is the living witness of the transformation of wild tundra inhabited by the Nenets into fields of pipelines. The sea coast is now illuminated by the lights of oil tankers and icebreakers. The immaculate white landscape of “The end of the earth” as Yamal is translated, is now populated with huge refineries. Two worlds cohabit, the gods of high technology and the reindeer breeders who sleep in Chum tents.
At 35, Charles Xelot lives between Paris and Moscow with his Russian wife and their son. He has been working on the idea of borders and the relationship between man and industry, after completing a degree in engineering on water and the environment. He first went to Russia in 2010 to photograph an oil terminal south of St Petersburg for a corporate book. Many more books followed, sponsored by the Neva Foundation, on gas companies but also on “Forests” in Karelia around the Baltic Sea and three large books on Orthodox churches in Russia. His photos have won him numerous prizes and he has exhibited in Amsterdam, Paris, Geneva and Moscow.
This picture of the Nenets family shows in a glimpse the transformation of the nomadic tribe who suddenly look like an add for fashion with their dark glasses. But all is not negative with these large oil companies moving in their territories since they provide for education and health services. It is a new world of ice and metal brought in by the factories, a too realistic set for a play on modern civilization. The Neolithic man who breeds reindeers versus the super engineer.
But this experience gave Charles Xelot the chance to follow the Nenets who are semi nomadic. In September, a helicopter comes and fetches their children aged 7 to 16, and flies them to the nearest boarding school where they stay until June. The schools and all infrastructures in the villages are paid for by the oil companies and could rival with the most sophisticated American private schools. The parents, in the meantime, travel by motor scooters or reindeer pulled sledges for longer distances.They only see their children once in the winter until summer recess.
While photographing the Nenets, Xelot sleeps with them in the chums and shares their lives from February to April so as to get some light. He was attracted to this western part of Siberia by the factories and discovered a whole world of people. He communicates with them in Russian.
And then in the summer? He moves to Lorino in the Detroit of Bering and photographs the wales… His body of work can be seen on Institute artist agency. And a video on youtube called the Gas under the tundra is fun to watch.
The exhibition “Gas under the tundra” is on until June 27, at Galerie Sit Down, 4 rue Sainte Anastase, a block away from Musée Picasso.
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