Justin Jin is a documentary photographer whose work has been published in the Sunday Times Magazine, Der Spiegel and Geo. His most recent reportage piece, ‘Zone of Absolute Discomfort’, won a Magnum Foundation grant and is featured in Granta 125: After the War. Here he talks to Granta’s Francisco Vilhena about the Russian Arctic, ethnographic approaches to photography, pollution and staying warm on vodka.
FV: What took you to the Zone of Absolute Discomfort in the first place?
JJ: I lived in Moscow for five years in order to document Russia, and during that time I was exposed to many different issues that would lead to this final project. But it was specifically one night in 2008, when a friend who was a Guardian correspondent came to my apartment to discuss this idea of working together, that we decided to do a pilot project in Vorkuta as a possible precursor to the broader Arctic region.
These photographs have an eerie quality to them. Do you think this happens because of the overlapping of several historical narratives converging in the same place?
The Russian Arctic is a physically eerie place. We took a train from Moscow heading north; a forty-hour train ride to Vorkuta. You look out the window, it’s the middle of the winter and you see these tall birch trees become smaller as you go further north and the small birch trees become shrubs and finally, when outside the train window there’s nothing but ice and snow and darkness, you know you’ve arrived deep inside the Arctic Circle. It’s the pure isolation of the place that makes it so magical and melancholic.
One of the things that struck me the most was that the Nenets, the nomadic people, were forced to move, were confined to Soviet estates built for former prisoners. I felt a sense of urgency from the idea that industrial progress is too rapid and that people end up forgotten or left behind. There is a concern in your work for how people live in these places. Was this piece a comment on the negative effects of industrial growth?
It’s also a comment on the monstrous effects of state policy. It wasn’t only through industrial growth that the Nenets were displaced; it was Stalin who decided to build concentration camps in Siberia, and upon his death many inmates had nowhere else to go. They had no option but to stay, put their roots down and grow the cities. The Soviet Union found it convenient to populate these areas and used them as military-industrial complexes – so there are many forces at play as history unfolds.
You develop a strong relationship with the landscape. One of the consequences of the ‘monstrous effects of state policy’ you spoke of earlier is that this region is being exploited without any form of regulation. Were you also trying to convey this sense of environmental hazard through your work?
The work didn’t set out to be controversial. However, on the way to Nikel, miles before arriving, you see trees beginning to contort and wilt. When the bus pulls up in the city – the epicentre of industrial air poisoning – every blade of grass, every tree is burnt by acid; it’s quite a sight. When I saw this I just felt like crying.
The Nikel kombinat produces five times as much pollution as the entire country of Norway, seven kilometres away, across the border. This disaster has been going on for decades. I want to protest against this as loudly as I can through photography.
I got the feeling that being granted access was a very complicated process. How did you manage to get around the bureaucracy?
It was a matter of sheer persistence. Cold calling, meeting people, showing up at governmental offices and just building connections there – flying in a helicopter above a sensitive area in the Arctic to photograph the LUI oil terminal was a task I thought I would not accomplish, but after three months of trying, I did.
You went there six times altogether. Was it difficult to return back there, to experience this bleakness, this deserted landscape?
It was very difficult to go back. It wasn’t so much the physical challenge but the sense of isolation and loneliness. On our third trip I almost gave up – my wife had just given birth and all I wanted was to be home. When I returned to Amsterdam (we were living in the Netherlands at the time), while still in the airport I received news that I had been awarded the Magnum Foundation EF Award, a substantial grant to continue this work. It gave me strength to know someone on the other side of the world was with me on this.
How did you start out as a photographer?
I started out as a graduate trainee correspondent at Reuters and soon ran a bureau in southern China. I gave up that career to walk my own path, using an intimate and personal photographic style to reflect on wider issues. I learned a lot from great documentary photographers such as Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Steve McCurry, and also from the talented author-reporters I’ve collaborated with. My training in philosophy taught me critical thinking too.
Most of your photographs appear to be dealing with change, with how people adapt to their changing surroundings and how these changes have an irreversible impact on the lives of the people you are documenting. How do you engage with the people you photograph?
I see myself as an anthropologist and philosopher, questioning concepts, questioning people and going out to test my theories on the communities. That’s the key part of my work. So the kind of photographer I am is not so important; the only thing I can tell you is that the photography is truthful and that I try my best to reflect the complexity of the issues I encounter. Now, how do I engage with the people I photograph? I treat everyone as equal. whether they are the president of Russia or an alcoholic in a run-down Arctic town, I would be as neutral as possible to explain my interest is purely in observing them and spending time with them, be as close and truthful as possible in my approach. What I tend to do is spend extended periods of time with people in order to build an emotional and intellectual trust.
I think the community was really surprised to find this Chinese guy from Hong Kong walking around the streets at minus forty-five degrees, frozen stiff, so I often felt very welcomed by the locals whether they were Nenets or oilmen. Many of them invited me home to warm up over a few shots of vodka. As we would eat together, drink together, my photographing them became a natural extension of our brief encounters.
What are your future projects and where would you like to go next?
I am working in China right now, doing something of a similar scale, trying to understand a new and colossal change that is underway in China.
See more of Justin Jin’s work at www.justinjin.com
Images courtesy of Justin Jin