If you walk through the Kazakh capital of Astana along the route of the river Ishim this time of year, you will find the frozen surface busy with cross-country skiers and skaters. Walk further from the centre and you might spot some strange forms punctuating the river snowscape. This is exactly how Detroit-based photographer Aleksey Kondratyev came to discover Astana’s ice fishermen, who brave -40C and freezing winds for a day spent in solitude waiting meditatively for a tug on the line.
“I came across the ice fishers while I was traveling through the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia working on a different body of work, Formations. During the initial trip I spent two weeks in Astana, a high-rise futuristic city that was built in the 1990s shortly after Kazakhstan became independent. I came upon the fishermen by accident, and began photographing them on the side. The following year I returned to Kazakhstan and spent a month in January focusing solely on the ice fishers,” says Kondratyev, who was born in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Astana is the second coldest capital in the world, and the only bit of shelter separating the fishermen from the extreme conditions is a single sheet of plastic, made of discarded trash or recycled rice bags. Kondratyev was drawn to the makeshift cocoons which, shot against the snow, appear as abstract shapes on a white canvas. Much of the time the photographer’s curiosity was met with complete surprise by their inhabitants. “It was funny, at first many of the guys were reluctant when I would ask to photograph them because they thought I wanted to take a portrait of them. After I explained that I just wanted to photograph their tents — they thought it was a strange request to want to photograph something that to them seemed so banal and utilitarian — they were happy to let me take the photos,” says the photographer, who equipped himself with lots of layers and thick, woollen gloves to shoot the story.
For his series Formations, Kondratyev took a sweeping view over the vast territory of Central Asia to find out how these former Soviet countries have developed since gaining their independence. By contrast, these enigmatic portraits hint at Kazakhstan’s past. As the photographer explains, “the Ishim river bisects the center of Astana and divides it between the older part of the city (built when Astana was not yet the capital, but Tselinograd, a small grain-producing village that was part of the Virgin Lands Campaign initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and 60s) and the newer part.” The fishermen are caught in a liminal zone between the city’s polar identities.
“A lot of the men I talked to were older, and have been living in Astana since it was Tselinograd. Most were made to move as part of government-mandated labor resettlement programs with their families to work on fields harvesting grain for the Virgin Lands Campaign,” he continues. Now, living in high rises in the older part of the Astana, they go out on to the river and detach themselves from the rest of the city. Are they isolated from modern, multi-billion-dollar Astana? In Kondratyev’s view, these fishermen are following the heritage of their ancestors. “Kazakhstan was once a nomadic country, and vestiges of that way of life still exist despite the country’s embrace of modernity. These ice fishers improvise and adapt to their environment in ingenious ways, just as their forebears did,” writes the photographer.