Heidi Bradner - Photojournalist

Interview by Solveig Gardner Servian


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



Alaskan Heidi Bradner gained a BA in History and Journalism from the University of Alaska in 1989. Her first job was as photographer for the Juneau Empire newspaper.

Heidi freelanced for the Anchorage Daily News and, in a voluntary capacity, for the Tundra Times as a student. She also reported and wrote for the Alaska Economic Report and the Alaska Legislative Digest.

In the 1990s Heidi lived and worked in Moscow and Prague as an independent photographer, covering Russia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, which led to her becoming involved in issues such as Chernobyl, the war in Chechnya, refugee camps of Ingushetia and the disappearing minority populations of Siberia.

Her work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, Granta, Geo Korea, The Independent on Sunday Review (UK), Time, Newsweek, US News and other international publications. She has exhibited in the US, the UK, France, Germany and Russia. She is the winner of many international awards, most notably World Press Photo in 2003, Missouri Pictures of the Year International 2004 and Humanity Photo Awards 2004 (China). She was awarded the Leica Medal of Excellence and the Alexia Foundation Photography Grant for her work in Chechnya.

To view Heidi's work click on the link at the foot of this article, which will take you to her own website.

Heidi, I was surprised that your degree was not in Art - did you study art outside of university or is your talent purely natural?

That is a good question as people have commented to me often that my work crosses borders between art and journalism. I feel that in recent years my vision as a photographer and my eye influences my work much more than my journalistic outlook. It often takes a photographer a number of years to find their voice, or style, so to speak, which develops sometimes after years of photographing, many mistakes and experiments.

I studied art, history, photography and journalism wherever and whenever I could after I left Alaska. This was mostly by absorbing - reading, traveling and talking to people. I have two degrees from the University of Alaska, one in journalism and one in history, but in terms of photography a lot of what I have learned has been through work in the field -in the real world trying my own ideas and having the chance to work alongside others, such as colleagues and editors.

What motivated you to go to Eastern Europe?

I was very intrigued by what was happening in Eastern Europe from my vantage point in Alaska. I was accepted to something called the Eddie Adams Workshop in New York state, a three-day event for young photographers. I saw little opportunity to get a job in the States in my field, so I decided to go overseas for a while and freelance. Well, that was over a decade ago! I went to Prague in 1990 and from there I went to the Soviet Union in the fall of 1991. I felt very lucky to be able to see those days of change after the fall of communism and start working in that period. I started freelancing and collaborating on ideas and projects with people like me who based themselves at the start of their careers in Eastern Europe and Russia 'stringing''for various publications.

How did you become involved in the Chernobyl and Chechnya crises? Those assignments must have been particularly hazardous for you.

I became involved in the Chernobyl area after assignments for US News and Newsweek took me there for the 10th anniversary. I returned to document the work of a team of American scientists working with their Ukrainian partners on a research project. Their lab was based in Pripyat, the Soviet-built city just kilometers from the reactor, and I had wonderful access because of my work with these dedicated scientists.

With Chechnya my involvement began when war broke out there after the Russian invasion, 10 years ago this winter. Chechnya was a turning point in my life and in my work. I worked a lot on my own there and pursued my own instincts and ideas. It is much more difficult to work there now than at the outbreak of the first war. I hope to prepare a major retrospective because soon it will be 10 years since the Russian forces invaded Grozny, on the night of New Year's Eve 1994-95. Yet, a decade later, there is no solution in sight to end the conflict. I felt compelled to document both sides of the war and I think this is what differentiates my work because many other photographers concentrated only on one side.

What inspires you when you are in the field? Do you set out at a specific time with a planned task in hand, or do you live the experience and take photos spontaneously?

When I am in the field, I am very open to what people tell me and where they take me, unless I have a strict deadline or I feel it is dangerous.

How do you get over the language barriers?

I started to learn and speak Russian on my own. I never studied formally but speak conversationally, which is a great help even though it is not by any means completely fluent.

How did you become involved with the Nenets?

I became involved with the Nenets while traveling with another colleague of mine on an exploratory trip. We both wanted to visit and document the reindeer herders. We met Russian ethnographers and visited a family, and I continued to work on this project over the years, going back for usually a month at a time.

You have spent a lot of time with the Nenets. Could you describe who they are and tell us something of their culture?

The Nenets are an indigenous Siberian people whose annual nomadic journey is among the longest in the world. My brigade had one of the longest routes, over 1,000 miles each year, depending where the best food supply for the reindeer was on the tundra. Today they face their greatest threat, the development of Russia's largest gas reserves underneath their tundra homeland. Every spring they depart their winter grounds, just south of the Arctic Circle in the taiga, and begin the migration north, to spring calving grounds and beyond where the food supply is good for deer in summer and they can fatten up for winter ahead. They must cross the River Ob and then begin moving across tundra to the coast near the Kara Sea, which they reach at the beginning of August.

Enduring blizzards, rains and storms, the Nenets cross rivers and bogs, move down hillsides and river valleys packed with snow as they follow the animal that keeps them alive - the reindeer. This animal provides the basis for their whole culture: clothing, shelter, food, transportation and identity. They are the reindeer people.

Women, often with newborns at their side, are responsible for driving the caravans of sleds pulled by deer across horizons of tundra. Nenets men stay with the herds constantly, in rotating shifts. By the time they are one year old, Nenets babies have already crossed rivers and braved storms, traversing hundreds of kilometers of terrain wrapped warmly in their mother's sled pulled by reindeer, a journey they will make every year until school age, when they will go to boarding school in a village. Moving as a family, with children and grandparents, remains central to Nenets' culture, even as they enter the twenty-first century.

Until modern times, their isolation helped to shelter them. Despite a century of forced collectivization of their reindeer herds, and other Stalinist reforms, the Nenets have tenaciously preserved their way of life. Despite attempts to move them into towns, the Yamal Nenets have not left 'Midnight's Lands', as early Slavic explorers referred to the High Arctic.

For most of the twentieth century, they remained deep behind the Iron Curtain, shut off from the outside world when the Soviet Union's security obsession turned Yamal, a peninsula that forms part of the northern coastline of Asia across from Novaya Zemlaya, into a closed border zone.

How vulnerable is the Nenet's cultural lifestyle to the pressure of our modern times? Is the government doing anything to protected them and preserve their way of life or are they restricted in any sense by legislation?

The Nenets lifestyle is very vulnerable because they are in fact quite dependent on one animal - the migrating reindeer. In our age of global warming and energy consumption, the reindeer migration could be altered or ended if governments and local authorities do not make protecting the ecosystem of the northern polar biosphere a priority. The Yamal Peninsula, where the Nenets in my photos migrate, is actually full of natural gas (undeveloped). The government of Russia is actively building infrastructure to the region, such as building roads and railroads. The main worry of the herders is that any resulting pollution, equipment, changes in the tundra itself, such a destruction of lichens and grasses, will alter their animals' behavior and health or turn some tundra into marshland. If so, the Nenets will no longer be able to follow them on the annual and ancient migration north and south.

Are the Nenets respected in their own country?

The Nenets are certainly respected. Often other minorities in Russia who are reindeer herders tell me that the Nenets are still among those who have not 'lost' their traditional way of life. Other groups have 'lost' the reindeer to mismanagement or from strains of Soviet policies to resettle them in towns. I do get the sense that many others across the Arctic in Russia admire the Nenets of Yamal. However, the Nenets still face discrimination, like any minority, often people do not understand their life. The Nenets have told me that they get tired of people look at their life in chooms and on sleds, far from hospitals, stores, and centralized heating, as unfortunate, uncivilized or maybe just exotic without thinking about their real problems and daily life. Meanwhile, the Nenets talk of the 'freedom' on the tundra, as one man described to me, and the pride and security when you can have your own reindeer herd.

To live and work with the Nenets must have taken a lot of courage and been physically demanding. What do you admire most about the Nenets?

I admire so many things about the Nenets; their knowledge and skills, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, tenacity, patience, sense of humor and sense of identity, and love of the their world.

What do you think the future holds for the Nenets?

I am not sure what the future holds for the Nenets, but I hope they will be able to choose their path and protect themselves. They do worry about the future: Not only is their lifestyle at risk from energy development, but also from social and economic changes that may bring new life to the next generations. I know the mother of the family I stayed with, Tanya, told me 'Maybe one day, there will be no Nenets to herd the reindeer. Maybe the children won't come back. This could happen in some generations.'

Your photograph of the man lighting up a cigarette with the group of reindeer in the background, which won you the Award of Excellence, Science and Natural History in the Pictures of the Year International competition, was that taken by chance or did you see the opportunity and stage-manage its presentation? This photograph really is wonderful - how do you go about capturing atmosphere?

I name this photo 'Midnight Tundra Blizzard June 10' because that summer day we got a late evening start moving to the next camp and a storm appeared just before midnight on our last stream crossing. It was a very wet and heavy snow and typical of the cold and late spring that year. That moment we began crossing was also the beginning of my birthday, so I made note of where and what we were doing. I stood on one of the first sleds that were carefully led across the river in order to photograph the rest of the brigade coming across. This image is of Mayco, one of the young guns of the brigade, who made sure everybody got across safely. It was a spontaneous picture as there was a pause in the busy midnight commotion. I was hoping to show this vast scene and the feel of the weather.

The coldness comes over very well in some of your photos, how do you cope with being 'on the road' in such conditions?

I had to cope with being on the road in a few ways. Mostly, I had to always be ready to move and keep my equipment and clothing in order at the same time. The conditions are rough and weather is always changing. I got very used to doing twists and turns in heavy reindeer clothing while balancing on a moving sled (and other moves that made me feel like an acrobat) in order to get pictures around me.

Do you live with families when on assignments?

I do live with families on assignments and it is often the best way to work. In the case of the Nenets, there was no other way and sometimes I would take walks to give them and myself some space. There is often not as much privacy as we are used to in the Western world, so you also have to move quickly and live in communal conditions. I tried not to be too much in the way and also tried to help out whenever possible. The Nenets are swift and adept at what they need to do; if you have not grown up in that lifestyle, you can often just get in the way if you try to help at certain tasks.

The Nenets follow their migrating reindeer - have you had experience of both summer camps and winter camps? And do you use an authentic reindeer sleeping bag or modern materials?

I have had experience of both summer and winter camps. Summer is a much more easy-going time as the moves are less frequent and the gear pulled on the sleds lighter. It is also a key time to prepare for the upcoming winter and sew new clothes and prepare new hides. I use the same sleeping material as the Nenets. These are worn-out women's reindeer coats (which have layers of fur inside and outside) as mattresses to sleep on and as blankets to pull over ourselves. Such coats that may no longer be thick enough to wear outdoors are still valuable and useful as blankets and bedding.

What food did you eat when travelling with the Nenets?

The food we ate when traveling with the Nenets did have some variety. We almost always had lots of hot tea, fish, reindeer meat and usually jam, dried bread, butter and other portable foods like biscuits, dried pasta, candies that the Nenets will often buy or trade for in order to carry as an extra food supply in their sleds. We often ate stews or soups if time allowed making them.

Do you manage to shut off from the rest of the world when you are on assignments or do you like to maintain some form of contact?

I usually carry a shortwave radio to be able to find out what is happening, which is still important. I did not have anything else to stay in touch or contact the outside world (no sat phones, generators, or GPS).

Was working in the Bearing Straits any easier than in Siberia? Could you tell us something about the people and the kind of problems you encounter when working in such remote areas?

Working in the Bering Strait region was in some ways more difficult because that is still an international border and a sensitive area, especially on the Russian side. One needs many permissions to work there and it is much more difficult to access than Western Siberia near the Urals. Weather and communications and getting new supplies are often other problems of working in remote areas.

The story I was working on was about Yupik Eskimos, who live on both sides of the Bering Strait. They were divided when the Cold War years closed the border. They reestablished contact between themselves again only in the 1990s when the border opened again after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Do you maintain contact after a project is over?

I do try to maintain contact after a project is over as this is important to me. I try to send back photographs (I don't always manage this) and to keep in touch with the people I have spent time with. People I worked with and met are key to the work I do and I am very grateful to them for sharing their time and their lives. I remember them often. It is very hard to stay in touch as I am constantly moving and I find this frustrating as I often would like to send back more pictures to people, but it is impossible to do so every time.

Do you prefer to work in black and white or colour, and do you use normal celluloid film or digital?

I work in both black and white and color, depending on my sensibility towards the project and how I see it. I use both digital and regular film, depending on the deadline. I still use film when I can. Film is better in difficult circumstances when you may not have electricity or power, and batteries may run out.

Do you process your own work?

I do not process my own work anymore but I do make little prints for editing. For larger prints I work closely with a printer.

What about lighting conditions? Obviously long winter nights and bad weather are not ideal photographic conditions.

I love to photograph in bad weather, for example snowstorms. For my documentary work I use lighting equipment such as my portable flashes, but usually not anything more than that. The father of the Nenets family I stayed with used to say 'There is no such thing as bad weather on the Tundra'.

All your projects must have been very costly in both time and equipment, do you have any funding such as sponsorship or grants?

I try to always get funding such as sponsorships and grants and these have actually been key in keeping my morale up and focus centered. My Nenets project recently was accepted by Blue Earth Alliance in Seattle, which means it now has a non-profit status that allows me to approach sources for funding that previously were not open to me. So I am very happy about that.

You have had several large exhibitions all over the world. You must have a good agent, or do you organize everything yourself? What makes you decide where to exhibit? Please tell us where we can purchase your art.

I often feel like I am organizing everything myself, but I do work with Panos Pictures in London and Eric Franck Fine Art in London. Exhibitons can take a lot of time to prepare so I try to be think carefully where I exhibit, otherwise I would never have time for shooting! A limited series of my work is represented by Eric Franck Fine Art in London, but anybody who is interested can contact me through my website or e-mail me at heidi_bradner@hotmail.com.

What is your next project?

My next project is to publish the Nenets in book form. I plan to organize a traveling exhibition. I also working on a retrospective for 2004 about 10 years of war in Chechnya, another project very important to me. I am starting work on some projects in Alaska and also plan to do photograph a series about young people in London.


© Heidi Bradner, July 2004. Interview by Solveig Gardner Servian, Polar Publishing Ltd. Heidi's work can be viewed at www.heidibradner.com and any future exhibitions will be detailed on the Events page of the Polar Worlds website.



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