In 1960s Russia, wandering off into the wilderness became a way to escape the daily grind of the oppressive Soviet regime. A few families, most of them well-educated, began a tradition of pilgrimage back then, one that has been perpetuated for decades ever since. Swiss photographer Yann Laubscher has taken part in several such excursions, which take place every year for several weeks at a time. Like his fellow travelers, he eagerly plans and awaits each excursion.
At the same time, “the Russian wilderness and Siberia in particular are synonymous with exile and imprisonment,” he explains. “Forced settlers and deported populations have inhabited these landscapes since the end of the sixteenth century.” Encountering their reclusive descendants is one of the highlights of such trips.
Today, people who are engineers, artists, doctors give up their cell phones and laptops and head out into the wilderness for a sense of peace and to escape the sensory assault that is today’s technologically advanced world. They may discuss politics, current events and concerns, and the direction of the world; they might even try and solve a problem or two. But really they embark on this getaway to do just that – get away.
It was through Russian friends based in Lausanne, a French-speaking town on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, that Laubscher, now thirty years old, was introduced to such journeys. “I’ve always been passionate about nature and I love escaping to faraway places,” the photographer says. “My friends would mention these trips … how extreme they were. ‘You will love it,’ they’d say.” His first foray into the Russian wilderness in 2010 would indeed be a turning point in his life, although he had no idea then how important it would be.
Every summer since, he has gone back into the wild with Russian and Swiss friends whose numbers vary between five and ten depending on schedules, work and family situations. They have seen much of Siberia, the Kamchatka Peninsula in the east, Lake Baikal in central Russia, the Mongolian frontier, and the extreme northern tundras. This summer, they travelled along the Shchugor River to Northern Ural. Although the destination, often reached via the Trans-Siberian Railway, changes every time, there is one constant: beforehand, the group sets its sight on a river where they will sail for 185 to 250 miles.
“The time we need to get organized depends on the river we choose. For example, it took us two to three months to plan everything and contact local people when we decided to sail the Kamchatka River in 2013.” Other rivers include the Gutara and Tagul rivers in 2012, the Vitim River in 2014, and the Shchugor River, taking them to Northern Ural, last summer. “We were in the heart of the Virgin Komi Forests, unspoiled by the wood industry or bear hunting,” Laubscher says. “Seeing the landscape unfold before your eyes makes you realize how immense and untamed it is.”
Staples like rice, oil and buckwheat for the kasha (traditional boiled cereal) are bought at the furthest village outpost before they start driving, riding on horseback or walking. Each traveller carries about forty kilograms of material on their back to the upper parts of a river. There, a raft is built, sturdy enough to withstand rapids. Every night, camp is set ashore. The days are spent sailing, with compulsory headgear and life jackets, as well as fly-fishing in five-degree waters – “water that you can drink unfiltered!” Laubscher says. “Where else can you do that?”
The only way of reaching civilization is via satellite phone.
The intensity of the landscapes and the overall experience were the catalysts behind Laubscher’s taking up of photography. He decided to study the art form shortly after his second journey, and on his third trip, he took along a large-format camera and photographed the landscapes. The following year, he started taking portraits with a view camera. He describes himself as both a participant and an observer.
“When you are face-to-face with the wilderness, in survival mode, you constantly find yourself wavering between fascination and fear,” Laubscher observes. “I try to express that tension, which I find magical, in my pictures. What I want to show, more than anything, is this voyage inward.”
Laubscher adds that his relationship to nature has changed significantly since he began these epic yearly travels. “I feel an increasing need to spend as much time outside as I can,” he says. This desire has, in turn, influenced his professional life; he’s taken a part-time job at a nature reserve, where he works as a wildlife educator. He says that the knowledge gained by all this direct and solitary confrontation with simple survival has given him a sense of relief.
He now knows where to go in order to escape civilization.