Photographer Ville Lenkkeri is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. From his book/project ‘The Place Of No Roads‘. To see Ville’s body of work click on any image.
Spitsbergen is about the closest to the North Pole one can conveniently get to. These arctic islands have never belonged to any state and there is no original in habitation there. After the First World War Norway was given sovereignty over the islands, but they still remained no-man’s-land in the sense that any country that has signed the Spitsbergen treaty, as well as the citizens of these states, can still put up and carry out sustainable scientific of even industrial activities on the islands. At the moment this right is practiced alongside the Norwegians by the Polish with their small and remote scientific station and the Russians with their coal-mining town of Barentsburg.
Russian presence on the strategically important islands has a long and significant history. Their two mining towns, Pyramiden and Barentsburg, were somewhat flourishing and lively settlements till the collapse of the Soviet Union. The well being of the towns were to some extent imported from the motherland, but the towns were prepared to survive by their own as they were relatively difficult to approach and isolated. The towns had their own coal-heated greenhouses, cowsheds and pig farms. There were also hospitals, sports halls, cultural centers with theaters and cinemas, libraries, schools and kindergartens. The towns were miniature societies and as such very well functional. There was no unemployment as every citizen had been brought there to work for two years before being taken back home. The special character of these towns has been that there has never been real money in use. The towns were like large communities, at best they each had some 800-1000 inhabitants, where everything was common and nothing was for sale for money that had so lost its meaning and value as means of quantitative payment of transactions. In 1998 the coal-mining activities were run down in Pyramiden and the entire population of the town was moved away. The town was emptied relatively fast and as people had scarcely any private property more or less all that once was is still to be found there touched largely by time and frost. Barentsburg on the other hand is still functional settlement though the mines there are running out of coal and the privatization of the mining company and its negligence toward this unprofitable unit has turned the town into a sad monument of changing times. Common is replaced by private and making a living by making profit. The culture of money is taking over the culture of qualitative exchange.
It is this different order of society and way of living that once potentially existed in these Russian towns that has interested me and that is also what I attempt to handle in this series of photographs. I am too late to witness if this different way of being really existed apart from it being forced upon the citizens of these towns, but I am trying to collect traces of its past presence in the empty town of Pyramiden as well as in the present day Barentsburg. I am attempting to see something in these locations that is not there any more and maybe never was. This is a subjectively driven study of an idea of an ideal that at least could have taken place in these oblivious towns. Like this the series becomes to some extend imaginary interpretation of the times been.
The Place of no Roads as the name of the series lends from the thought that these towns were once at least in principle self-sustainable and autonomous entities that had everything one needed, like potential last resorts of humankind in the Cold War spirit, and so no roads were asked for. Also, for geographical reasons and as all the trafficking to these places was carried out by sea or air, there are no roads to take. One can also sadly conclude that an experiment with a radically different way of being from ours was a dead-end road and so coming evidently at some time to a point where there was no road forward.
All pictures are photographed on the Spitsbergen islands during three separate journeys between the years 2003-07. Pictures are taken in the three main settlements of the island: the Norwegian Longyearbyen and the Russian Pyramiden and Barentsburg.
(This Arctic hype has already changed the situation on Spitsbergen since my visits. When I visited the island the place was still more or less sleeping, as if forgotten by the rest of the world. Now tourism has greatly increased and the area has become lively in speculation and expectation as melting ice makes it a great deal more attractive for large scale global interests.)
By Ville Lenkkeri