On the frozen Ishim River that runs through Astana, Kazakhstan, fishermen wait patiently for a bite. They cover themselves with plastic bags, forming an almost dome-like structure to shield themselves from the wind and Astana’s freezing temperatures.
“It’s almost like they’re in a meditative state,” photographer Aleksey Kondratyev said.
Ethnic Kazakhs come from a nomadic background. Several years after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union, President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the capital from Almaty, near the border with China, to a vast, empty and cold steppe in the north and called it Astana. It’s the second-coldest capital city in the world after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 40 degrees (Celsius and Fahrenheit). The new capital,with its sleek and futuristic buildings, is like a glittering mirage against a landscape of flat grassland.
“I was interested in this idea of nomadism in this country that’s trying to establish a foothold in a modern economy,” Kondratyev said. “I wanted to capture the sculptural forms of the plastic bags and look at nomadism and how it relates to human ingenuity. They’re appropriating these common objects. Those plastic bags, they’re not specifically made for ice fishing. They’re just re-appropriated for that purpose.”
The photographer took an artistic approach to his images, which often show a lone fisherman huddled under plastic against a dreamy white landscape. To achieve this abstract look, Kondratyev manipulated the images during the editing process, removing things in the background like buildings and power lines. He wanted to take the emphasis off the city and focus on the fishermen’s figures.
“I was interested in the idea of isolating oneself off from the world, like these guys do with their plastic bags,” he said. “I thought by taking out the background, that would be another way to further that idea.”
During his trip to Kazakhstan in January, Kondratyev ventured out every weekend to the river, where the fishermen drill a hole in the ice, cover themselves with the plastic and wait. Access wasn’t difficult. Kondratyev, who is from nearby Kyrgyzstan, speaks Russian and was able to communicate easily with the fishermen. And because he was more interested in looking at the shapes of the plastic bags over the fishermen, they didn’t mind being photographed.
“They’re so focused on this practice of ice fishing and they’re so cut off from their surroundings,” he said. “They’re isolated by this plastic bag that abstracts their figure. They were just totally ambivalent to it.”
The isolation prompts the viewer to pause and look at tradition’s place in a modern world. In one of Kondratyev’s photos, No. 5 in the gallery above, a fisherman sits on the river with two plastic bottles next to him holding fish.