The Reindeer Herders of Siberia - Rosalynn Tay


The Nenets reindeer herder, Svetlana, with her white pet reindeer outside the chum (tent). Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

The Nenets reindeer herder, Svetlana, with her white pet reindeer outside the chum (tent). Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

I was fascinated with the Siberian reindeer herders when I first read about them in Genesis, a monograph by Sebastio Salgado. This was in 2013 and it left an indelible impression on me. In March 2019, I finally travelled to the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, where approximately 40,000 Nenets and 20,000 Khanty still work as traditional reindeer herders. 

Beautiful full moon night, Aleksander is playing with his dogs after dinner. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Beautiful full moon night, Aleksander is playing with his dogs after dinner. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

Stefan is putting on his thigh-high boots before going out. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Stefan is putting on his thigh-high boots before going out. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

Despite the harshest of environment, there is beauty in the tundra where the Nenets live. At minus 10 degree Celsius and with everything covered in white, the place is in a state of perpetual silence. One can only hear the crackle of breaking ice, the sound of the birds and the barks of dogs. 

Aleksander with his loyal Samoyed dogs. These dogs help to herd their reindeers and pull their sleds. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Aleksander with his loyal Samoyed dogs. These dogs help to herd their reindeers and pull their sleds. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

From the tossing of the lasso to catch their herd, to guiding them with the thin pole of the rowan, one can see elegance in how the Nenets work. The Nenets are well dressed too - Children wear hooded capes that frame their heads in balls of soft fur, and men wear thigh-high boots gartered with colourful bands and pom-poms. The women wear richly embroidered coats of reindeer skin that fall to just below the knee.

They start the day by lighting the stove in the chum (tent) and starting the generator. A block of ice is melted to make tea and coffee. Meals and lodging were very basic and I ate whatever they offered - reindeer meat boiled with potatoes and raw fish. A fire is kept going only when the Nenets are cooking because they don’t have enough wood to burn while they sleep. They don’t bathe and don’t provide the same to guests. Hence, there is a complete lack of comfort. 

Waking up to beautiful ombré pink sky at the Tundra. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Waking up to beautiful ombré pink sky at the Tundra. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

The stove is very important in the reindeer herders’ chum during winter. It is used to boil water and to keep the tent warm. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

The stove is very important in the reindeer herders’ chum during winter. It is used to boil water and to keep the tent warm. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

The only visibly modern possessions in the chum are a satellite TV and a generator. 

The family moves with the herd five or six times each winter before settling in one place for summer calving. Home is where the reindeers’ pastures are, and they have been living this kind of life for more than 1,000 years. 

Anastasia, a 56 years old matriarch of the Nenets family that I visited. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Anastasia, a 56 years old matriarch of the Nenets family that I visited. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

One day, I visited a school with only a few students and a teacher. It was located in a beautiful area with a church and small chapels. Here, Anna Pavlovna Nerkagi, an award-winning Russian author and educator, runs an orphanage and school for the local reindeer herders, which is the indigenous community to which she belongs. When the communist took over, the Nenets’s herds were collectivised, and their children sent to city boarding schools where they were taught in Russian rather than their indigenous language. 

Nenets school children playing outside their classroom.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Nenets school children playing outside their classroom. © Rosalynn Tay.

A beautiful belt buckle with reindeer’s motif owned by Svetlana. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

A beautiful belt buckle with reindeer’s motif owned by Svetlana. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

Nenets school teacher is teaching her students in the classroom. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Nenets school teacher is teaching her students in the classroom. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

A Nenets schoolgirl pulling her baby sister in a sled-like pram. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

A Nenets schoolgirl pulling her baby sister in a sled-like pram. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

The Leica Q2 has been an amazing camera for the whole trip because it is weather sealed. I fell deep into the snow several times along with my Leica Q2 and it continued to operate without a hitch. I also didn’t have any problem with the usual condensation when photographing in extreme cold conditions (I moved in and out of the chum often. It is hot inside with the firewood burning and very cold outside). The camera performed amazingly well in low light conditions and I managed to capture beautiful night shots with the moonlight as the only light source. With the internal zoom from 28mm to 75mm, I managed to capture interesting details of reindeers that were far away. And not to forget, I manage to take some amazing macro photos with the Q2!

Sunrise on a misty morning. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Sunrise on a misty morning. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

The reindeer herders go to bed early and get up early, so are their dogs. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

The reindeer herders go to bed early and get up early, so are their dogs. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

Stefan on his snow mobile, going up the mountains to herd down the reindeers. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Stefan on his snow mobile, going up the mountains to herd down the reindeers. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

Two Nenets school children were playing Russian chess under the candlelight. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalyn Tay.

Two Nenets school children were playing Russian chess under the candlelight. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalyn Tay.

The leader of the reindeers herd wears a bell. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

The leader of the reindeers herd wears a bell. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

The reindeer herder catches the reindeer with a lasso. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

The reindeer herder catches the reindeer with a lasso. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

A Nenets school girl running home at blue hour. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

A Nenets school girl running home at blue hour. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.

Rosalynn Tay I Leica Akademie Alumnus

Rosalynn Tay is a passionate world traveller. She was trained as a professional fashion photographer at the Speos school of photography in Paris, under the mentorship of one of the world's top fashion photographers, Dominique Issermann. Rosalynn’s works have been exhibited in two solo exhibitions at the Leica Galerie Singapore, and published in magazines around the region. Today, she continues to tell the stories of people and places she encounters, and capture the most beautiful moments with her Leica cameras.

Coming in and out the chum is a daily challenge for a city dweller like me. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019.  ©  Rosalynn Tay.

Coming in and out the chum is a daily challenge for a city dweller like me. Photographed with Leica Q2, Siberia, 2019. © Rosalynn Tay.