While the world was in lockdown, Canon Ambassador Pie Aerts travelled to Siberia – the Yamal Peninsula – where he joined one of the last migrational tribes on earth. On a quest to understand why we are increasingly disconnected from each other, our surroundings and ourselves. He took part in the Nenets’ bi-annual migration across the Siberian tundra and, in doing so, discovered the true power of silence and solitude. In the light of the pandemic and our own reframing of life, he believes we can learn much from the Nenets. After all, how much time do you spend chasing dreams? How much success is enough? And what do you sacrifice to get there?
“I keep returning to the origin of existence – tribal or nomadic cultures. This particular story with the Nenets reindeer herders, the guardians of the Arctic, felt like travelling back in time 50-100 years and getting to the essence of true civilisation. They have lived in the same way for thousands of years, a solitary existence, stripped from all comfort. They are resilient, robust, quiet and persistent. When you take away the Western expectations of running water, gas, electricity, a roof above your head and a good job, you're brought back to the relationship between the human spirit and the natural world. And this is what you find here. The Nenets don't have dreams and big visions, it's simply about day-to-day survival, travelling with the seasons, 800 to 1000 km from the furthest north part of the peninsula all the way down south. I think it's one of the last true nomadic communities in the world. It's still debatable whether the reindeer lead the people or vice versa.
I was there in March, right on the verge of the outbreak of Covid 19. When I returned to civilisation, the whole world was on fire. This community never hears about anything related to the world I live in and that's one thing that keeps drawing me back. Men spend most of the time outside, preferably alone, and women run the business inside. Sometimes I would find one of the guys standing outside, leaning against their snowmobile or being with the reindeer for hours, staring into the distance or blizzard in -30°. It's hard to break that and have a conversation. The first four days of our trip, we spent in pure silence. It was only at the end when people accepted me, having seen me appreciate and respect that silence too, that they started opening up.
I had deep conversations with some of the men about how they appreciate being with their own thoughts. It reminded me of the time I spent with Tibetan monks, as they too enjoy pure silence. It's not something that scares people. They seek and appreciate it in a different way. Silence is also a form of respect in this culture. There aren’t phrases like 'Thank you', 'I'm sorry' or 'I love you'. As a people, they appreciate action over words and refuse conversations about the past and future. What this shows me is that maybe in these harsh circumstances there is no need or time to display emotions that are not essential.
The Nenets number close to 45,000 but travel in small groups. Families live together – children, parents and grandparents. I had discussions with them about the possibility of living life outside the community, but not a single person considered it as a serious option. From day one, they focus inward. I think this is one of the last places where people are not yet damaged by Western ideals and dreams of more wealth. They are completely self-sustaining. Twice a year, they go to the closest city to get bread and groceries, and because it's – 30° they can freeze it in the ground, so it lasts. Otherwise, they eat fish and reindeer. Every day, at around 4pm, the woman in this image [above] goes out to dig up some fish or bread from the soil and start cooking.
As a photographer, these are the moments that make me the happiest – these little stretches of time when I can completely disconnect. It puts so much in perspective and this is the reason I keep going back to these types of destinations, to places where there is very little comfort but still lots of happiness. It's remarkable how the Nenets are completely at peace with no financial or social security and simply live with what they have.
Coming from a world where we focus on abundance, it has been very peaceful and satisfying to see people not focusing on those elements of life. In some cultures, there isn't always a dream to chase. There is no bliss to follow, no discovery of life's purpose. In the first instance, I saw this as sad, but spending time with these communities forces you to let it all go and believe that the dots will somehow connect in the future. If you accept and embrace the notion of not always having to aim higher, there is more space to appreciate each other.
Through the pandemic, we are learning the true importance of the things that really matter: connection, compassion and love. It’s shown us that we are part of a bigger picture. Embracing vulnerability and understanding that everybody is the same, rather than in opposition, is a big step towards a healthier balance – and planet. I discovered that life does come in seasons and that its ups and downs are very much the same as in nature.
So much is disappearing before our eyes. Greed gets in the way. I'm doing my best to help show people what we are losing and share how powerful the learnings from cultures like the Nenets can be. I've never seen such a strong connection, built on love, that the Nenets have with their children. They are together 24/7. After a full day in the cold, a father brings his kids home on the back of the snowmobile and they start playing again. It's beautiful to witness.”