Jackals in the Night: interview with Elista-based monochromatic photographer Naran Tsebikov4 min read

 In Culture, Interview, Russia
Naran Tsebikov is a black-and-white photographer and shepherd. His work is inspired by the open steppe, grazing lands, and the problems that arise on the range. His Kalmyk heritage plays a huge role in his photography. Tsevikov’s work was recently part of the exhibit, Mu, which was on view October 3rd to 5th at the Amur-Sanan National Library in Elista, the very first contemporary art exhibition in the small Russian republic.

Where are you based out of? 

I live in Elista – Kalmykia’s capital – but I was born and raised in a village called Yashkul. Currently, I work as a videographer in Elisia’s Kalmyk Language Development Centre.

Everyday life in the steppe, 2021 (Fujifilm x-t 3)

What types of cameras and film do you shoot with?

Most of the shots were made with an iPhone as I always have it with me in my pocket. I also use a mirrorless Fujifilm camera. 

I don’t shoot on film because we don’t have a photo laboratory in Elista. The population of Elista is a little over 100,000, so it’s quite small, and with the coming of the digital age, film laboratories became obsolete as there was no demand for their services. 

Float (Samsung Galaxy s4)

Why do you work primarily with black and white photography?

What I like in black and white photography is its documentary nature, whereas color photography seems more subjective to me since everyone perceives colors differently.

What is the significance of the geography and topography of the barren landscape you shoot?

These landscapes are pretty straightforward. They represent what I used to observe every day while working at a farming station as a shepherd and documenting my life. From 2014 to 2019, I lived at a farm, worked as a shepherd, and documented my life. 

Kalmyks have been engaged in animal husbandry since ancient times. But now, fewer people work with livestock, although this is a profitable business. My parents rented the land in 2011 and my father asked me to help him after I graduated from university. Now I live in the city, but my parents and older brother still work on the farm.

Lambs (Samsung Galaxy s4)

How did you become a shepherd?

Kalmyks historically were nomadic shepherds. Farms, ranchos, or farming spots are called tochka in Kalmykia. Tochka is usually placed in the middle of a steppe remote from the villages and towns. I started to work at a tochka in summer 2014, right after graduating from university. Back then I was eighteen and dreamed of a career in the military. My parents had already worked as farmers since 2011 and asked me to help. I agreed, and as a result, I worked and lived on the steppe, breeding cattle till 2019. Mostly my work consisted of herding and taking care of the sheep; during summer we moved them to remote pastures, where I used to live in a tiny hut.

Jackal (Xiaomi Redmi Note 5)

What narrative are you portraying with these ghost-like wolves?

Jackals inflict damage on local farms, and they in turn shoot them.  That picture was taken during a night hunt. Jackals are cautious animals, usually, they live near water bodies where there are thick reeds and bushes. Many townspeople don’t even know what jackals look like. Jackals hunt at night, before going out to hunt, they make a howl or cry. 

They first appeared on our territory in the fall of last year. When they came to the farm, the youngest jackal distracted the guard dogs and took them with him to the steppe, while the rest crawled under the fence. For two days in a row in the morning, I found dead sheep. After the second night, my brother and I rode out on a motorcycle to hunt. We were patrolling the territory and noticed a glint of eyes in the dark, chased an individual from the flock, but shooting from a motorcycle at night is very difficult and I missed. On the third day, we called a wolf hunter from out of town, with a carbine and a night vision scope.

How has this jackal problem affected daily life?

Initially, we didn’t have jackals in Kalmykia, but recently they migrated here from the North Caucuses. As any other large predators, jackals inflict damage on local farms; that’s why farmers have to hunt them down. Most townspeople, other than farmers, have never seen a jackal in real life and have no idea what they look like.

Jackals infestation mostly affects life in the steppe, because they only attack livestock. I don’t consider them a major problem, because farming life has always been quite tough with or without them, and jackals never kill more animals than they need to survive.

Watering hole (Xiaomi Redmi Note 5)

What led you to be a part of the Mu exhibition?

I got to know about the exhibition through social networks. This exhibition was an opportunity to present my view on life in Kalmykia, on the way our people live and work in the middle of the steppe. Today many people have little to no understanding about this way of life. I hope my photography changes that. 

You can follow Naran Tsebikov’s work on Instagram and view Lossi 36’s virtual exhibit, Kalmyk Contemporary.

Featured image: Naran Tsebikov / Katherine Leung
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