I’m in Abu Dhabi airport on a 12-hour layover. There’s really no better time to reflect on my most recent and final adventure in Belarus, before I head back to Sydney. With a bit less than a week till my flight I decided that it’ll be a real pity not to visit the Braslav region one last time. When Yuri Ivanych, my friend in Braslav told me that I’d be able to see how the same fishermen brigade which I already photographed works in winter, I was sold on one last visit, much to the dismay of my family in Minsk, and Tanya – my wife.
The main reason was their concern for my driving ability in winter time. After my small car crash in Poland I had a bigger accident the day before New Year’s Eve. Again - very slippery road, which looked deceitfully decent, I decided to overtake a very slow moving car, but even about 60km/per hour was enough to land my vehicle into a barrier, down a small hill and into a field. A tractor pulled me out and one of those “evacuator” vehicles got the car all the way back to Minsk, as it was not driveable. The story had a happy ending, since no one was hurt and everything was solvable, but understandably my family was concerned.
In any case, I hired a car again and went to Braslav. Luckily everything went very smoothly as far as driving this time, I think I learned my lessons.
Now to the fishermen. The shoot was a dream and a nightmare at the same time. I always wanted to shoot in the winter, in the snow. But that day it was minus 20 Celsius! I will say first of all that the gear held up incredibly well. I shot with the Canon 5D MKII, 20mm f1.8 Sigma and 24-70 f2.8 Canon lenses, I didn’t expect any problems with those, what surprised me was the battery. I filled a 16GB card with stills and even a few videos, the battery still had 28% of life left, I decided to change it simply to avoid missing an important shot when it would finally go flat.
I don’t know how I would rank my own performance. I was in the cold for about 5 hours straight and another two with breaks in a pretty warm car. It’s tough working in such weather. You can’t shoot without gloves, you lose sense of your fingers very quickly, the wind feels like it burns your face and when the sun goes down, staying for a couple of minutes without movement makes your teeth rattle from the cold.
I was not greatly equipped, as far as cold-proof gear for this one, but my friend was impressed with the way I tolerated the conditions. I have to say - it was a great experience, but I won’t be too sad if I don’t have another one like it for a while.
When the fishermen finally pulled out the net, which they managed to spread out under the ice, they didn’t end up with much. Parts of the ice cut the net in a few places and a lot of the fish was lost. Tough day for these guys, they were at the lake for much longer than me and managed to handle it like just another work-day.
At the end me, Yuri Ivanych and the National park driver drove across the frozen lake. In a very timely manner I was told that 10 years ago a jeep went under at about this time of the year, taking four passengers with it. I was advised to hold on to the door handle, to open it and jump, in case the ice cracks. I thought it was a joke, but after seeing Yuri Ivanych holding on to the door handle at the back I realised it wasn’t. The driver joked – if you two are holding on to the handles, what the hell am I meant to do? – Hold on to the wheel! Joked Yuri Ivanych.
The working conditions are very manual labour intensive, but things weren’t actually this way before. I was told by the fishermen who have been in the “business” for a while that there was more machinery involved during the Soviet times. Tractors did the job of horses and humans. Now it is unclear where the resources are going, one thing for sure the job hasn’t become any easier.
This man has been with the fishermen brigade for a very long time. When I asked him “How’s life?” after arriving, he replied - “Life? What kind of life is this? I’m so sick of this shit, I’ve been doing it for 36 years! It’s f—cking cold out here!” I asked him why he did the job. His reply- “What else is there to do?”
Not all fishermen lack enthusiasm though. The much younger Leonid, despite his frozen moustache tells me that the work isn’t so bad. He’s used to working because he has a big family and “many mouths to feed”. I asked him about the cold. “You don’t feel it while you work, while you move around, it’s not too bad here, if only someone could wipe the snot off my nose, then it would be perfect.” He jokes.
The only light comes from the car’s head-lights, however, usually there’s even less light than you see. The car’s lights were only switched-on after my begging, pleading and explaining that I won’t be able to photograph anything without them, at least that helped the fishermen a bit too. I've said it before, it's a tough life. Their salary is about 180,000 Belarussian Rubles per month, that’s a bit over US$60.
That's all for now. My next post will be from home, for the first time in about 5 months.