The Kola Superdeep borehole was a scientific drilling project tasked with penetrating deep within the Earths crust. At just over 12km, it is the deepest artificial point on the whole planet. Started by the Soviet Union in 1978, the process stopped in 1992 and the whole project was closed down in 2005 due to a lack of funding.
The Kola Superdeep definitely attracted people to Zapolyarny town; many engineers and drillers from Saint-Petersburg. In its better days, 16 research laboratories worked at the borehole. They were curated by the USSR Minister of Geology directly. It was a huge scientific project for Soviet Union, and people received increased salaries as well as flats in Zapolyarny.
So the ending of the drill meant that hundreds of people lost their job. Some of them still live in those polar towns.
Russian photographer Sergey Novikov first visited the area whilst working on a separate project nearby, and the resulting body of work depicts a community which has been deeply affected by this scientific research project. It is almost ironic that research done in the pursuit of knowledge for the supposed betterment of humanity has in turn caused a negative impact on its surrounding areas.
The subject that initially sparked my interest was the land. The land itself devastated by Norilsk Nickel’s factories and mining companies, falling into darkness in the winter, but lightened by the sun during polar days in the summer
I really didn’t want to show something exotic to people but the regular life of the sparsely inhabited settlement and traces of scientific research, took place thereabout. It might seem exotic in the pictures but in the town you feel itself like in any other Russian provincial town, nothing is unusual or different except the smell of hydrogen sulphide in the air.
Although Novikov has documented the town from the position of an outsider, his photographs present some sort of voice to a group of people which have perhaps been forgotten about by their former rulers and governments.
Both towns really touched me, as I was never previously either in the Russian polar area or a place that is so destroyed. You feel a nasty scent of sulphur in these towns and see iron ore waste everywhere. I knew nobody, but was lost in admiration for people who live in such a place.
The Kola peninsular is located in the North West of Russia, close to the border with Finland and surrounded by The White Sea. Novikov tells me how the region hasn’t only been influenced by the Soviet Union and Russia.
The area, was ceded to Finland in 1920, was under German control during WWII and returned to the USSR after it. There are still some Finnish wooden houses built by Canadians in the centre of Nickel. Nonetheless, urban infrastructure is mostly soviet, and the most intriguing thing is that this is all located just in dozen kilometres from Norwegian and Finnish borders. You can easily compare West and East in a half an hour.
Sergey Novikov’s series resembles a contemporary approach to documentary photography, both in its visual style and photographic process.
People react to a large format camera in another way, by literally staying put. We often refer to this kind of work as ‘slow journalism’ or art documentary photography. People who have influenced this visual language and style of work for me include Alec Soth, Cristina de Middel, Bryan Schutmaat.
Despite the ‘slow’ approach to the subject, the journey was nonetheless treacherous and unpredictable due to the polar climate and landscape. But as Novikov remarks, the landscape was only what sparked an initial interest.
Despite having old maps, we lost a road in tundra and stopped by the abandoned buildings of an old mine a few kilometres from the real drill site. That was my first unsuccessful attempt to reach the borehole. However I felt a powerful aura, the mythology of the place, and decided to explore this area better. In 2014 I came back for a week, shooting portraits, landscapes and still life images around the hole. Again, I got lost in tundra and another day I nearly reached Kola Superdeep but floodwater blocked my path.
Nevertheless, the main subjects of project are towns and people that still keep traces of borehole’s story.