‘A Mystic Place’

Photographer Marco Pighin tells the story behind a great picture from Siberia

By / July 2013

Photograph by Marco PighinLake Baikal, Siberia. Photograph by Marco Pighin

The bus wandered into a distant part of central Siberia some miles from home, and I quickly lost interest in the name of the road or even our next destination. My affection had been touched by kindly, eupeptic influences of the Buryatia region rushing past the thin pane glass. I stood up and grabbed my bag from overhead, and with an earnestness that no doubt drew curious looks from other passengers, I approached the driver and asked in my still burgeoning Russian if he could stop and drop me off.

There was little alarm from the man as he eased his lumbering vehicle to rest on a lonely stretch of highway and opened the doors for me to step out into the sun-drenched landscape.

Some people encounter terror when faced with a place they have never known, but even in the middle of nowhere, walking away from a non-designated stop, I was possessed with intent and energy, especially as I approached a small village of Oymur in need of a home willing to invite me in as a guest. This is my usual way of pursuing photography projects in this expansive chunk of earth. I’m not interested in hotels or even a budget.

Marco Pighin

I like close encounters and new friendships that allow me to photograph the intimacy and communal nature of life here. On this occasion, a fisherman, his wife, and five children hosted me for 10 days while I waited to photograph a baptism service on the beautiful Lake Baikal, one of the biggest freshwater reserves in the world. I learned about the baptism from Dima early in my stay and knew it was exactly the sort of thing that would justify my random stop.

The afternoon of the baptism arrived with a chatty wind, which sent shudders across the lake. I remember how a crowd of about 50, mostly old people, carried about freely, giving and taking in the pleasantries of friendship. Some had cameras, pointing them toward the lake or a group of relatives. It wasn’t a serious and somber occurrence like the Catholic baptisms from my childhood in Italy. There was even a moment during the baptism ceremony when laughter was tossed alongside the reverence because one older gentleman swallowed some water and started coughing. It pulsated with warmth and life, but it also pulled us toward something bigger and harder to touch.

I think that’s why I like the photograph of the priest tightroping out onto a small wooden pier to pray. The characters in the foreground show just how common and human the moment was, but nearby there is a movement into something that’s seemingly endless and indefinite. It is as Russian writer Valentin Rasputin said of his time at Lake Baikal, one stands there and looks around and “is filled with something and carried off somewhere, and can’t understand what’s happening to him.”

Photography is almost spiritual research for me. Since 2008, I’ve been doing a long-term project on Siberia, one of the most unknown places on the planet. I mean, how would you describe Siberia? Comments about the cold weather and strong-willed people are typical from Westerners. But these simplistic descriptions are not fitting to what I’ve encountered in this vast expanse. It’s a mystic place. You’re confronted with the infinite, with your destiny. It comes as no surprise then that Russia has produced great writers like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. It takes a more than few pages to describe what you encounter.

That’s why I’ve made my home here with my wife. After several experiences documenting life in several former Communist countries, I fell in love with how the Russian soul emerges Siberia. You can find the real Russian people, those not touched by the modern world, those who would give you the coat off their back, those I could not know from just an occasional visit. So we moved into a small settlement of about 800 people called Petropavlovka, which brushes against the gentle current of the Kasir River and is hemmed in by the Sayan Mountains.

We live in a little wooden house. We have a cow. I chop wood and tend to the garden. I’ve put my hands and feet alongside theirs, and what I’ve found is this place is taking hold of me in much the same way love takes hold of a young man. I know, even in her eventual absence, it is going to be hard to get figure out of my mind.


Marco Pighin, 39, is a photographer who lives in a small wooden house in the heart of Siberian Taiga. You can view more of his work here.