This story appears in the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Earth’s highest city, its most crowded city, its most polluted city: Geneva-based photographer Steeve Iuncker sought them out. For a project Iuncker calls Villes Extrêmes—Extreme Cities—he wanted to photograph ordinary life in cities that set extraordinary records or embody stark superlatives. That’s how he ended up in Yakutsk, Russia.
The capital city of the vast (1.2 million square miles) Siberian region known as the Sakha Republic, Yakutsk is widely identified as the world’s coldest city. “No other place on Earth experiences this temperature extreme,” Iuncker says. Though temperatures during the brief summer can exceed 85°F, winter temperatures regularly fall to -40°F, he says—and the lowest ever recorded was a staggering -83°F.
Among the extreme cities, this one was especially challenging to capture, Iuncker says: “Everything is ice, fog, and shadows” that obscure vistas and landmarks. When he braved the cold to step outside, frost instantly coated his camera, and its mechanisms froze to a halt.
Iuncker says his photo project explores this question: Do extreme environments trigger extreme emotions or behaviors in inhabitants? Not in Yakutsk, it seems. It’s often too cold to break ground for construction or graves, too cold for airplanes to fly or crops to grow. Markets like the one seen here may not have fresh vegetables, Iuncker says—but they have very fresh, very cold fish “arranged like bunches of flowers.”