All photographs by Ikuru Kuwajima
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A student wears the traditional costume of the Nenets.
All photographs by Ikuru Kuwajima

At This Arctic Boarding School, Kids Dream of the Tundra

When Japanese photographer Ikuru Kuwajima was exploring the Russian village of Vorkuta, he stumbled across something unexpected: a boarding school for nomadic Nenets children. The Nenets are a reindeer-herding indigenous group who roam the arctic regions of Russia, and the school was established so that Nenets children could get acquainted with the Russian language and culture.

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Children stand inside a mini chum, the typical tent used in the tundra by the Nenets.

Kuwajima says that he was drawn to the bright colors and singular features of the school. “The interior was very unique and almost surreal—in other schools, you wouldn’t see such ornaments, children’s drawings, mini chums [smaller versions of the Nenets’ mobile tents], reindeer horns, and some handmade mini-sledges and clay-made reindeer.”

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A student at the boarding school holds up reindeer horns. Reindeer herding is an essential part of the Nenets culture.

But to photograph the school and its students, Kuwajima was told that he’d need a permit from the local government. He remained persistent during the drawn-out process—it took nearly ten months of negotiation to get permission.

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The students’ family members park their sleds and reindeer outside when visiting the boarding school in Vorkuta, Russia.

When he finally returned, Kuwajima got to experience Nenets culture firsthand. He says that at first the children were very shy—especially the girls—but over time they warmed up to him.

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A student holds a globe in a classroom at the boarding school. The children are taught both Russian and Nenets grammar and writing.

“When a Russian teacher introduced me to all the kids, she jokingly said something like, ‘Today, we have a guest from Japan. Maybe he looks like you guys …” But they chorused, ‘No!’” he says. “Actually, some local Russians in Vorkuta occasionally thought I was a Nenets, but the Nenets kids saw the difference right away and saw me as a stranger. But overall, I think I got along with them in the end.”

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A student wears the traditional costume of the Nenets.

According to Kuwajima, if the children remained with their families in the tundra for the entire year, it would be difficult for them to keep up with their studies, let alone learn about Russian culture.

“Their families have a nomadic lifestyle and travel with their reindeer around the tundra, so if the children are with their parents, it would be very hard to get even a primary education—their life is very isolated from the outside world,” he says. “Also, they have their own Nenets language, and otherwise they wouldn’t learn Russian, which their parents think is increasingly important for their kids to learn. That’s why there is a boarding school to host the children and give them an education.”

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Nenets children are visited by a family member at the boarding school in Vorkata.

Kuwajima says that the school is incredibly important for the Nenets. “Given that these children will form the core of the Nenets society in this region in the future, the school is the major turning point not only for the children but also the local Nenets community as a whole. This school functions as a catalyst for the integration of this region’s Nenets community into the Russian society in a globalized world.”

Instead of making traditional portraits, where the subject is isolated on a background, Kuwajima wanted to show the surrounding environment of the school. So he used a white background and lights, but he also included much of the surrounding rooms in the photographs.

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Two girls wear traditional Nenets costumes at the boarding school.

“The main theme of this story is the collision and mixing of two different cultures, and the backdrop and artificial light held up by the kids put an emphasis on the coexistence of two different worlds,” he says.

“Their lifestyle is changing from a nomadic one to a settled one—this is a more dynamic change than one minority group getting integrated into a majority. It’s about one minority group getting drawn into a huge globalized system.”

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Two students pose in front of traditional and modern toys at the boarding school.

Kuwajima says he hopes people will see “the complexity of the Nenets today, their dilemma, and the spread of … globalization even in the northern edges of Russia” and will ask themselves what it means.

“I’m not even sure if it’s necessarily good or bad,” he says, “but I think it’s important to notice the complexity of Nenets society and the changes that globalization is bringing.”

These photographs were published in the 2015 book “Tundra Kids.” View more of Ikuru Kuwajima’s work on his website.

To get an inside look at Kuwajima’s camera bag on assignment, view this Artifacts post on Proof.