Claudine Doury is based in Paris and shot the images of her latest photobook Amour during three visits to the Amur River, Russia, spanning almost 30 years: as a young photographer in 1991, six years later in 1997, and once more in 2018. Amur (translated to ‘Amour’ in French) means love. Amour is a multidimensional piece of art, which strongly connects with identity, rethinks the passage of time and inevitably include some delicate autobiographical elements of the photographer.
What brought you to Amur River on your first visit back in 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed?
It is a word, Amur, found on an atlas that brought me to the river. I saw a long blue line, a border river, running at the end of the world. I was dreaming to enter the closed world that was Soviet Union at the time. Amur River seemed like a good start to me.
How was your relationship with the Siberian natives, and how evolved over the years?
On my first journey in 1991, I traveled most of the time on a boat along the river. A July’s evening, I saw some villagers who were picking up the hay near the shore. Among them, Slava, who brought me to his family. After that meeting with the Nanaï people I was convinced to find out more about them and their culture. It made me think of a parallel history with the Amerindians. The story of native peoples and a conquest. Here, the conquest of the East. That led me to do this photographic project around the almost unknown Siberian people. Six years later, when I came back to the Russian Far East for this project, I chose to return to Nergen, the village of Slava. And 20 years later, I was moved to receive a warm welcome from people that I sometimes didn’t even recognize. They showed me their family albums where I could see the photos I had sent them long before.
What are the possible dynamics between photography and text – how and when do they enhance each other? Ι feel that this time you prefered a more poetic side on Amour, avoiding captions or text to explain the stories of the subjects. Is that true?
My first book Peuples de Sibérie (Le seuil publishing, 1999) was made in a documentary style in mind. Texts and captions provided information about the people and places I photographed. We did not know much about the Siberian Native people and La Villette who exhibited my project and published my book was interested to explain the peculiarities of the Siberian people.
This time, Amur is a completely different approach. It is a journey back in time. An intimate exploration of the spirit of a place, through history. That’s why I preffered a more poetic side on this book.
How did you decide to go back and follow the same path twenty-seven years after your first trip to the Russian Far East?
From time to time I thought of people I had met there and wondered what had become of them. In particular three sisters whom I had photographed children then adolescents in the village of Nergen. And then I felt the need to return, like a loop of life after all this time. This return is a work on the passage of time and loss.
You have met so many people in your journeys along the Amur River, in crucial times for modern history. May I ask you for a backstage anecdote or something that determined you?
Meeting Margarita. Margarita was the mayor of the village of Nergen and she hosted me at her house. I accidentally found her at the little village store 11 years later. And there she explained her story to me. How her grandparents came from St. Petersburg in the Russian Far East at the end of the 19th century. How her mother took part in the construction of the new city of Komsomolsk in 1933.
“It is a word, Amur, found on an atlas that brought me to the river”
Then how she ended up parachuting in Nergen as the first Russian teacher for NanaÏ children. How her mother finally met and married her father, a Nanaï fisherman against the advice of the village shaman. Margarita is 80 years old now. She showed me all the letters of thanks from different Russian Presidents for her services. She now lives alone in a small wooden house facing the river. She let me photograph her with her long loose hair. Hair that she dyes in a basin because there is still no running water in Nergen. Despite the years, Margarita hasn’t lost the grace of adolescence.
Could you share some thoughts on the decisions you made with the Chose Commune publishing house for the book designing, binding, paper?
I admired the Chose Commune publishing for the editorial line of their books and I was more than happy to be able to do my book with them. Their fresh perspective on my work was invaluable as it was difficult for me to sequence photographs taken over nearly 30 years alone. We had to find the right little music to make this special book. I showed them dummybooks I’ve made with Moleskine notebooks, and they liked the idea to keep this form for the book. I chose the paper for the printing and I made a few suggestions for the photo sequences but overall I adopted their different proposals. Working with them had been a wonderful adventure from start to finish.
What would you advise to a young photographer who wants to publish her first book? Likewise, what is your opinion about the self-publishing that is constantly emerging in the last decade? What are the pros and the cons if we do the comparison with the publishing houses?
I would advise a young photographer to do a lot of work before going to meet publishers. To work on the editing of the photos, on the sequencing and on the idea of the book the photographer wants. Having your own ideas about the way you want your book is important. And it’s such a pleasure to work on it ! Then we can let it evolve depending on the collaboration with the publisher. I think self-publishing is interesting and many strong photo books are self – published. But it’s a lot of work and the major drawback is the problem of distribution.
One last thing, in your art making or perception of art in general, what would be the biggest difference between the early stages of your career and the present?
My artistic practice has evolved quite a bit between my beginnings and today. I worked for a long time for the press even if I was at the same time carrying out my own photographic projects. Now, I teach and give workshops in France and abroad. And I concentrate my photographic practice only on new series that I exhibit and publish in book form.
More on her website.