The title of the series, ‘Like Last Year’s Snow’, is drawn from the Yiddish expression forgotten like last year’s snow—a fitting emotional aphorism for the documentary project. The elderly women Wagenstein met and photographed in Yar-Sale are Nenets, also known as the Samoyed, an indigenous nomadic community native to northern arctic Russia. Each year they herd large groups of reindeer from summer to winter pastures across some of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes.
Traveling such vast distances in such extreme conditions is physically demanding, and when women reach old age they are often retired to permanent homes for their health and wellbeing. In reality, Wagenstein explains, such relocation means that “they spend most of their days in seclusion, isolated from the world they loved, and their community.” Whilst aging men are encouraged to remain with the migrating community, women are often left to face what Wagenstein terms “the struggles of old age” alone in towns that are not their own.
Meeting these women was no small task: “It took a flight, a sixty hour train ride from Moscow, and a seven hour bone breaking drive across a frozen river to meet them”, Wagenstein explains. There, on a remote peninsula in northern Siberia, he spent days conversing with the women whose portraits follow. “I immersed myself in their closed community”, Wagenstain says. “And for days, over many cups of tea, they shared their stories, lullabies and longings with me.”