We typically think of ice and fire as elemental opposites – two of nature’s most primal forces that cannot exist in the same place at once. But the Russian Arctic’s Yamal Peninsula is home to one of the largest gas fields in the world, where the resource is tapped and harvested for use all over the planet. We’ve become dependent on natural gas for everything from taking a shower to turning on the lights in our homes, and our dependency has made its harvest a lucrative venture. But even in the depths of the Arctic, there are civilizations to be displaced by modern development.
Upon hearing about the Yamal LNG Project, photographer Charles Xelot decided to photographically document the changing landscape. “Travelling in the area can be tricky,” he explains. “I did a lot of snowmobiling, for days and days, but I also travelled a lot via helicopters, which are replacing commercial airplane flights in the region.” Xelot photographed the landscape and dystopian infrastructure voraciously, showing how the gas chambers seep to the surface, set ablaze despite the icy crust of the tundra’s surface.
His series, titled There Is Gas Under the Tundra, also sheds light on how the local Nenets civilization has been impacted. “I spent quite a lot of time with the local people in Sabetta, and it was very interesting,” Xelot reflects. “They are losing their land to factories, and this has impacted the lives of about three quarters of the families there. The developers are destroying the land on which they are building these factories, and the river has far less fish than it did before. One accident in the area would be terrible. And at the same time, the factories have created a lot of development and infrastructure, like villages, schools and hospitals gifted by the state.”
But while Xelot’s images of the peculiar fire-ice balance are arresting enough as still visuals, there are also features of the setting that cannot be captured with a camera’s lens. “These huge flames in the tundra make a lot of noise, and they are incredibly hot. While I was photographing I almost burned my finger off. The atmosphere’s temperature is -30°C, but the closer you get, the more it burns, which is an impressive sensation. The tundra is historically a very silent place, but inside the yards it is noisy and crowded, and I try to make this contrast come through in the photographs.”
At the end of the day, the gas fields are a topic that need much more exploration, which Xelot is keen on pursuing so that his research can be disseminated to a wider audience. “I would like people to realize that almost everything we use in our daily lives comes from industry,” he explains. “I want to show that we are arriving at the limitations of our system, and question our role on the planet.”