From December to January, the sun never rises in Murmansk, Russia. Peter Dench chats to the photographer Amos Chapple about his his recent reportage, Forty Days Of Darkness, shot on an iPhone
Surprisingly for a New Zealander, photographer Amos Chapple likes the cold. He has photographed Siberia’s Ice Highway and Oymyakon, the coldest town on Earth in east Siberia where, in 1933, temperatures bombed to minus -90°F. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he doesn’t particularly like his homeland. ‘I left New Zealand for the first time and went to Russia aged 23, 24. New Zealand is not a pleasant place, it’s socially oppressive somehow. In Russia no-one knew who I was or cared. I loved it there, I felt at home, I felt free.’
Continuing on the cold front, for his recent reportage, Forty Days Of Darkness, Prague-based Amos purchased a new iPhone 11 Pro and travelled to Murmansk, Russia – the biggest city inside the Arctic Circle. From December until January the sun never rises. With the iPhone almost exclusively in night mode, he shot life in the darkness for eight days, which equates to 16 as Amos explains, ‘Usually you have just a few hours of soft light in the morning and evening, you have to work around that. When you’re shooting a city that is always dark, time is irrelevant. I can get out of bed at 1am or 1pm and it’s going to look the same. I was really able to hammer away at the assignment pretty much non-stop.’
Amos found shooting with the phone life-changing, so will he return to using a ‘proper’ camera? ‘When I walk out the door to take a walk with my wife, I never take my camera with me any more, I already have a great camera in my pocket. I recently did a shoot in Armenia, three nights at a Soviet-era cosmic-ray research station 3,100 metres above sea level. When shooting that story, I would mainly use my main camera, a Panasonic GX9, but there were a couple of situations and photographs that will end up being in the published story that I shot with the phone. The reason that it was so useful is because it’s so discreet and even if you are noticed, people don’t care – that action does not look consequential whereas if you pick up your camera, people think why is he doing that, where is this going?
‘Another cool thing about the phone, when I’m shooting with a Micro Four Thirds camera in cold places, I’ll have my main camera outside stuffed slightly into my jacket to preserve it from the cold a little bit. I’ll then have a camera literally stuffed down my pants, to keep it warm so if I step inside somewhere, I can pull out the warm camera and start shooting immediately; otherwise you’re without a camera for more than an hour until it warms up again. There is a transition period with a phone from shooting outside to shooting in the warm but it’s a matter of minutes rather than hours.’
The photographs from Murmansk show us tsarist-era boats frozen in moonlight, the Northern Lights rippling above a cemetery and shoppers going about their business in blizzards. They take us inside nightclubs and introduce us to locals in the church, firing range and bars. In one image, a shopkeeper fills large plastic bottles with beer, a weekend supply for a customer and his wife. Does Amos partake in a wintry tipple on assignment? ‘There were situations in Murmansk where, if I was not knocking back beers with the local people, there is no way they would let me take the pictures I was taking. They’re comfortable with me, I’m comfortable with them. Why would you exclude that advantage – when you start drinking with people, they let their guard down, you leave your guard down, cool situations happen. You want to be sharing the life of these people as best you can, everyone knows it’s supremely rude to turn down a drink, especially in Russia!’
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The Murmansk series is part of an impressive portfolio of assignments that include shooting 35 Unesco World Heritage Sites and a remarkable reportage, The Mammoth Pirates of Siberia. How does he find stories and keep inspired? ‘The biggest advantage I have is that I’m going places and when you go places you find stories you would never find. With the mammoth hunters, I saw a blog post about ice road truckers, so I went with some guys about to go out on the road – the scariest story of my life. Because we shared these very intense situations we bonded and they said if I think what they do in winter is interesting, I should see their jobs in summer. One of those jobs was mammoth-tooth hunting.’ There’s no excuse not to go out and photograph, especially if it looks cold.
Amos Chapple is a New Zealand-born news and travel photographer currently working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. You can visit the RFE/RL website to see the original Murmansk story. Chapple is represented at rexfeatures.com, the Getty collection and stocksy.com.