Katerina Slesar

Photographer
  
Dagestani tightrope walkers
Location: Russia, Moscow
Nationality: Russian
Biography: Katerina Slesar is a freelance documentary photographer living in Moscow, Russia. In 2011 Katerina completed two-year postgraduate program in photojournalism at the Lomonosov Moscow State University. Additionally, she attended semester-long... read on
Public Story
Dagestani tightrope walkers
Credits: katerina slesar
Updated: 09/25/15

I have read about Dagestani tightrope walkers a year ago and became interested in exploring this fascinating artisan tradition which dates back several hundred years. My goal was to create a photo essay on the way of life of tightrope walkers most of whom live in remote mountain auls of Dagestan.  There is very limited printed or other information available about tightrope walkers and I had no prior acquaintances in the Northern Caucasus who could have helped me with logistics, planning or contacts.  In the absence of any meaningful or practical information, the only way for me to approach this topic was to travel to Dagestan alone on a fact-finding mission and try to find tightrope walkers in various rural areas of Dagestan to establish contact with them.

My first and consequent trips to Dagestan were put off a few times due to security concerns coming from the regional and international news media about the instability in the region.  Majority of people form their opinion of Dagestan based on the media coverage which only focused on terrorist attacks, anti-terrorist operations in the region and other conflict events.  As a result of one-sided media coverage of Dagestan, people have false and grim impression about this ancient region which remains unexplored and somewhat closed to the outsiders.

Through my trips I discovered a different side of Dagestan and its people.  From historical and demographical view point Dagestan in most interesting place. There are over fourteen ethnic groups which live there, each speaking different tongues and dialects, each having their distinct traditions, culture and mentality.  It is the most ethnically diverse territory of Russia.  Yet, for many centuries, all these ethnic groups share the common territory and live with each other in peace. 

I went to Dagestan three times this year and visited numerous mountain auls and towns traveling hundreds of miles from place to place sharing the ride with the locals.  This almost hitchhiking way of travel helped me to get to know the mentality of the locals and better understand Dagestan.  During my travels, I stayed with the local families of tightrope walkers in mountain auls and had a first-hand experience in a day-to-day life of the villagers.   

Most of the tightrope walkers live in mountain auls 2,000 meters above the sea level where the tradition was born hundreds years ago.  The elder tightrope walkers still practice their craft the old way, i.e. putting up a tightrope in the backyards of their houses to train themselves and teach the young.  As tradition dictates, one must start the training as soon as one starts walking, hence, the craft of tightrope walking is passed from generation to generation at the very early age.  The tightrope walking tradition is very inclusive and anyone who wants to learn the craft could join for free, howver, most of the tightrope walkers are relatives or close friends.     

In all mountain auls in Dagestan which I visited the living conditions are quite basic, where following a strict daily routine of doing household shores in the absence of most modern conveniences assures the survival of the aul.  Roads and other urban infrastructure is at its basic levels.  Such modern technological pleasures as cell phone coverage or internet are diluted to a minimum due to the mountain terrain surrounding auls.  Many auls experience overall decline, the houses are abandoned or decayed, the older generation is dying and the younger generation is fleeing to cities and towns in search for better life.  This affects the tightrope walkers craft a great deal and puts the survival and continuity of this ancient tradition at risk of being extinct.  During Soviet times, the government promoted and supported tightrope walkers offering them stipends, organizing and sponsoring trips, competitions and training grounds.  Nowdays, all these matters are taken care of by a few enthusiasts and tightrope walkers themselves.  The local authorities provide very little if any support to preserve and promote this ancient Dagestani tradition, nor do they encourage tightrope walkers to continue their craft.  Yet, despite all these difficulties, tightrope walkers are adamant at preserving this tradition.  They vigorously train the young, seize any opportunity to take part in any festive event such as weddings or a local holiday where they could showi their skills.  All this is done at their own cost and in-kind contribution from local villagers.

These efforts are paid off by creating something that Dagestan has become proud of and famous for as many Dagestani tightrope walkers are known craftsman in the gymnist community.  I have visited several tightrope walkers families whose elders are most respected and known for their craft amongst the community.  

I am trying to reflect all the above in my photo series, and while, the project is still ongoing, I hope that the pictures I have chosen thus far for this submission illustrate the depth and breadth of the project.  

I am using film cameras Rolei and Mamyia to carry out this project.  My next trip is scheduled for September to shoot a regional competition of tightrope walkers to be held in Derbent, a 2,000 year-old Dagestani city located on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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By Katerina Slesar —

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