Sasha Leahovcenco’s journey to Chukotka -- the remote region of Russia that lies just west of Alaska across the Bering Strait, and to which Alaskans are connected culturally and geographically -- was an unlikely one. Two years ago, the Moldova-born photographer who now lives in Fresno, Calif. received an invitation to visit from a friend of his who lives and works in the remote northeastern Russian province as a missionary, but couldn’t make the time. Then by chance, while home visiting family in Moldova, he ran into the friend again, who reiterated his invitation. After that second invitation, he decided to go -- though to make it fit his busy schedule he chose to go in winter, when, he discovered, the temperatures dipped to 45 degrees below. There were other obstacles -- financial, logistical, even a broken-down car that threatened to cancel the trip -- “yet I got on the plane and went to Chukotka,” he told Help-Portrait.
It’s much to our benefit that he did. That’s because the portraits he brought back from the trip are both beautiful and unusual. While he visited villages, cities and a hospital for children with tuberculosis, it’s his photos of the region’s indigenous reindeer herders -- he traveled with them on the tundra to capture these portraits -- that are most remarkable. The photos have a stark splendor to them. They evoke a simplicity that belies the complex challenges nomad herders face. And they have a spare, organic beauty that both emerges from and transcends their setting. Leahovcenco traveled to Chukotka as part of Help-Portrait’s mission to give portraits to people who aren’t likely to be photographed under more typical circumstances, a gesture of goodwill. But Leahovcenco, too, found himself enriched by what he called “a life-changing experience.”