Located halfway between Norway and the North Pole on a barren island in the Arctic Ocean, the coal mining village of Barentsburg is one of the northernmost towns in the world. In a new photo series, French photographer Léo Delafontaine traveled to the unlikely settlement to document its lonely existence and to contemplate its future as Arctic ice melts.
The coal mine itself is almost empty, after nearly a century of use. But the Russian company that runs the tiny town is holding on–partly because the territory will likely become more valuable as melting ice opens up new shipping routes in the Arctic. The island is technically part of Norway, but thanks to an old treaty, Russia has a right to exploit natural resources there. Today, they’re still hoping to find gas or rare minerals there and are also trying to turn it into some sort of tourist destination.
It’s a strangely mesmerizing place. “It’s completely lost in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by beautiful and surreal landscapes,” Delafontaine says. “Because of the cold and the polar night, there are no trees. Most of the time, the snow covers everything. It’s all white. But the coal extracted in the mine of Barentsburg is black. I thought the contrast was interesting.”
The photos also tell the story of the existence of the few hundred coal miners who live there, in the midst of Soviet-era relics like a statue of Lenin. Most of the workers come from a coal mining region called Donetsk, a place caught in the middle of the war between Russia and the Ukraine.
“People prefer to work in an hostile environment, most of the time without their family, than being unemployed in a war zone,” Delafontaine says.
Day to day, miners don’t have much to do but work in the antiquated mine. “The Ukrainian or Tajik miners only receive their pay at the end of their contract,” he says. “In the meantime, they bide their time between working in an unhealthy mine, Arctic nights, and a lack of entertainment. Barentsburg is a snapshot of the vestiges of the former Soviet power.”