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Shooting Daghestan

  • Amos Chapple
Russia's restive Daghestan region is more often associated with insurgency than great photography, but one young local is working to change perceptions of his mountainous homeland. Armed with his camera, and backed by immense photographic talent, Magomed Shapiev is starting to turn an infamous region Instagram famous.

The village of Talsukh, near Daghestan's border with Georgia. Shapiev's photographs are made during hiking expeditions into the mountains with small groups of friends.  
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The village of Talsukh, near Daghestan's border with Georgia. Shapiev's photographs are made during hiking expeditions into the mountains with small groups of friends.
 

A frozen waterfall inside a cave near the village of Salta Gunibskogo. The 24-year old photographer described his expeditions to RFE/RL: "We're usually in the wilderness for a few days. Sometimes we'll be out there for seven days straight."     
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A frozen waterfall inside a cave near the village of Salta Gunibskogo. The 24-year old photographer described his expeditions to RFE/RL: "We're usually in the wilderness for a few days. Sometimes we'll be out there for seven days straight." 
 
 

Spring blossoms and snow-capped mountains in the Shamil district of Daghestan. Shapiev admits that Daghestan was highly dangerous until three or four years ago, when the region was in the grip of an Islamist insurgency, but says it's now much safer.    
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Spring blossoms and snow-capped mountains in the Shamil district of Daghestan. Shapiev admits that Daghestan was highly dangerous until three or four years ago, when the region was in the grip of an Islamist insurgency, but says it's now much safer.
 
 

A canyon in the Bermamyt plateau, photographed by Shapiev this winter. Although Daghestan is less dangerous than it once was, 2016 still saw a spate of extremist attacks, and Shapiev makes sure to let the authorities know where he will be hiking "in case anything goes wrong."
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A canyon in the Bermamyt plateau, photographed by Shapiev this winter. Although Daghestan is less dangerous than it once was, 2016 still saw a spate of extremist attacks, and Shapiev makes sure to let the authorities know where he will be hiking "in case anything goes wrong."

In previous years the main danger for the young photographer came from a somewhat surprising source. "There used to be counterterrorism operations in the mountains," he says. Any band of young local men deep in the wilderness would have been at risk of being shot by Russian special forces.
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In previous years the main danger for the young photographer came from a somewhat surprising source. "There used to be counterterrorism operations in the mountains," he says. Any band of young local men deep in the wilderness would have been at risk of being shot by Russian special forces.

Shapiev (back) with a friend in the field. The 24-year-old photographer was employed full-time as the official photographer of Daghestan's presidential office. But has left the job to dedicate more time to his expeditions. 
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Shapiev (back) with a friend in the field. The 24-year-old photographer was employed full-time as the official photographer of Daghestan's presidential office. But has left the job to dedicate more time to his expeditions. 

The Chirag-Chai River under a break in the clouds. Shapiev says he now does "various jobs," including freelance photography to stay afloat. He hopes to make a career out of photographs like this one and recently landed his first assignment from the Russian edition of National Geographic. 
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The Chirag-Chai River under a break in the clouds. Shapiev says he now does "various jobs," including freelance photography to stay afloat. He hopes to make a career out of photographs like this one and recently landed his first assignment from the Russian edition of National Geographic. 

A pine under a dusting of fresh snow. Shapiev explains the origins of his love for capturing such scenes during a telephone call with RFE/RL. "I grew up in the mountains," he says, "and as a kid I used to go on little adventures and sketch what I saw." 
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A pine under a dusting of fresh snow. Shapiev explains the origins of his love for capturing such scenes during a telephone call with RFE/RL. "I grew up in the mountains," he says, "and as a kid I used to go on little adventures and sketch what I saw." 

"Then I discovered photography," Shapiev recalls. What followed has been a spectacularly quick learning curve. The self-taught photographer has now amassed more than 120,000 Instagram followers.
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"Then I discovered photography," Shapiev recalls. What followed has been a spectacularly quick learning curve. The self-taught photographer has now amassed more than 120,000 Instagram followers.

Snow settles on the lower Batluh village. With his hashtag #exploringdagestan Shapiev is hoping to show the world another side of Daghestan. 
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Snow settles on the lower Batluh village. With his hashtag #exploringdagestan Shapiev is hoping to show the world another side of Daghestan. 

"People don't think of Daghestan as a beautiful place,  and I want to show the world that it is," Shapiev says.
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"People don't think of Daghestan as a beautiful place,  and I want to show the world that it is," Shapiev says.

This image of wild horses is one of Shapiev's most popular images on Instagram. "It was taken near the border with Georgia. We had to ask the border guards' permission to go down there," he says. "It was bright sunlight and the wind was playing on the water. Then I saw these horses."
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This image of wild horses is one of Shapiev's most popular images on Instagram. "It was taken near the border with Georgia. We had to ask the border guards' permission to go down there," he says. "It was bright sunlight and the wind was playing on the water. Then I saw these horses."

Shapiev says autumn is his favorite time of year to photograph the wilderness. 
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Shapiev says autumn is his favorite time of year to photograph the wilderness. 

The tower at the ancient village of Kahib. The village was founded more than 1,000 years ago, making it one of the most storied in Daghestan. 
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The tower at the ancient village of Kahib. The village was founded more than 1,000 years ago, making it one of the most storied in Daghestan. 

Another of Shapiev's discoveries deep in Daghestan's wilderness.   
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Another of Shapiev's discoveries deep in Daghestan's wilderness. 
 

A peak in southern Daghestan. Shapiev uses his iPhone for many of his shots, but his main cameras are the Canon 5D Mark ii and the Sony Alpha A7. 
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A peak in southern Daghestan. Shapiev uses his iPhone for many of his shots, but his main cameras are the Canon 5D Mark ii and the Sony Alpha A7. 

Life lives on in these stone buildings occupied by ancestors of inhabitants of the ancient village of Shinaz.  
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Life lives on in these stone buildings occupied by ancestors of inhabitants of the ancient village of Shinaz.
 

A cobweb caught in the evening sun. Despite his masterful use of sunlight Shapiev says he prefers heavy weather, when there's "clouds, mist lightning ... anything that gives [the images] texture." 
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A cobweb caught in the evening sun. Despite his masterful use of sunlight Shapiev says he prefers heavy weather, when there's "clouds, mist lightning ... anything that gives [the images] texture." 

An old man and a boy walking in the village of Khutkhul. Shapiev's caption to the image reads: "The atmosphere of peace, tranquility, and the beauty of nature."  
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An old man and a boy walking in the village of Khutkhul. Shapiev's caption to the image reads: "The atmosphere of peace, tranquility, and the beauty of nature."
 

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