The Story Behind the Photo: One of the Coldest Toilets in the World

Thursday January 09, 2020 Written by Kate

And you thought your bathroom felt a little chilly on winter mornings? Oymyakon, a rural village in Siberia, is so cold that urine freezes almost as soon as it hits the ground, according to Amos Chapple, a New Zealand-born, Prague-based photojournalist who regularly visits the region. That's where he took this striking photo of a makeshift outdoor toilet and a friendly local. We asked him for the story behind this snap, as well as details about his travels to this remote part of the world.

Hello there, Amos. How did you wind up in Oymyakon, in Siberia? I’ve been to Siberia many times, but I took this shot on my first trip there in 2012. I was at the beginning of my freelance career and realised that, although there was plenty of information describing the village as the coldest inhabited place on Earth, there were few pictures of it online. 

What about the region surprised you the most? The food was like nothing I could have imagined. One of the best dishes was made by standing a big, frozen fish on its nose, then sliding a knife down its flanks to shave off curls of raw fish. The icy flakes of fish were then dipped in salt, pepper and chased with brown bread and vodka. It was – chef’s kiss – superb. 

The oddest thing I ate was cubes of spiced, frozen horse blood served with macaroni. It was actually delicious, but as I held the cubes in my fingers they melted and left trails of blood running through my hand. It was incredibly disconcerting.

What’s it like in Oymyakon? It’s a kind of outpost in the middle of nowhere, where every traveller stops for a bowl of hot reindeer soup and to catch up on the gossip from villages and roads of the area. There is a petrol pump, and a little eatery called (with wonderful Russian irony) Café Cuba. The men who work there come to this barren spot for two weeks, then get two weeks off to relax back in their home villages. I could sense their loneliness when I slept in one of their rooms and was surrounded by these amateurish, sweet pictures of pretty women that one of the guys drew in his spare time.

Where were you when you spotted the dog in this photo? I was just wandering around outside the café and noticed this dog. He was looking quite plaintive and alone. I felt sorry for him, sitting there in the bone-cracking cold. He was hopping from one front foot to another to keep his little paws off the snow.

The dog is one of a handful of hounds who hang around the petrol station. Russians are very fond of dogs so they’re able to survive on the occasional bone or piece of bread they get handed. I saw one of the dogs actually sneak in through a door to a meat locker and slink quickly out with a large slab of reindeer meat. It was frozen as hard as stone. It would have taken a lot of work to eat through that meat.

What about the structure? The little shack is in fact a toilet. Plumbing in the region presents a massive engineering challenge since each summer the frozen ground thaws and shifts. So most toilets are just holes in the ground. This one was well used, and I’ll never forget the horror of using it myself. Because it’s usually around minus 40 to 60 degrees Celsius there, poo and pee freezes almost the moment it hits the ground. Under the shack, there was a deep hole with a tall, thin stalactite of shit stood like a church steeple in the hole. I’ll never forget that sight. 

Why do you like this photo? Looking at the dog I remember how cool he was. He's a little guy in one of the harshest places on the planet, but after two minutes of getting to know one another we were wrestling and dancing together. 

It’s also a vivid reminder of a really exciting part of my life. To be in that region, with all the time in the world to shoot a visually fascinating area, was an amazing feeling.

This interview was created in collaboration with Stocksy as part of our four-part series on the stories behind incredible photos. You’ll find even more of Amos’ work at Stocksy’s highly curated library of stock photography and video footage.