I arrived in Russia in 1998, at the age of twenty. After two years of living and working there, I made a bureaucratic misstep and was deported. Unable to work within Russia proper, I spent much of the next five years traveling through the fringes of the former Soviet empire, exploring the oblique stories of half-forgotten enclaves and restless territories.
I hadn't heard of any of these regions before seeing the exhibit at PCNW. They're most often unrecognized splinter states of splinter states, making their poor living through drug or gun running. The Ferghana Valley, for instance, was once an important way station on the Silk Road. Stalin redrew its borders intentionally to cross tribal and geographical boundaries, leaving "a seemingly nonsensical series of squiggly lines that disrupted trade routes and clannish power structures." Now those borders facilitate heroin going to Russia and Europe. The good heroin, that is. The bad heroin stays in the valley.
The pictures are uniformly bleak. In the entire book, there are three pictures that have smiling people. In one a woman dances alone during a private moment at an unexplained party. In another, a government official holds a small missile, his backdrop the mural of an important battle for the region. In the third, one boy smiles to another at a service at an underground mosque.
Most of the pictures are blurry, with crooked horizon lines, as if grabbed. Perhaps the most sharply focused and traditionally composed image is of Aghdam, an abandoned Azeri city in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The victorious Armenians were dismantling Aghdam, using it to rebuild their own nearly destroyed cities. "Now, all that was left of Aghdam was a mini-Hiroshima of a landscape, the starkest war memorial I had ever seen."
The uncorrected color shifts of the interior and night photographs add to the bleakness. There is little or nothing to redeem the human condition in any of these pictures. I'm all for art challenging comfort zones and preconceptions, but I sometimes wonder how much photojournalism actually contributes to change, and how much it contributes to a horrified voyeurism. I kept thinking how wealthy I was, in comparison to any of the people in this book.