In September 2014, after more than 2 months of waiting I was granted the regime permission to come to Syria for two weeks and was able to visit Damascus, Homs, Maaloula and Krak de Chevaliers. From the very first day I could not escape the surreal feeling of being inside of A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck, produced in collaboration with Robert Capa in 1948. A minder, a feeling of loneliness inside a luxurious hotel, ruins of Homs instead of ruins of Stalingrad and even a copy of Vanity Fair that both Capa and me took for a trip - the deja vu was too bizarre not to use the title of this project as homage to their trip into another dictatorship that happens also to be my Motherland.
Since November 2009 me and two colleagues of mine, Maria Morina and Oksana Yushko, have been working on the joint project in Grozny, Chechnya, which is now entering the postproduction stage. Inspired by a Thornton Wilder book, Theophilus North, the project centers on the idea of nine cities being hidden in one, and this gave the start to the narrative approach which explores nine specific aspects of the aftermath of two Chechen wars through considering them as layers hidden within Grozny. It will result in the web-documentary presented on groznyninecities.com, series of publications in magazines, a book and exhibitions. Here is a portfolio of my work from the more than two years of work.
Kibbutzim movement had started in early XXth century with setting up collective communities around the areas supposed to become the borders of the State of Israel. They were often romanticized as socialist enclaves strong emphasis on justice, equality and morality. But at the same time, living at the borderline had another meaning for these people and the state to be Š they were the first to defend the border, and thus any member of these ideological communities had to be ready to fight any given moment.
However, nowadays the kibbutz code of conduct changed, not to say almost vanished. Current generation living there is approximately the last one still saying they live in a kibbutz. The collective structure fails to work in the same way as Communism did.
The newcomers move to Gaza border in pursuit for a cheaper place in the beautiful nature, but as a downside, they have to live expecting rockets to fall on them at any given moment and be trained to be able to reach the shelter in 15 seconds when the alarm goes off. At the same time, these communities are far from the ordinary perception of the war-torn/aftermath society Š they have museums and even the zoos in the settlements, and on a peaceful day itÕs only kindergartens covered with layers of concrete that suggest the presence of danger. While the majority of photographers from all over the world concentrate on covering Palestine and Palestinians, or Š when covering the Israeli side, show soldiers, my pursuit to show only civilian life is an attempt for visual mapping of both conflict sides. What is going on in Gaza cannot be fully understood without understanding also of the Israeli realities.
A phrase in Serbian and Bosnian, it means to ‘catch fog.’ Used by a Bosnian man to me one afternoon in the rural wilds of eastern Bosnia, while drinking rakija, he used it to sum up the sixteen year-old hunt for ex-General Ratko Maldic, the most wanted man in the world after Osama bin Laden. Indicted in 1996 for genocide and other war-crimes by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Mladic is still on the run nearly twenty years later. Almost certainly hiding out in Belgrade, he is sheltered and protected by diehard nationalist elements still loyal to him and the regime of now-dead ex-President Slobodan Milosevic. This project is a photographic representation of Mladic, his past, his sordid history and his grotesque legacy, but also of his enduring, immutable iconic status for the Serbian nationalist old guard. It illustrates where he has been and what he has done through a series of images of the places where he has been, stayed, lived, operated, hidden and visited.
For this project I chose the place, which is an iconic symbol of all the destruction and recession in Abkhazia even 15 years after the end of the war with Georgia. It's a story of people, not only stuck in an isolated place, but stuck in time and forgotten by civilization. Although now there are no fights there, and no one dies of hunger, I try to prove with the pictures, that the situation of this people is still a big human drama. Once a Soviet industrial enclave in the republic of Georgia, built to serve the needs of the Ingouri power plant, and a role model Communist city, the Black Coast city of Primorsk, is today overgrown by weed and swamps. Those 60 ethnic Russians out of 5000, who decided not to leave Primorsk, survive on subsistence farming in the most dangerous area of Abkhazia, the so-called lower zone, bordering Georgia, where, officials say, Georgian guerillas have the easiest access to Abkhazia. These people have to walk for 22km by foot to the regional center, Gali, to pick up 100-roubles ($3) Abkhazian pension, do not have proper IDs to leave for Russia and do not even have a chance to send their children to school. Moreover, they are now attacked by a channel they had built with their own hands for the needs of the Ingouri plants. Mile by mile, it is seizing the land. One of abandoned Soviet sanatoriums has already been under water, but now the houses are in danger. In fact, nothing really happens in Primorsk today, people just survive. The times when people had to hide their children in potato bags to protect them from being raped by both Abkhazian and Georgian gangs in the afterwar period had gone. But one can read the sense of isolation and despair from their eyes, that's why I decided to shoot Holga, whose quality of picture lets me stress more on emotions I feel each time I come to Primorsk rather on what's going on. This makes project a bit arty, but I still consider it photojournalism, because I tell the story of these people via their portraits and the pictures of their environment.