Belgian photographer Nick Hannes started out as a press photographer until a tour of the former Soviet states in 2007-8 changed his career path. He tells The Calvert Journal about Red Journey, the project that turned him into a documentary photographer.
Red Journey is the result of a year-long road trip through the 15 former Soviet republics. I travelled from my hometown of Antwerp to Vladivostok and back, without taking an aeroplane. Slowly over land, by bus and train, I photographed subjects and stories and impressions.
To realise a project like this it’s necessary to edit, to create a story line. “Transition” was the key word: my series shows both the remains of the communist past and new tendencies that emerged after the fall of the USSR.
I tried to avoid showing the stereotypical image that is often stressed in photography made in this region — cold, grey, poor, black and white. Although I did encounter poverty, ecological degradation, alcoholism and corruption, I tried to create a more ambivalent feeling on the thin line between tragedy and humour.
I first crossed the Balkans, Turkey and Iran, to arrive in Armenia. I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, then Georgia and Azerbaijan. I crossed the Caspian Sea into Turkmenistan. Then: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, China again and Russia. From Vladivostok I took the Trans-Siberian Express to Moscow and further on to Ukraine. Than I had a break at home. A second trip brought me from Moldova to Ukraine, Belarus and the three Baltic states.
The question of the Soviet heritage in the region is complicated. I encountered a lot of people who told me that life during the USSR was better than it is today. Socialism was all of a sudden replaced by a kind of “wild west” capitalism and a lot of people were sidelined and excluded from prosperity. Everywhere money finds its way to the capital while the countryside often stays poor and underdeveloped. The gap between rich and poor is extreme. That makes a lot of people nostalgic. Not because it was so good back then, but because it was better than today.
Some countries foster the remains of the Soviet past (Belarus, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan): lots of Lenin statues, hammers and sickles and other symbols can be found there. The Baltic states on the other hand are doing their best to erase almost everything that refers to the Soviet Union.
In a coffee house in the Moldovan capital Chișinău I asked press photographer Nicolae Pojoga how long he thought the transition phase would last in his country. He laughed bitterly and answered: “Nothing is more persistent than the temporary.”
Text and image: Nick Hannes