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so this whole project started in 2000 when there was a Magnum show in Krasnoyarsk. It was part of a Soros Foundation project to organize exhibitions in the former Soviet republics and so there was an exhibition called East of Magnum in Siberia. The idea was to send a Magnum photographer to do a local workshop to accompany the exhibition, so I went and taught in a workshop with fifteen
local photographers.
The first time I was in Krasnoyarsk was in 1989, when I took the Trans-Siberian railway all the way east. Then, we weren’t even allowed out of the train; all you could see was the station. A lot of these camps are along the Trans-Siberian railway; they were what I saw from the train. So it was strange, ten years later, to be able to go to Krasnoyarsk, which was a forbidden city until 1994 because of its nuclear sites… a huge aluminium factory.
Since I didn’t know the region, I told them to find me a subject and we’d go out and shoot every day. On one of these days a local press photographer said: “We’ll go to a local prison camp, a former gulag”. So I was quite surprised these things still exist – I wasn’t prepared at all. We ended up in camp number 27 which I later understood is some kind of model camp, but it’s a working camp, still. Every camp has an average of 1500-2500 prisoners, same thing in camp 27, but whenever an official ambassador or foreign media team come to Siberia, they are taken to visit camp 27,
if they don’t have any specific demands.
What I saw there was quite surprising. I read Solzhenitsyn 15-20 years ago, so I had a very grim idea of these camps, if they still existed anyway. I had an idea of black and white, dark pictures, torture. But the camp itself is sort of a Disneyland. You come into a gate decorated with metal soldiers made by the prisoners, there are huge murals, famous Russian paintings about glorious moments from the Middle Ages or even earlier; at the entrance also there’s a huge steam train on top of the gate, there’s a wooden windmill, Don Quixote, there is a pyramid, Egyptian style. There are all kinds of things, ornaments that were really very surprising, like wooden houses to keep the guards in, just like you would see at the entrance of any cheap amusement park. Everything was in colour, all the walls and interiors, mostly light blue, light green. Psychologically chosen colours, I guess, to put prisoners’ minds at rest… also, the uniforms were in black with red letters on them.
We could work quite freely for the few hours that we were there.
So I decided to speak to the only photographer who spoke English, not the same one who originally led us to the camp. When the workshop was finished I asked him: “How many more camps are here? Is there a way to visit more of them? Are they all like that?”. At first I didn’t get any answer, but a few months later (the workshop was in August) I got an e-mail from him, saying, “Well, I saw the general”. There is one general in charge of most of the camps around Krasnoyarsk; there are about one hundred and thirty camps in this very large area, like six, seven hundred kilometres outside of Krasnoyarsk. The local photographer had some influence – he worked for the most important paper there, and he was part of the Olympic team that had climbed Everest and so he was like a local hero, he knew everyone and he got a small paper from the general with the numbers on it, I mean every camp has a number, one to 45 or something, and he said “We can start in April”.
I went over for three months. I actually had enough to make a book from that trip, but I decided to go back in the wintertime because in the summer months it was good weather, good light, and I thought this will not look very believable… wintertime is how everybody sees Siberia – in summer, it’s very warm, 30-35 degrees. I had the best summer of my life.
… I saw three types of camps. One type is mostly located in the big cities. In Krasnoyarsk, there are about six or seven in the centre of the city. They’re mostly factory camps, manufacturing furniture, repairing tractors. There’s also a big industry of small artefacts like wooden bears, the symbol of Russia, black roses which are also the symbol of being a prisoner, and which many people have in their houses, and romantic paintings that are sold to tourists in Moscow.
The second system I found is some kind of village camp. These are mostly quite remote. We visited four or five, about six hundred kilometres from Krasnoyarsk.
Once we hired a car, but the last hundred kilometres… they rescued us with the camp jeep because our car was stuck in the mud. It took about two days to get there. In these camps, individual prisoners still live in barracks. There’s not much of a wall around it, because they are very far from the nearest city. Prisoners who can persuade their families to join them can live in separate houses. They are real villages because there are other people living there, people who have started small businesses. There’s a school, there are children. The camp itself is quite open. The main business there is cutting down forest, and agriculture. There are some very big farms there; they raise cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, like the old Soviet system. But the farms I saw – and these were the ones that had been selected for me to see – were in a terrible state. Coming into the forest camps, it was like entering Bosnia during the war, ruined tractors everywhere, machines that didn’t work…
I didn’t get permission to photograph the third type of camp that summer, because another general was in charge of them. The excuse (maybe it was true) was that one camp had suffered a big fire, and that there had been floods and a bridge was broken. It took us quite a lot of effort to finally get into these camps in wintertime. They were mostly wooden camps, like some kind of cowboy fort, completely surrounded by forest. Around those camps the trees are cut, and since they have cut down a lot of them, they have to travel a long way now to find trees left to cut. The conditions there were much harder than in the city prison camps.
I decided to use colour… there wasn’t even a possibility to get the real situation. I don’t think so anyway. I never saw any really hard situations like torture… very schocking things. We could never photograph at night, we asked many times… the only time that happened was the women’s disco. So I decided to play the game, since the original idea – which was the only reason we had permission to photograph in the first place – was to take a positive approach to the new situation in the camps.
Actually I quite liked that idea because I don’t like mise en scène myself, but when people do it for me I never say no. My colleague had the typical Russian habit of many press photographers to set up situations. So either he set up something with the prisoner,
or the colonel or bodyguards set up something… in a way it was a double mise en scène.
First there was the choice of our guide who showed us the things he wanted us to see… though in most camps we could open every door we asked for. In that sense, they showed us everything we wanted to see, except certain situations. That was something they could arrange as they wished. For instance, we came into a special cell, and there were three or four prisoners in that cell, and the colonel with us understood that I liked people working and doing things, not just standing there staring at the camera, so he did it for us, most of the time. He’d come into the cell and say “You’re being photographed, and you keep on working” even when they weren’t doing anything, so they’d be given books to read. A Bible was always being put on a table somewhere, or they’d have to start cleaning their room, playing ping-pong or whatever. My colleague of course sometimes moved people around, and I took pictures while he was doing so. I never set up situations myself because I believe that my imagination is never big enough to create new events and natural events are always stronger that the ones you set up. But that’s how it happened.
… I only once saw a tennis court. I asked who it was for. The prisoners, they said, and immediately looked for two prisoners to play the game. Then they had to find rackets for them, which took another half an hour. They seemed happy with that; I asked them where the balls were, but even after another hour’s search, they couldn’t find any.
So we had this ridiculous scene with me photographing these two prisoners pretending to play tennis without any tennis balls. It was like a crazy mime scene.
Sasha, my Russian photographer colleague, played a vital role in the whole project. He did most of the phone calls and appointments. And there was also another person, Sasha, a woman who was interpreter at the museum in Krasnoyarsk, who also called many times to the headquarters of the camp to arrange new visits, sometimes we had to wait two weeks, three weeks to get permission for a new camp,
once the first series of ten was out, and there were more and more people involved, so finally my presence wasn’t really incognito. Everyone knew I was doing a story about the camps, and people would ask me why. Nobody here talks about them. They’re a no-no subject. And also people were a bit annoyed by the fact that everyone always refers to the camps when they talk about Siberia.
But everybody knew what I was doing there and I ended up being on local television and even national television. There was one documentary even, I had my six books in Krasnoyarsk and there was one channel that did a six-hour documentary about my work. It was very simple; I would put the book on the table and had to explain every picture in every book. One hour for each book.
In the beginning Sasha said it wasn’t a good thing to be on TV, because the general might not like it. But actually it worked the other way, more and more people knew about what I was doing and there was some kind of respect. Sasha always explained about what Magnum was, showed them my website, so they knew that someone important was coming to photograph. That probably explains why certain chiefs in certain camps were quite nervous when we got there. Maybe they thought I was a spy for the general who came to check if they were doing anything corrupt. Or maybe they had seen me on television or they had been briefed by chiefs at the other camps, you never know, but sometimes we came into a camp and there was some sort of suspicious feeling and sometimes there was a very good welcome with a party and a sauna, the use of the camp chief’s private car… sometimes we could even stay at his place. On paper it looks difficult to get into these places, but it was the easiest project I ever did. I’m probably the first person to have photographed this many camps in the new (post-Soviet) situation.
I had an apartment there for six months and I had a very good life… so in the morning if we had an appointment at one of the camps, Sasha would come with his car, and I was living on the fifth floor and my elevator didn’t work and my doorbell didn’t work, so I used to look out of the window to see Sasha’s car arrive, we’d jump in the car and drive to the camps. It would take an hour or so to get into any chosen city camp, giving passports, checking things, you know, a little talk, tea with the chief, then our body guards were introduced and so on. Finally we’d get a tour of the camp, between an hour or three hours sometimes, and then we would go.
It was quite different when we went to the forest camps. It would take us two weeks to visit just a few of them. In the wintertime, since most of these forest camps were quite remote, we had to take a special gulag train up north, about six hundred kilometres. It’s a special railroad where the main stops are all camps. That took special permission from this other general.
Sometimes when we came to a camp, we’d have to wait two or three days to get in. There was no real explanation for why we had to wait, and finally we saw that most of the camp had been repainted,
the prisoners had new uniforms and so on. But sometimes they didn’t even know we were coming – things don’t always work very well there, sometimes the phone was broken, sometimes the fax, there’s no Internet… then they would be really surprised to see us, especially in wintertime. Sometimes it would cause a bit of panic, we’d have to wait a few hours, but we were well treated. Sometimes first an officer would come with a jeep and invite us to a restaurant, sometimes we had to stay in the best apartment in town, only reserved for high ranking visiting officers like generals who came to visit, it wasn’t like we suffered or anything.
Also there was a lot of talk with the first colonel, our first bodyguard, who always tried to explain how much effort was being made to reach certain western standards in the camp system. He gave us a lot of statistics, how long people had to stay in there for what kind of crimes. He said there weren’t any political prisoners there any more, though I heard later that there are a few, and that numbers are increasing, though nothing like in the 1950s and 60s. I know the prison situation in the US and Europe a bit – there, prisoners are mostly in isolated cells with three, four, five prisoners, and all kind of protective elements like video cameras, guards with guns. Here,
it’s seems amateurish. It looks quite easy to escape. But you can see in the faces of the prisoners that there must be some kind of discipline, enforced by the guards. I guess the punishments are pretty bad when something happens, but I never saw that. Since most of these camps are labour camps, there are lots of open spaces and always prisoners walking around. So it seems like they have a lot of recreation, but actually it’s probably because machinery has broken down or something. But even in the camps where the machines are working, maybe it was all set up for us. I saw people playing football, volleyball, basketball all the time. And there were saunas after work. The food isn’t great, but I tasted it many times, even in the restaurants for the prisoners, and the bread is high quality, though the soup isn’t, and there’s no meat.
But I got a sense of freedom in those camps. After a while I asked myself what was best – being here, or being in prison somewhere else. Here in winter it’s hell, but in summer, with all the colours and people walking around, I had to convince myself I was really in a former gulag. Maybe that’s a big mistake.
Once there was a confrontation between the general and me when we visited the guards’ Olympics. It’s a big four-day party, when all the guards from all the camps come together in the forest with tents, beer and vodka of course. The wives are there, and they have a small competition, some volleyball, some spear throwing. Local TV came to interview me and the general together and I said that if I had a choice between staying in an American prison and the Siberian labour camp, I’d choose the Siberian labour camp. Of course my friends afterwards all said I was really crazy. It just shows that I don’t know what the situation there really was, because I was always presented with a kind of a theatre. After a while I forgot about asking them to open this or that door, so I could discover something horrible. I abandoned the idea to reveal as much as possible. In many of my other books I try to use the system that people use to give an impression to the general public. That’s what they were doing through me, showing how much had changed in the system. There’s always some information, even if it’s completely unreal, or even a big lie. There’s still something that hangs in there, so people ask themselves “Is this propaganda? is this guy paid by the military?”. And of course they remember and they try to combine the past and the present. In a way, that’s better than showing a few sensational pictures.
The chiefs would be really afraid to lose their jobs if they showed us sensational things. They kept things by the book, which explains something about the pictures I could take and not take. Though things happened that even they couldn’t foresee, like a prisoner walking by with no uniform. They weren’t always prepared for what they would see behind the next door. We discovered that if we took the wrong picture, we very politely got kicked out, we just got very quickly directed towards the exit, and we got the last tea, and they said goodbye. Even Sasha didn’t understand at first. But after a while he said “It all has to do with the system. There are rules, the machines are supposed to work, every prisoner is supposed to have a good uniform even when they are working in high temperatures, they are supposed to use their uniforms”. Of course they didn’t wear their uniforms and so on, so we knew after a while that these simple things were really the most important ones. And if we did take a picture we had to know that this was really a good picture so we waited until the end of the visit, because we could always ask to go back to a certain place. So we took the picture and got kicked out in many cases. It was a game and we knew what the rules were. And they knew after a while that we were playing with them and they were playing with us too. It got interesting.
There was this image of a group of prisoners cutting stones with their bare hands and axes. They’re constructing a building next to a hospital ward. They didn’t have uniforms; some of them had tattoos, which aren’t officially allowed (they do them at night with home-made needles). There was the fence behind which the prisoners were working… I was never allowed to photograph the entrance gate, or the perimeter fences. I couldn’t take pictures that locate the camps in the villages. Of course there are satellite pictures now, but anyway it was dangerous to do that. And so this one image had half-naked prisoners, tattoos, the camp, the gate in the background, even a guard tower. All the elements were there for a not-permitted picture. So I waited until the end of the visit and I just hoped that they were still cutting stones, which they were. We took the picture, actually we jumped into the pit, there were like six or seven people around us, a few guards and the camp chief, and they were really shocked. Even Sasha jumped into the pit because he saw it was a really good picture… but we didn’t get beaten or anything, we just got the last tea and were escorted out of the camp.
My colleague saw The Truman Show in the local cinema in Krasnoyarsk, and that’s how he referred to the set-up pictures in the camps. For instance, in every camp there was a library, with the Russian classics and also some western books. Every camp wanted to show us the library, because that’s a positive sign. Every time, they set some prisoners reading books, but some of them even had the books the wrong way round.
… there’s also the story of how we got permission to photograph more camps. We visited a village camp one day, and we waited to see the chief to be introduced. But he wasn’t there so we waited outside his office in the village, and there was some fire in the village and a lot of the houses were burned out, and there were prisoners in black uniforms taking away the remains of the houses. It was a whole black environment and it looked like a great picture, so my colleague started taking pictures. This was a big mistake because the chief didn’t know we were coming. We got kicked out for not taking positive pictures. Then the general said “You’ve seen everything now, the other camps all look the same. This is the end of the project”.
So my colleague had the idea to make a selection of twenty images and organize an exhibition. I had few films processed and even though they were all very badly printed, we went back to this colonel and ask permission for an exhibition to show the prisoners the pictures.
He thought it was a good idea and gave us the list of 10 camps where we could organize the show. So we had a nylon wire, and hung forty pictures from it and it took us like fifteen minutes to put the show in the main square. It was an incredible sight, especially when all 1500 or 2000 prisoners lined up for lunch. But they didn’t even go for lunch, they were just looking at the pictures, recognising people from different camps. The other positive thing about doing these exhibitions was that we got permission to spend the whole day in the camp. It only took fifteen minutes to put up the show, so we had freedom to walk around the camps instead of having two bodyguards, left and right.
I think I caught tuberculosis in one specific camp, where there’s a special TBC section. When I came back after my first three months, I got tested, and I had it. I had a six-month treatment of heavy antibiotics. I saw a documentary on television about Médecins Sans Frontières in one of these camps, which I hadn’t visited, but they said that thirty per cent of the prisoners there had active TBC. I had passive TBC, so there was no real contamination risk, but I sent an e-mail to everyone before I went back in the winter, telling them to get tested. They answered “well, everyone has it, we don’t worry about it”. The problem was that when I went back I couldn’t drink vodka, because of the antibiotics, and every time you go to a camp, you’re invited by the chief and you have to drink vodka. Otherwise there are no pictures. I had all kind of systems to avoid drinking it – I’d pour it in my boots, on the floor, in the plants… anyway nothing happened, and I got rid of the TBC after six months.
… there’s a transit camp in Krasnoyarsk where prisoners go to be told their final destination. There was this cell with four young girls, and this time I actually got to hear the story of why they were there.
We didn’t usually have time to do interviews. In most cases our guides were getting sick of it, and in winter it was just too cold and they wanted to go and get tea. We were dressed like astronauts, but they had simple uniforms, so they got tired, cold and bored. For them the most interesting part of our visit was to drink vodka with us and have a little party, and the pictures sometimes were just extra.
Also, I was there to take pictures rather than do interviews.
Of course I wanted to, and I even had a video camera, but you can’t do two things at once, especially when the game is so difficult to play. So I chose to take pictures. That’s maybe why I’m not really aware of all the facts, maybe I should go back. But I got everything out of it that I could have, I couldn’t have visited any more camps. It was a good decision to go for the images. I mean, you can recover the facts afterwards if you want to. But, there were these girls in the cell and I asked them what they did, and they said “Well, it was a bit stupid, at the weekend we decided to rob a grocery shop, and we put on some masks but of course it went wrong and we were arrested”, and they got five years.
… then there was this old guy who had spent thirty-five years in the camp. He came up to me, he was so desperate to talk, and he said “You have to call Geneva because they’re going to release me and I don’t want to go”. I don’t know why Geneva, because of human rights or whatever he thought was there. I assumed he had spent so much time in the camp while the situation had changed dramatically outside, and there was no way he could survive. But he continued his story, and the translator said he was crazy, “He says he’s been watching TV and there are so many floods all over the world, and if they release him and open the gates he’ll simply drown”.
There is no television of course in the sleeping barracks, but they do get the chance to watch television, in most of the restaurants
or in these holiday hotels, as they call them. They do get a two or three week vacation, where they spend some time in a private room. The building has ping-pong, a sauna, TV, some music. I suppose it was there he saw what was happening in the world.
… one time we were in a village camp and my battery was broken and I tried to open it with my knife and of course my knife went through my hand. The chief immediately designated a prisoner to take care of my bandage, and so every time I was trying to take pictures and it came loose he would run like crazy to the infirmary to get a new bandage, put it on my hand. For two, three days, he was like my private doctor.
… in Reshoti we were given a very special apartment. It was huge.
Six or seven rooms… real luxury. But the downside was our two bodyguard colonels were staying there too and every night for a week, a camp chief would come to visit us to drink vodka. Maybe it was courtesy, but maybe it was to see how I was as a person,
and maybe with the vodka they thought they could find out what the real reasons for my visit were.
… we found out that there was a disco at a women’s camp we went to. Every camp has some kind of theatre where they have plays made by the prisoners. Here there was a disco for three hours on a Saturday night. The prisoners were all dressed up and wore makeup. We were told not to take any pictures of the couples, because of course there are lots of lesbian couples (same thing in the men’s camps). It was really strange: forty, fifty women dancing with each other, a home-made disco bar with lights, and a row of officers in uniform, watching them.
… and there’s the toilet. In a winter camp north of Krasnoyarsk,
we stayed in a guest-house used by officers. It was minus 50° for about three weeks (the rest of the time it was minus 30-35°).
And the toilet was outside. I can assure you that if you have to go to the toilet at night in a small wooden shed with a wooden plank with a hole in it, you think twice. You can’t touch anything, even with gloves on you stick to the wood. So my solution was to eat lots of rice, and to buy all the chocolate I could find so I didn’t have to go. It was minus 60-65 degrees at night: when you piss it freezes when it hits the ground, so you slip on your own piss.
But this specific camp was quite difficult because we were staying in the guest-house, and when we arrived there were about ten colonels there and they were usually drunk all the time. One particular guy,
he was a really huge guy, and after a while I found out he was some kind of local inspector, KGB or whatever, was there to find out who I was, he was really suspicious, and always drunk and calling me a spy, a Japanese spy, Israeli spy, whatever. He didn’t believe I couldn’t speak Russian. Of course I tried to understand these people, you have to imagine if you spend so long with these people and they don’t speak English and you don’t speak Russian, all you can do is to try and listen as hard as possible, so you are very attentive, and this guy was absolutely convinced that I spoke Russian. He was convinced I was a spy. One time the two colonels we had become friendly with told me to go to my room and pretend to be asleep because they were going to come and arrest me. They couldn’t hold them off any longer, so these four guards, or police or whatever, came to arrest me and the two colonels stood at the door of my room – if I got arrested, they’d get in trouble too. They were there to protect me, officially from the prisoners, because there were murderers and such, and sometimes the camps were quite dangerous. But they talked to the police for an hour and eventually they did not arrest me.
I couldn’t go out at night in the village, but one time the four of us – me and Sasha and the two colonels – went out. We heard some music, and we found a disco with only two young girls dancing, and it was freezing in there, freezing like hell, so we go and dance a bit,
with the colonels watching us from the entrance. After half an hour a woman comes out of an office and says “It’s my birthday so let’s make a bit of party”. So we go up there and drink vodka; I wasn’t used to it so I got drunk really fast and hardly made it downstairs, and asked one of the colonels to get me back to the guesthouse. He was pleased because he could get in trouble if anything went wrong, so he stops the first car he sees, gets the driver out and puts me in the back of the car; it’s really cold, even colder than outside, and also the seat seems higher than normal. I was drunk so I didn’t really notice, but when we got to the guest-house I took a flashlight because I really wanted to see what I had been sitting on, and it was a dead cow,
no skin. Of course it was quite logical, people buy meat but they don’t have a deep-freeze so they keep it in the car.
In one village camp, we had a sauna with the chief, and he was always bragging about getting us some girls. I didn’t feel like it, and he said “How much is a prostitute in Belgium?” and I said probably fifty euros or even more. He said for that price I could have the whole village here. Then he said as a camp chief he makes $200 a month. He knew – he probably saw it on TV – that prison directors in the States make like $5000 a month. He wanted to move to the States.
In an agricultural camp in Egorovka, there was a vegetable garden. There were some girls working there, and one of them comes up and says “You should take a picture of me, because I’ve been here eight years now and they don’t allow us to send or receive letters or pictures, so please take a picture of me to take to my mother so she can see what I look like”.
The Ural truck is one of the biggest trucks the Russians ever made.
We visited three village camps, and there is one school in the main village, where a lot of children of the guards and even the prisoners go to.
They have to get up at 5am to go to school in the Ural truck. There are some chairs in it, but it’s really uncomfortable, especially in spring and summer, there’s no road, you’re just driving through the forest in mud that’s like one metre deep. It’s more like skiing than driving. I took that trip once, back and forth, and it takes two to three hours each way. So you have these kids – from four or five years old – going to school without their parents, and looking devastated when they get there, though they’re more used to the Ural truck than me – I was completely broken when I got there.
… a lot of the prisoners marry in the camps. In the three months when I was there, there were 30-40 weddings. Prisoners who stay a long time often get married, also because they then get more visiting hours than they normally do. If they are able to get to the camps parents can visit their sons or daughters there a few hours every month, or every few months. If you’re married you get three hours of special time, and there’s even a special marriage hotel with a room you can lock, and a bed and sofa. So one wedding we did was of a girl who was working in a local casino in Krasnoyarsk, a very beautiful girl actually, and we followed the whole ceremony and then to the wedding hotel and they had three hours to spend with each other. The next time they’d see each other was probably a month or three months away, and we were sitting there having tea and cake, knowing their time was running out.
In a women’s camp in winter, some women were cleaning the snow in the square and some others were inside playing cards. I asked “Why are certain women working outside while the others can stay in?”. And the chief answered very simply: “Well, the ones who are sweeping snow outside are the ones who killed their husbands”.

Carl De Keyzer