A ghost from the future haunts Jonas Bendiksen’s eerily lucid Satellites: Photographs from the Fringes of the Former Soviet Union. Cleverly evoked by Bendiksen in shadowy black and white, spectral images of space rockets are used as the opener to each chapter of his insightful book, a metaphor for the lost greatness of the empire that put the first man on the moon.
Bendiksen began his voyage around what he describes as “half-forgotten enclaves and restless territories” after a ‘bureaucratic incident’ in the mother country left him destined to roam its more obscure outposts. Perhaps he acquired a taste for trouble … the first chapter, Transdniester, begins with a tale of being unceremoniously booted out of that self-proclaimed independent state into neighbouring Moldova on a “dirt-coloured winter’s day” in 2004. The subsequent photographs depict such days, as well as significantly more exotic-looking nights. Bendiksen’s eye is unashamedly “outsider”, but the sharper for it. Our travel guide mesmerises us with images of stark family homes, of the heavy industry that the region is known for, of old socialist realism, the latter a nod to another fact mined by Bendiksen: that Transdniester sits on one of Europe’s largest stockpiles of weapons and ammunition that the Russians neglected to take home.
Next, to Abkhazia, struggling to maintain its hallowed image as a premier Soviet beach resort, since a bloody war with Georgia, which left ten thousand dead. Although the war ended in 1993, two-thirds of the population fled, and many buildings in the capital Sukhum remain derelict, bombed out. Bendiksen depicts the desolation with solitary figures imprisoned by their very freedom. Yet when he offers us a glimpse into the “Riviera of the Caucasus” – bathers enjoying the waters of the Black Sea, lovers at twilight seen through a haze of disco lights, or a peek at a lone tourist, resting on a rock, oblivious to the charms of an incongruous stuffed bear behind him, his gaze becomes ironic, though never inappropriately so.
As we enter the third section, depicting another little known region, Nagorno-Karabakh, it is abundantly evident that this is exemplary photojournalism; that is, the text and the pictures work together to create a rich map of meaning. In order to frame one of the bleakest images in the collection, Bendiksen defies the deputy Foreign Minister (more trouble-making!) by travelling to Aghdam, a town once home to some 50,000 Azeris. He describes what he saw – the skeletal remains of a town that had been systematically pillaged, brick by brick, tile by tile, in order to reconstruct the capital Stepanakert – as “the starkest war memorial I had ever seen”.
In the Ferghana Valley, the most fertile and densely populated part of Central Asia, Bendiksen’s lens turns to religious intolerance and drug abuse. As with elsewhere in this impeccably researched book, he aims, through pictures and words, to provide a context for these societal problems. His gaze is intimate, and his access, especially to the underground mosque in Margilan, privileged.
Photographically, many of the unforgettable images inhabit the section on Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region established by Stalin in 1928. A red Star of David is scrawled on a shattered window pane, still framed by yellowing lace, which in turn frames a bleak snowscape: a communist apartment block across the way. A moment stolen from a snowy night as three locals wend their way home glows with a filmic timelessness. Poignantly, the final scene – and each image could be a film-still – sees yet another charter jet carrying a new generation to the new promised land, Israel, one of six such jets that took off during Bendiksen’s month long stay.
Empires fall. The last section in this extraordinary book is called Spaceship Crash Zones. As Bendiksen says: “What goes up must come down.” He travelled to isolated villages north-east of the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan to witness the consequences of living in a cosmic flight path: first and second stages of rocket booster coming crashing down to earth. Space debris provides rich pickings for what Bendiksen calls “roaming bands of men” who seek to profit from the precious metals, while at the same time slowly poisoning themselves with remnants of toxic rocket fuel. Bendiksen’s acute eye for the uncanny allows us to witness these strange ghosts from the future becoming relics here on earth.