Returning to Kyrgyzstan after five years away, I found a country that still mixes open-eyed charm, bureaucratic frustrations and decaying Soviet-era infrastructures – all part of a slow, uncertain transition that its population wishes could go faster even if the ultimate destination remains obscure.
Taking pictures that tell a real story in post-Soviet states is always a challenge. Especially in Central Asia. I have to overcome the country’s big empty spaces, the absence of public information and a decades-old culture of suspicion. Then a door opens, I turn a corner, or a new friend helps. Suddenly I get my chance.
I want to give a feeling for the context of Islamic radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. But photography means winning people’s trust, and that’s hard. The people of Kyrgyzstan are used to keeping silent to please their parents, keep their jobs, or avoid harassment. Public spaces are one place I can begin to make contact with ordinary folk.
Tamerlane, a great Central Asian conqueror of the fourteenth century, was the first of his clan to convert to Islam. His people followed him. Violently repressed in 20th century Soviet times, Islam has now returned to public life in the region. Regular folk long for outsiders to see their religion as they do: a mainstay of a moral life.
Visiting a mosque, as a Western female, is not particularly complicated. However, pulling a camera out usually means that people just quietly move away. Most Central Asians share a deep instinct to avoid getting into any kind of trouble. Just in case.
Youth in Kyrgyzstan has little faith in the future due to rampant corruption, decaying infrastructure, and the country’s lack of bankable natural resources.
I attend a madrasa lesson to mingle in a class attended by serene young women in matching purple headscarves. But they did not let me take a camera in. Each day as I set out to portray a new facet of Islam in Central Asia – for instance, the small minority that might be tempted by transnational jihadism – I know I will face many obstacles along my way.
Unlike other parts of the former Soviet Union, statues of Lenin still stand in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not that anybody particularly wants communism back, or that they took it seriously in the first place. But most Kyrgyz cities didn’t exist as such before the Soviets came. And some in the secular Kyrgyz elite hanker for a bulwark against any back-sliding to fundamentalist religious doctrines.
Drinking over-sweet Nescafé in a lost chaikhana (teahouse), I worry that the whole idea of photographing religious change is a terrible mistake. Then somebody comes to practice his English. Perhaps this is someone with a fresh lead, someone who will take me where I want to go.
Weddings in Kyrgyzstan are major social events. No problem with photos here: this is how most Central Asian photographers earn their living. Loving bridal images are taken in front of war memorials, municipal monuments, romantic park benches, or all of the above. Even water reservoirs. For small, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, abundant water is one of its only levers against big, powerful neighbours.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, new national symbols were needed in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan chose Manas, hero of the national epic poem, which tells the story of the Kyrgyz Turkic peoples’ struggles to establish their country against Mongols and other neighbours. Islamist puritans, of course, would have things otherwise.
Long-distance travel in Kyrgyzstan means driving for hours on roads filled with potholes, dust, rivers of water and apparently indestructible Lada cars. The country may be small compared to its neighbours, but journeys between cities are physical challenges that can seem to stretch toward infinity.
Thanks to the many rivers running through the country, especially in the Ferghana valley, agriculture is a significant part of the economy and fills Kyrgyz markets with fresh produce. As any traveller in Central Asia quickly finds, street markets are also fertile hunting grounds for photographers.
Julie David de Lossy joined Crisis Group in May 2014. As the Publications Officer, she is in charge of proofing and subediting English and French language reports.