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Zona - Siberian Prison Camps Hardcover – 1 Apr 2003
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It's official. The gulags of Siberia are no more. Solzhenitsin's nightmare of the absurd does not exist. The prisons are still there, of course, with plenty of customers, probably more than a million, such as the 15-year-old boy serving three-and-a-half years for stealing two hamsters from a Moscow pet shop, or the mother of four who stole 12 cabbages - what can have possessed her? - and was rewarded with four years in Siberia. So the inhuman lunacy still exists, but it is now officially apolitical. In reality, it is an economic social endeavour. It does not pay to be a poor thief in Russia, since you will not have the resources to avoid the interminable train ride to the East when you are caught. Carl De Keyzer took that journey to photograph the prisons today, with two army colonels as his shadows, one to the left and one to the right, he photographed what he was allowed to see, and no more. But he has revealed a kind of winter wonderland, a Disneyland where all normal credibility is suspended. Look, for example, at the tattoos in the photographs. "Where do they come from?", he asked. The answer came: "What tattoos? There are no tattoos. They are illegal". So they don't exist.It has been said that the collective memory is black and white. In "Zona", De Keyzer has elaborated on the brocaded fantasy of the Siberian prisons by using brilliant colour, as if from a hallucinatory dream. Look at the faces, and then the eyes, of the prisoners. There is a Zen despair there, as if they were wearing lederhosen in a remarkable holiday camp. They tell a disturbing story.
About the Author
Carl de Keyzer was born in Belgium in 1958, and began his career as a freelance photographer in 1982 while supporting himself as a lecturer at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Belgium (1982-89). At the same time his interest in the work of other photographers led him to co-found and co-direct the XYZ-Photography Gallery. A Magnum nominee in 1990, he became a full member in 1994. By his own admission, his concerns currently rest with societies that are symptomatic of a changing world, as demonstrated by his work in India, his books on the collapse of the USSR and how Russia is now coming to terms with the post-Soviet world and, more recently, power and politics in the contemporary world treated in a series of large-scale tableaux. His commitment to in-depth reportage does not come without cost. He contracted TB during his first visit to Siberia for his book on the prison camps (Zona, Trolley, 2003), and returned heavily dosed with antibiotics. "Unfortunately you can refuse a girl, but to refuse a vodka is the worst of social evils. I had a hard time of it." De Keyzer, whose work is regularly exhibited in European galleries, is the recipient of a large number of awards including the Book Award from the Arles Festival, the W. Eugene Smith Award (1990) and the Kodak Award (1992). He has lectured widely in the US and Europe.
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De Keyzer's genius is in persuading a general in charge of certain camps (the 'third category' of camps [strict regime] he never gets to see) in the Krasnoyarsk region that it would be a good idea to let him visit as many camps as he wishes in the region, 'to demonstrate how things have changed since Soviet times'. In the process he engages willingly in colluding with the camp authorities' self-publication; for example, waiting three days for "transport arrangements" before arriving at a camp where the paint is fresh, and allowing prisoners to be arranged and posed for him (for example, photographing a 'tennis game' with no ball, and a library where the 'readers' have their books upside down!)
This is certainly the price to be paid for being able to take these photographs at all, but since they are not the 'slices of reality' they appear to be, the book would have been the better if the context of the pictures had accompanied them, rather than relying on de Keyzer's essay at the back.
However, this is saying that the book could easily have been better; the photos themselves remain a remarkable collection of images of a strange world, where prisoners who can persuade their families to join them, can serve their sentences whilst living with their family in houses in the 'prison settlement' (unaccompanied prisoners remain living in barracks), and the walls of a young offender's refectory decorated with gaily painted murals of gladiatorial contests!
It is worth taking time to see this collection of images - you will not have seen anything like it. The falsity of the reportage is an issue, but the expressions on the faces of the prisoners - particularly the shaven-headed teenagers in the youth camps - speak of a reality that no carefully staged presentation can disguise.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
His works have an incredible plastic quality and although focusing on people, it depicts architectural and environmental details in the most amazing way.
Along with Lise Serfati, he is one of my favorite references on Eastern Europe / ex- USSR worlds.