Friday, September 28, 2007

Siberian Misery Tour (Roll up...)

As the thermometer dips below 75 degrees today in Los Angeles, I am pathetically reduced to a shivering mass of thin skin. To think of all those school buses I used to wait for at 7 AM, still dark, nipple deep in snow, enduring New York's howling blizzards of the 1970's and 80's. To think of all those broken men in Siberian prisons who are forced to take outdoor showers in -75 degree weather. Shame!

Hell can be painted in beautiful colors, and this is what two great Magnum photographers, Lise Sarfati and Carl de Keyzer, have done. Their respective books, Acta Est (2000) and Zona (2003), are favorites of mine, capturing worlds that are so foreign and so bleak, and yet so rich in detail and (in)humanity... This world seems important to witness and even embrace, especially in the absurdly cushy "I can't drink this cappuccino" society of LA.

While the infamous Siberian gulag system was dismantled in the 1960's, there are still over a million state prisoners doing jail time in the icy wastelands of northern Russia. Of course the prison camps that the Russian government would allow to be photographed are the cream of the crop (de Keyzer was criticized for his rosie perspective). Even in the showcase prisons we see photos of vacant, shave-headed gaunt young men eating fish and blocks of bread, workers toiling under severe conditions, and of course, a man who fell asleep outside drinking a bottle of vodka having his arm amputated by a butcher-like prison doctor. Rosie or not, to us it's horrible, and yet it somehow rings so true - glimpses of the unconscious horrors that fuel our zest for comfortable living.

You've got to hand it to those Soviet interior decorators, they really knew how to set a scene. In short, Siberian prison camps, in all of their awfulness, are really very photogenic. Plus the air looks a lot cleaner than it does here.

(Photo by Carl de Keyzer)


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