Since my arrival in Kazakhstan more than 4 years ago, I had been told of and was intrigued to visit the legendary town of Turkistan, a place of such sacredness that it is locally termed the second Mecca. As a photographer and traveller, I feel it is important to visit sites of cultural heritage and of historical significance, so when I was invited to take part in this project, I quite literally jumped at the chance!
Generally I am a ‘people photographer’, and a vital part of my work is making a social connection with my subjects, breaking down barriers – putting them at ease and enabling me to shoot natural portraits. Since I had heard a lot about the character of the people from southern Kazakhstan, I was keen to explore the photographic opportunities on offer.
Leaving Almaty in the morning we drove south west, keeping the mountains to our left, while the scenery seemed to change before my eyes – the colours becoming more and more vibrant. The hamlets and villages we passed through were neat and orderly, suffused with a peaceful charm and free from the oppressive clutter of advertising billboards and gaudy shop signs. We had not stepped back in time so much as left behind the tiresome trappings of its ‘progress’. We eventually arrived in Turkistan at around midnight, which meant that my exploration of the town would have to be put off until the following morning.
I am a lone wolf when it comes to working – as Henri Cartier-Bresson once famously expressed, documentary photographers prowl the streets, ready to pounce, to ‘trap’ life – I am somewhat less of a predator, but in order to fully engage with my subjects I tend to work alone. Leaving the rest of the group behind, on most of our excursions I’d wander off and strike up conversation with some local taxi driver or street trader. I’d explain the purpose of our trip and politely invite their participation, which, on the whole, was unequivocally accepted. After some initial embarrassment and awkwardness (who really enjoys having their photo taken, after all!), we’d share a joke or I’d pay a compliment and I’d see the face light up, the real person shine through their mask of defence – that’s my cue, and the shutter snaps…
I was asked to write a few words about my trip to Turkistan – about my expectations and whether or not they were met. To be honest, as a visual artist I much prefer to let my images speak for themselves. The people I photographed were accommodating and hospitable, willing to share a few words – a brief moment with an odd-looking fellow lugging an outsized camera about the streets. Their openness and warmth is visible. A lot of them were themselves tourists, pilgrims from all over Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as well as other parts of central Asia – I even met a lone traveller from the Netherlands on his way to Ashgabat and a refugee from Herat City, Afghanistan.
I even bumped into a good friend, the ceramic artist Abay, who posed for me in his new workshop…
A distinct aura pervades the city and the shrines we visited – an atmosphere of purity and of tranquillity; although the purpose of my trip had been in no way religious, upon my return to Almaty I felt spiritually revitalised.
I thank the inhabitants of Turkistan and everyone I met there for their kindness and patience, and the guys who organised this trip – I hope we travel together somewhere again soon!
The tear sheets from Tengri: