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U.S. Photographer Captures 'Central Asian Metaphor' For Life

"White road" -- the words offered to travelers throughout much of Central Asia as they embark upon a journey. American Ivan Sigal, 43, was wished "white road" countless times between 1998 and 2005, as he and his camera crisscrossed the steppe. He knew the region well, having worked for years to help design and establish local media outlets in the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

Thousands of photos later, the result is an ambitious project of the same name, as black-and-white images from the Central Asian republics, Russia, and Afghanistan are coupled with a travelogue written in streams of consciousness. While some photos seem inextricably tied to place -- vast Central Asian emptiness or equally imposing Soviet infrastructure -- Sigal achieves a sense of human universality in much of his work. The viewer finds scenes of joy, scenes of gloom, and the shades in between that make this presentation of the region, as least as far as Sigal is concerned, a metaphor "about living." "White Road" was released in late 2012 by art publisher Steidl. RFE/RL correspondents Richard Solash and Golnaz Esfandiari recently sat down with Sigal to discuss his work.

RFE/RL: What are the origins of this project?

Ivan Sigal: I started thinking about how we describe history. And so much of social science and political science and sociology starts with a set of ideas and abstractions and then attempts to fill those ideas with people and cases and incidents that are examples of the idea. I wanted to invert that concept and start with close looking at people's lives and build a story based on an accretion of many individual stories that built weight over time -- resisting abstraction and resisting a grand, overarching statement about place. So this project developed as many threads -- fragmented narratives of people's lives. I found over time that that was an effective device, at least for me, because I found that as I was moving and traveling throughout the former Soviet Union and Central Asia that almost everybody I met was also moving.

If the traditional travel narrative is, from a colonial perspective, especially, in Central Asia, that somebody comes from a center of power, travels out into the edge, or the wilderness, or a place unknown, interprets it, explains it, and then goes home, you could change that concept. That Central Asia was actually very central to the rest of the world. It's actually, after all, just a four- or five-hour flight from two-thirds of the world's population. And that everybody in Central Asia is also moving. So to get rid of that idea you first have to break the link between home and travel. Those were my starting points.

RFE/RL: Some of your photos from Central Asia seem hopeful, while others seem very gloomy. Did you feel that stark contrast while traveling through the region?

Sigal: Central Asia is kind of a metaphor in some ways. It's about a place, but it's also about a set of mental conditions. This project is about living -- it's not about a statement that says "Central Asia is happy" or "Central Asia is sad." It's just the people I met -- some of them were happy and some of them were sad. The project is more about identifying and showing -- explicitly showing -- conditions and character and gesture and personality. It's not about subject matter. So the question is not whether or not they're happy, the question is "How are people creating their own lives?" and "What's happening in those lives?" So I'm trying very much to look at complexity and how we look at pictures, rather than to give you a frame for trying to approximate the meaning of them.

So much of what journalism does is it takes a picture and it labels it and it tells you what it means. But a good picture is a question, not an answer. So what I'm trying to do is to ask you to look closely at the picture and form your own ideas about its meaning. Some of those meanings may be ambiguous -- sometimes it's not clear whether people are happy or sad -- and hopefully that will make you think about something.

RFE/RL: Some of your photos show your subjects in very intimate moments or settings. Was it difficult, especially as a Westerner, to get so close to the people you met?

Sigal: Well, I think that it didn't have much to do with me being a Westerner or anything else, because the thing to remember about Central Asia is that it's a melting pot. There are 120 different nationalities in Kazakhstan, for instance. My family came from Eastern Europe and left for the U.S. in the 1890s, and I met people whose families had gone East at the same time as my family had gone West. So I didn't feel as if it was a fundamentally different place. Afghanistan, maybe a little bit more, but still, even not so much. The simple answer is [that] it takes time to get to know people. You have to spend time with them. So I used small cameras and I spent time with people and I built relationships. Then it's not so hard.

RFE/RL: Of those relationships, do any remain particularly vivid in your mind?

Sigal: Of the many characters I met, I think I can identify a couple for you. First, a woman [named Yelena] who lived and probably still lives in a small town called Fomka -- a small village on the Yenisei River in northern Siberia. She was the mother of three children and had a large extended family. When I arrived she welcomed me and her extended family did, too, and I wound up staying with them for some time. It was palpable how much she wanted out of life and how she had to manufacture to create a sense of meaning for herself in her own community. The thing about traveling and meeting people is hopefully you recognize something of your own life in them and their complexities. Seeing how she was struggling to fit her own life and her sense of herself into this very constricted social world and massive space of nature in which everybody spent their time fishing and making food at home -- she was an Old Believer. It's a very simple life on the outside but, of course, nothing's really simple in life, right?

RFE/RL: What are the differences you experienced in Afghanistan versus Central Asia?

Sigal: Well, Afghanistan is certainly more rural and less developed than a lot of the former Soviet Union and Central Asia. [However,] there's still plenty of development and a lot of the people that I met were modern. One of the reasons I included Afghanistan in this project is that the Soviets had a very major influence on Afghan society, especially on education. Everywhere I went I met people who had studied in the Soviet Union, especially engineering. So there were people who spoke Russian all over. A lot of the legal structures and a lot of the way in which social institutions were built in Afghanistan were not completely dismantled by the Taliban -- in terms of how people were organizing themselves, in terms of the bureaucracy. So the Soviet influence actually had a major impact on the way that Afghan society is still organized.

So I didn't find it to be different in kind so much as in pace. If you think back on when the Soviets came into Central Asia in the 1920s, the first thing that the Soviets did, in Uzbekistan, for instance, was to create a set of women cadres to come in and help to change local law -- especially for women to have the right to divorce [and] to encourage secular law over religious law. It was exactly the same experience that the Soviets encountered in Afghanistan -- the Americans and the British, too -- 50 years later. So it's just a matter of when those kinds of encounters with a modern, secular, legal system and social organization happened.

RFE/RL: You've been back to the region since you completed photography for "White Road." What are some of the changes you've observed?

Sigal: The last photograph in the book was made at the end of 2005, but the writing continues until 2007. I've been back both to Russia and to Central Asia a number of times since then. The main change, I think, is that Central Asia is more and more integrated with the rest of the world and the book is, over time, a look at the progressive change and shift in terms of how Central Asia is moving out of a Soviet space and into a global space -- in the same way that the rest of the former Soviet Union is and in the same way that, inevitably, all national cultures are becoming more integrated into a global economy. It varies by country -- so Kazakhstan has a lot more wealth, is a lot more integrated, people are traveling, people are more worldly. I think it's not just about having more money, it's also about people adjusting their worldview to understanding or trying to define what it means to be a Kazakhstani or an Uzbek in a country or context in which you're no longer isolated. Of course that varies by country and it varies by individual, but [it's] that progressive opening that every country experiences and progressive complication of who is a national character.

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