I spent four years in Azerbaijan, located south of Russia and north of Iran, formerly part of the Soviet Republic and now living with contemporary Muslim beliefs. Read about my story in
I started out as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ismailli (at the time, a somewhat remote village with dial-up internet that was left over from the Soviet collective farms) and eventually ended up teaching and freelancing in the capital city of Baku. My time in Azerbaijan was significant in many ways — often in ways that I am still discovering. I took many portraits from the years 2007-2011, encouraged by several amazing photographers who told me to find my voice and take the photos that challenged me the most. It was not until nearly 2 years after I left that I thought about the stunning people I had photographed, and the stories I had encountered. I learned that I needed to see people and their humanity; no single story is unimportant.
I saw so many people, and many people saw me. To most, I was simply a cardboard cut-out, my labels were very distinct: American, woman, white, non-Muslim, dangerous, not married, entitled, spy, prostitute, divorcee. I had my own labels for people too: old, religious, uneducated, simple, needy, cunning, greedy, Muslim, rural.
Then, I started taking portraits, something I had never thought I was good at. I did want to understand at least their faces: the variety, the story contained within the frame, the anomalies that make people so fascinating. My only regret is that I did not purposely seek out more faces and stories.
1. He was very young and very old and very puzzled: why would a stranger take his photo?
2. This man was old, kind and everyone knew him, my students said he was wise and blessed by Allah himself. He gave a blessing to my students — none of us can remember what it was now. At the time, I’m sure we were to simply eager to hike, flirt, drink coke, and escape everyday life.
3. We wandered up to the gates — an American and German with cameras and simple smiles. Azra spoke Turkish, I Azerbaijani. They let us in. We took their portraits. They had never met foreign women before. We drank tea under a photo of Heyder Aliyev and a dog-eared copy of the Koran.
4.She was young, living in a resort abandoned by the Soviets. Her curiosity was contagious. Why am I not married as she is? Why do I not love children? The mirror with the drawers was part of her wedding dowry.
5. She was 17 at the time and lives in an abandoned swimming pool. Three weeks later she was ‘kidnapped’ by a relative twice her age. Later, I had dreams of her calling for help. He father called my mobile phone in a drunken rage, hoping I knew where she was. I can’t remember her name; this is the guilt I carry.
6. He was nearly blind but loves the tar. His fingers were so bent and arthritic yet he tried to play proudly, even in pain. His shining moment was when we opened up an old box with his wedding photographs. There were no cars, so they sat on a horse drawn carriage. The photo was faded and he had tears in his eyes. His wife died a while back.
7. We wandered through the bazaar. The men yelled, women yelled, the noise is deafening, the sounds jarring. They were silent. They had been trafficked, sold, forced into a profession that made them unclean.
8. Somewhere north near the border, we almost couldn’t believe our eyes. There was a real, traveling circus, complete with animal costumes, a herd of show goats, and a proud man. Everything was faded but in the sun, the colors took on unnatural hues.
9. She smells. We heard rumors of who she is and how she lives. She is crazy, a ‘shame’, alone. Her only source of income is the twisted fascination of her difference and aloneness.
10. The children followed us out into the sunlight. It was summer and so hot. They were too shy to yell, too young to not be fascinated by the strange women. I tried to say hello but they shrunk more into shyness. I later learned that they were orphans.
11. The girl told me, ‘I am not pretty.’
Do you label yourself? Do you label others? How do you take photos that challenge how you see others?