Photos/Interview: Gerd Ludwig Explores 'Brash, Grandiose' Astana, Kazakhstan

Gerd Ludwig ©Axel Pries(Axel Pries)

Award-winning, German-born photographer Gerd Ludwig has been chronicling the former Soviet Union, mostly for National Geographic magazine, for more than 20 years. His photographs cut through stereotypes to reveal the people of these vast lands as they have struggled through the collapse of an empire and a slow redevelopment and return to national pride.

Veteran National Geographic photojournalist Gerd Ludwig explores Astana, Kazakhstan, and uncovers an eclectic, visually arresting new metropolis.

Ludwig's photographs in the February 2012 issue of National Geographic show the new capital city of Kazakhstan, Astana, which has emerged from the Central Asian steppe as a symbol of new economic power and a desire to be recognized on the global stage.

The gallery above showcases images from Ludwig's Astana series as well as some of his earlier work. Recently, Asia Blog caught up with Ludwig via email and asked him to answer a few questions about work and the motivation behind it.

For the past 20+ years you've worked a lot in Russia and the former Soviet Union. What got you interested in this region? What keeps you coming back?

My personal connection with Russia had already begun, when I was a young child growing up in Germany after World War II. In the darkness of our cramped, post-war refugee space that served as bedroom, kitchen and living room all in one, I would listen to the sad, soothing voice of my father as he conjured up images of endless winter landscapes; of soldiers battling their way through snowstorms; and of people hiding from them in stables and barns.

Only later did I begin to grasp the darkness behind the stories — that the landscapes were stained with blood, the soldiers dying, and the people hiding were Russians filled with fear. My father, who had narrowly escaped death at Stalingrad, did not mean to simply tell bedtime stories, but was trying to shed himself of his terrible memories of war, as a snake would shed its skin.

Even without understanding the meaning of a country, or what the word "war" really meant, images of a land far, far away named Russia became deeply ingrained in my mind.

As a teenager and member of the first postwar generation of Germans, I was painfully aware of the political crimes of my parents' generation and of the suffering Germany had inflicted on the world. Full of guilt, I compensated for my feelings by glorifying everything that Germany had wished to destroy — particularly the Soviet Union.

Unable to separate people from political systems, I dismissed all evidence of the Soviet Union’s repressive government as Western propaganda. Later, in my 30s, during the height of the Cold War, I found myself on assignment in the Soviet Union. I was still so stricken with guilt about Germany’s role in the war that I willingly adhered to the unspoken Soviet mandate to photograph only positive aspects of life under communism. While my images were genuine attempts to mirror the Russian soul, they ignored economic realities, such as the bland interiors of stores or the dismal state of the Russian industry.

Finally, in the late 1980s, Mikail Gorbachev’s glasnost — his call for openness in every part of life — lifted the veil and confronted me with the social and political realities of a country that had been under totalitarian rule for seven decades. At last, I was able to separate the political system from the people and capture a different, more complete vision from the one I had been focused on for so long.

You've witnessed a lot of changes in Central Asia. How is it different now from when you first visited?

Over two decades, I followed the former Soviet Union’s manic-speed-transformation from state controlled to market economy. Immediately after the collapse of communism, a large portion of its society found itself unemployed, homeless and hungry — while a tiny minority of profiteers accumulated immense riches. Only after a decade of steady decline, the economic news coming out of the former Soviet republics showed improvement. The changes were first evident in big cities and industrial centers and today much hope for the future rests on the post-communist generation. Many of them are too young to recall the food shortages and long lines that still haunt older generations; or the oppression and fear that still paralyzes them. The new generation has not been taught to censor or hold itself back. For them, anything is possible.

But there is a bittersweet sense of hope and loss as the youth in the big metropolitan centers of Eastern Europe and Central Asia come to behave and dress like their Western teenage counterparts. As they are joining the world and great opportunities exist many also fear globalization and soulless capitalism.

Recently, this development can be witnessed most dramatically in Kazakhstan, with the creation of its extravagant new capital city, Astana.

Astana, Kazakhstan looks like a fantasy city. Was it what you expected?

The story on Astana was based on my own proposal for National Geographic magazine. My research included reading numerous articles, looking at hundreds of images on websites, screening video, and talking to people who had visited Astana recently. Those included writers like Paul Starobin, and the Kazakh filmmaker, actress and screenwriter Guka Osmarova and her partner, movie director Sergey Bodrov. And of course, I was in close contact with John Lancaster, who ultimately was assigned to write the piece on Kazakhstan’s new capital city.

During my research I discovered that all the existing photographic coverage of Astana had focused on a dozen or so outstanding buildings. But it lacked a sense of place and did not reveal what it felt to be in the streets, let alone live in this brash and grandiose new city. Fearful that I would end up in a city devoid of street life, I chose to photograph during early summer when the weather is comfortable and the largest festival in town, the Day of Astana, brings in thousands of visitors. I found myself pleasantly surprised when crowds of people enjoyed strolling down the Radiant Paths in the new center of town at dusk, proudly admiring the eclectic and visually arresting colored lights on its buildings, adding to its futuristic atmosphere a touch of Disney that may not be to everybody’s taste.

As a documentary photographer I embrace manifesting changes. Astana is such a rapidly developing city that I would find it fascinating to continue to cover over an extended period of time. In our Western world, specifically in America, we are so used to share our privacy with others, even the media. It feels like everybody is seeking his or her 15 minutes of fame. In Astana, however, I found it more difficult to penetrate that private sphere, particularly the life style of the super-rich; even high end industry-head quarters were off-limits. Hopefully my current photographs can serve as an entry pass to all segments of the Kazakh society in the future.

You recently published an iPad book of your project documenting the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Are digital books the future of photojournalism?

I am embracing new technologies. Apps open up possibilities beyond conventional books and constitute an amazing addition to a photographer’s storytelling repertoire. I can include multimedia and also reach new audiences even beyond social networks. Perhaps most importantly, I can publish what I want, when I want, how I want it.

As traditional news outlets struggle financially, photojournalists must now turn to alternative funding methods for long-term projects. While many in the print-media have turned to celebrity reporting, I am convinced that there is both the need and the demand for serious content. In this pursuit, I first utilized the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to engage the public, hoping that people around the world would care enough to open their wallets in support of this important story. And they did, enabling me to return to Chernobyl.

My app The Long Shadow of Chernobyl is not simply a PDF e-book. With over 150 photographs, five videos, interactive panoramic images, an expert essay, and links to important resources, including a Chernobyl charity organization, it is a comprehensive interactive multimedia photo book. In a market that requires diversification from artists and journalists, an app is another new and exiting tool.

What are you working on next?

No magazine wants us to reveal ahead of publication the subjects we are working on. So I cannot comment on this. However, in co-operation with my contacts in Astana I am searching for interesting venues — possibly even outdoors — for large exhibits of the Astana photographs in major metropolises around the globe, such as London, New York, Los Angeles, Brussels, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, etc. and I will definitely continue my long-term project in Chernobyl.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Bill Swersey
Asia Society's Executive Director of Digital Media, Bill Swersey has more than 25 years of journalism, photography and digital media experience.