This Week in Photography: An Empire in Decline

 

“A new era has dawned in our country,
all the Earth is lit by the light of morn,
glory fills our hearts with an aura of greatness,
in the mighty state a happy time has begun.”

(From the state newspaper “Neutral Turkmenistan, “2012)

 

I’m writing on Thursday morning, (as usual,) July 30, 2020.

It’s the day that many of us have been waiting for, as Donald Trump has officially suggested postponing the presidential election here in America.

The times of our glorious leader are abundant, and let us hope they continue long into the future, when the son of dear leader, the great Barron, will guide is into endless prosperity, safety, and happiness.

Now, the cynics among us might suggest that Trump is baiting people into perseverating about one more distraction.

The quarterly economic numbers came out, and they were abysmal, like the worst EVER, meaning DJT’s plan to open the economy, believing that the coronavirus would simply “disappear” was wrong.

The Big Don doesn’t do “wrong,” so instead, he gave the media a big fat T-bone steak of scary, so that everyone would fret about that, rather than questioning him about the American economic free-fall.

So here we are.

We, as Americans, do a great job of thinking about ourselves, and our country, all the time.

The Trump collapse has even pushed Global Warming fears to the back burner, as who has time to contemplate planetary extinction when there is a fierce political battle going on right here in our own country?

(A colleague reminded me of that a few weeks ago, texting that most of the world lives with fear and difficulty all the time.)

We’ve officially reached the end of the road, with respect to the height of the “American Empire,” and the changes we’re feeling are not only about Trump, but rather a declining power settling down into a lower status.

It’s never easy.

But every great power that has ruled the world has then had to adjust to a time when they were relegated to #2, or #3, or even lower down the table.

(Even my favorite soccer team, Arsenal, is a declining power right now, having just finished 8th in the Premier League.)

Whether or not I start kissing up to China, (O great and wondrous Xi,) no sentient being would think that the US stands much of a chance of balancing their power in the coming decades.

Not if we’re this broken, and we don’t make things anymore, and we can’t seem to move past the divisions of a 19th Century war.

Basically, we’re fucked, and even if Joe Biden wins in November, and Trump is out in January, we’re firmly in the damage control portion of our history.

How can we salvage things, not how can me Make Everything Great Again.

Sorry to be a downer, but a cool dude like Obama couldn’t unite this country, and when there are White Power jerks out and proud in places like Northern Arkansas, we are where we are.

But why am I thinking this way right now?

Where did this particular, giving up isn’t so bad rant come from?

I’m glad you asked.

Like the old days, the glorious past which will always be better than the future, I’m writing about a photo book.

Perusing my book shelf this morning, I came across “Promising Waters,” by Mila Teshaieva, which was published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, as a prize winning book in the Critical Mass competition. (Published in 2013.)

I’m sure they sent it to me for judging, but somehow, I never checked it out before today.

Thank goodness, because without it, I might not have written that sad bit of realpolitik above.

(We’re #2! We’re #2!)

This book is excellent, and smart, which are not necessarily the same things.

The photographs are bleak and beautiful, and seem to be set in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, though it’s hard to say which one.

Frankly, this is one of those books I like, which teases out the story, bit by bit, asking you to guess, before giving you all the information you need at the end, which then makes you want to look through it again.

Which I did.

(And you would too.)

So it’s excellent, because it’s well made, but it’s smart, as it considers the viewing experience, and then adjusts accordingly.

For today, I’m going to jump to the end, as is my prerogative as a reviewer.

There are two very well written essays, and the second tells us this was shot in several countries around the Caspian Sea.

Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

And the end notes also have a numerical list of places, with a map and a little description, but I didn’t understand how it functioned until my second viewing.

Each page has a tiny number, which I missed on first viewing, and it corresponds to the list, (and the map,) so that afterwards, you can try to figure out where each picture is taken, and then compare some places to others.

(Like a puzzle.)

So that’s why it’s smart…

As to the pictures, and the intermittent text, it all speaks to a place in the world that is reckoning with life after an Empire’s primacy.

These may have been far-flung outposts of the Great Soviet Empire, but now they’re not even that.

There are references to changed alphabets and languages, and rising, empty cites.

Of oil fields that leak and pollute, and sea borders that are in dispute.

One photo, of an abandoned library, is absolutely heartbreaking, but then you read the caption in the back, and learn it used to be a Jewish synagogue, which was decommissioned by the Soviets, and turned into a library, only to be left to rot, once the Cyrillic books were no longer relevant.

Everywhere, we see painted backdrops, to distract from the surroundings, and the text speaks of shiny facades added to crumbling Soviet buildings, or fancy buildings built for a world of rich people that likely never came. (Or will never come? I’m getting confused by time, and with my tenses, this deep into lockdown.)

There are tiny houses, meant to be destroyed for new construction, and an overwhelming sense of decline.

Still, a young man works out on improvised exercise equipment, a young woman has a fancy pocketbook in a washed-out-looking restaurant, and another young man stands before a computer with the word Democracy visible.

Nothing about this book was made for America in #2020, yet it all feels like a cautionary tale.

On a happier note, it is late-summer now, so at least you can go for a walk in the evening, if you wear your mask.

(Sorry, that’s all the optimism I’ve got for today.)

To purchase “Promising Waters” click here 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please contact me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are particularly interested in books by women, and artists of color, so we may maintain a balanced program. 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 2 Comments On This Article.

  1. Yes, interesting book!

    I’ll always remember reading in the pre-intertube days about this Caucasian (ie- an actual Caucasian from… the Caucasus) relating how they and their swarthy (don’t ya just love that word) complexion were looked down upon by their neighboring Russians who referred to them as… “Blacks.” You can’t make shit like that up.