Off the Radar


Satellites: photographs from the fringes of the former Soviet Union
Jonas Bendiksen
(156 pages, £19.50,
Aperture)


Jonas Bendiksen returns from his experience amidst the cultural fallout of the once mighty Soviet Union to narrate a disparate legacy from that unravelling narrative, with a book resonating with images from the collapse of an empire. The disintegration of a political ideology which reached so far as to dare conquer the moon, set in motion the creation of fifteen new states and a multitude of ethnic communities, released from under the iron fist of soviet rule to redefine and reinvent their future economic and cultural identities. Bendiksen explores the fractured landscapes of human experience dispersed throughout the territories of Asia and Europe, now geographically abandoned as scattered and spent artillery shells in the fringes of these former soviet satellite states. Satellites focuses upon six dislocated locations which ‘offer stark proof that the break up of the Soviet Union is still a work in progress' 15 years after the demise and is crafted into a stimulating blend of factual history and written personal accounts which becomes a beautiful photographic meditation on seven years work and experience since 1998.

     I love working on stories that get left behind in the race for
     the daily headlines - journalistic orphans. Often, the most
     worthwhile and convincing images tend to lurk within the
     hidden, oblique stories that fly just below the radar.
          (Jonas Bendiksen, www.magnumphotos.com)

Bendiksen's work in Satellites
maintains the high calibre of expectation established by a select band of documentary photographers prepared to immerse themselves into an experience to visually chronicle the world. Representing the Magnum Photo agency whose lineage includes the iconic work of Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa carries a weight of expectation to deliver insightful and beautiful photography. Bendiksen's images from the former Soviet Union achieve parity with the canon of photographic luminaries to which his work has aspired. Satellites is a collection of remarkable colour photographs that enables the viewer to contemplate evocative geographical spaces and emotive human experiences which would be physically impossible for us to occupy. Bendiksen channels his sensibility towards his subjects through the camera lens and evokes the places he journeys through and lives he encounters inside the vivid double page images of Satellites. Only the skill of a great photographer can bind the human eye and the mechanical apparatus to reassert the power of the still image to advocate a space in which the viewer has time to meditate and evaluate the visual information to which they are being exposed.

     Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality,
     a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for
     what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually
           (Henri Cartier Bresson, www.magnumphotos.com)

Bendiksen's eye for representing and upholding the integrity of human experience readdresses the dynamics of our mediated information society through cultivating our consciousness to the challenges of life in Trandsneister, Birobidzhan or The Ferghana Valley. We need the photographer to refocus our awareness by visually penetrating and documenting the events of the world which fall away from the communications radar, asserted by the powerful minority able to control and transmit visual information via global news apparatus. As a society absorbing incredible volumes of visual information through twenty four hour television signals with infinite access to downloading news broadcasts, we potentially misdirect our knowledge towards a passive reception of incessantly repeated moving images which only serve to dilute impact and anaesthetise the meaning of those stories unfolding at the click of a button. When Bendiksen releases the camera shutter he halts the currency of commercially biased news agencies and the political affiliations they choose to serve and address. Satellites
, refreshingly draws us into the void and gives profile to the human turmoil brought by political egotism and cultural imperialism through the annex of culture by military force.

     What freedom was won was it worth the price?
          (Jonas Bendiksen, Satellites
)

Satellites
functions as a visual proclamation for the political empires of our age, determined to exert their will by force upon innocent people throughout the world. Bendiksen himself could do no worse than to mail a copy of this poignant work to every significant politician in the United States and British government, who claim to bring freedom to the ordinary citizen. Bendiksen's photographs bare the truth of that political debris which left panoramas of empty bullet scorched houses which once contained the lives and homes of innocent families, sacrificed to the politics of greed. In Uzbekistan, dictator and leader Islam Karimov effectively outlaws the practice of the Muslim faith in an ostensibly Muslim country and in 2005 ordered government forces to quell an uprising by slaughtering at least 500 people. All of the photographs indicate the human graveyard of political actions. Bendiksen does not strive to induce negativity and sorrow through his photographs; these emotions become products in the experience of his images but rather the photographs illustrate the truth of human experience and it is impossible to deny the absurdly tragic joy of men waiting for Russian spaceships to crash in the barren plains of the Kazakh Steppe.

     Why are you taking pictures we are proud of all this!
     To you this means nothing but we're proud of it, our life
     was better then.
          ( Jonas Bendiksen, Satellites
)

Bendiksen's craft as a documentary photographer remains a fundamental requirement for our knowledge craving culture. Without the photographer to adventure out into the physical world and act as bridge and mediator between his subject and audience, our worlds could remain cast in dark shadows. Bendiksen's photography exposes our myriad emotional states of being and finds confusion, desolation, nostalgia and beauty travelling through the cameras eye. Satellites becomes an educational experience which illuminates our understanding and meaning of the human experience whilst probing the eclectic element of chance which can overwhelm and change our existence at any given moment. The ever reliable Aperture Foundation's desirable presentation of Bendiksen's sixty eight colour photographic images all spanning double pages, all framed by striking black borders, provides a beautiful platform in which to experience this photographic story.

Beyond question, the intriguingly beautiful narrative of Satellites
will recall the viewer to return to the images persistently to contemplate the question of why they didn't know that this was happening.


         © Jonathan Blyth 2006