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Tea-time in the Gulag

A photographer documents model gulags in Russia with surprising results

During two summers and a winter, world-renowned photojournalist Carl de Keyzer toured and photographed Russian gulags accompanied by a local photographer, an interpreter, and two army colonels as bodyguards. Between long waits for official permission to enter the camps, he drank quantities of vodka and tea with his companions, and more than once had to convince local officials that he was not a spy. At first he was shown only the "model" gulags, like Camp No. 27 located within the city of Krasnoyarsk.

"What I saw there was quite surprising," de Keyzer recalls. "I read Solzhenitsyn 15-20 years ago, so I had a very grim idea of these camps, if they still existed anyway ... but the camp itself is sort of a Disneyland ... there's all kinds of things, ornaments that were really very surprising, like wooden houses to keep the guards in, just like you would see at the entrance of any cheap amusement park. Everything was in color, all the walls and interiors, mostly light blue, light green."

Officials accompanying the photographers regularly "staged" the prisoners in scenes of work or recreation. His Russian colleague compared it to The Truman Showwhich he had seen in the local cinema. De Keyzer, looking for the reality behind the trappings, worked around these constraints. "It was a game and we knew what the rules were. And they knew after a while that we were playing with them, and they were playing with us, too. It got interesting."

Carl de Keyzer captured life in Siberian prisons, including "model" ones like this.
Carl de Keyzer captured life in Siberian prisons, including "model" ones like this.

Later, he was able to tour the country prisons, built along railroad trunk lines in bleak deforested areas. Whole villages of prisoners' families — with cottages and schools — spring up near the prisons, and families' lives are structured around visits to the prisoners.

The results of those trips to the gulags in 2001 and 2002 are on display at the Robert Koch Gallery along with de Keyzer's earlier depiction of religious extremism in America called "God, Inc."

A chronicler of the fleeting expressions on a person's face, de Keyzer has an uncanny ability to engage us in the lives of his subjects.

In Russia. Siberia. Tchournojar, Camp #22, 2002, a young woman, dressed up for visitors' day, descends a staircase into a swarm of black-clad boys, their heads freshly shaved. She is a startled bird, pinned at the angle of the staircase — her hand stiffened on the railing, her eyes wide. Who does she see? A brother? A lover?

In another shot from the same camp, teenage boys are crowded around tables waiting for a meal. In the center of the frame, a young man, arms crossed and elbows on the table, lifts his eyes to the camera — sad, suspicious, resigned ... a touch malignant. Who are these boys, and how did they end up here?

Metaphors of incarceration abound. A captive wolf paces in a gold-painted cage; pigeons in a closed courtyard flock to a seed trough tended by an old inmate. Bleak winter vistas of camps (minus-50 degrees centigrade) are both harsh and ethereal. Russia. Siberia. Camp #27, 2002 (taken at the model gulag) frames an icy prison gate, and in Russia. Siberia. Camp #12, 2002, clouds of silvery steam envelop a crouched man who tries to warm his hands as a fellow prisoner, across a sheet of frozen ground, carves a life-size horse in ice.

The context of an exhibition has a powerful effect on how it is viewed. I first saw de Keyzer's gulag photos in 2004 at the Museum of the International Red Cross in Geneva. It's an angular modern building that houses a permanent installation of millions of index cards in boxes — ranks upon ranks in alphabetical order — each bearing the names and statistics of war prisoners from World War I. An adjacent exhibit of children's playhouses at the Geneva museum featured prototypes of child-sized prosthetics — false hands, arms, and legs for the thousands of Afghan children who lost limbs in landmine explosions. De Keyzer's haunting photos of the men and boys in the confines of the "model Russian prisons" lose some — but not all — of their emotional clout in the context of a commercial gallery. It is strange to see them here.

In de Keyzer's sharply observed scenes, there is a deep humanity and pervasive curiosity. He has a keen eye for the small dramas of daily life under difficult conditions, and an unsentimental patience for the follies of his fellow human beings. Like Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson before him — who, like de Keyzer, were Magnum photographers — his mission is to take pictures that reveal and interpret the events of the world as he sees it. It's not often the gulag comes to San Francisco; it's worth a visit.

 
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