Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More corresponding from the FSB!

I love how he's using google translate.


Привет,Джейсон! Спасибо за поздравление. Взаимно и тебя поздравляю,хоть и с запозданием. Я в последнее время редко захожу в интернет, вот хоть сегодня увидел. Когда будешь в Мурманске? Ты был в Японии? Фотографии открыть не получается. Попробую в следующий раз. Пиши как будет время. До новых встреч.

Greetings, Джейсон! Thanks for a congratulation. Mutually and you I congratulate, though and with lateness. I recently seldom come into the Internet, here though today have seen. When you will be in Murmansk? You were in Japan? Photos to open it is impossible. I shall try next time. Write as there will be time. Up to new meetings.

Friday, September 12, 2008

still mates then

what a lovely email to receive from my friend in the FSB:

"Hi Jason! Has received your letter. Fairly - did not think that you will write. Thanks. Photos made excellent, in your style. Yes, weather in Murmansk not so and shine, but last days shining the sun. We wait on a visit in our city. With the best regards, Dmitry."

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Day 11: Goodbye, Russia

Not knowing how rough the journey back to kirkenes would be, I woke up early to hit the road. A man from my travel agency had told me the day before that I would have to take the south road - the same harrowing off-road experience that I had come in on. Apparently the north road is closed on Thursdays.

So it was this morning that it became clear to me that everything anyone tells you about Russia is false.

Four days ago, another man from the same travel agency had told me that the south road was much, much better than its counterpart to the north. And yet there were whole sections that weren't even ROAD.

More than a few people had warned me to be careful of taking photos, that I would be thrown in jail without hesitation, and yet I had thoroughly enjoyed my chats with dimitry and his chubby friend.

I'd been advised that cops would be on the take and pull me over for random offences, demanding bribes. For a second I had thought that the 1000rur fine that dimitry was putting on me would be a bribe, but even that was done by the book. Not a single cop so much as looked at me.

No whores, no street currency changers, no petty criminals. Just thick-skinned, good-natured people still living in something close to poverty.

Russia does take the prize for world's worst roads - previously held, in my opinion, by the united states. I haven't been to Africa or India, so I may have seen nothing yet, but for a country that outwardly does a passable impression of having an advancing economy, the roads are appalling and hilariously mismanaged.

Which is one of the reasons why I ended up on the north road - there were no signs for anything else. But my successful passage through it in record time suggested that it was not closed.

The first 40km or so were a pleasure; smooth black asphalt, a little rolling and undulous perhaps, but good. Almost too good, as if...

Sure enough, it wasn't finished yet. Not by a long stretch. Soon it went down to one lane, as the oncoming lane became acrid smoke and steaming earth. Typically, there were only a few men working - just like their counterparts working on the road to the south. After that, it turned to gravel for a while, then back to rough asphalt, then very rough asphalt, punctuated occasionally by teams of men whose job it was to half-heartedly patch the holes with Brie, or some similarly short shelf-lifed material. It doesn't take a genius to realise that these men, working as one team, could finish the whole road in perhaps
a few weeks, and then move on to the next.

As I rounded a sharp turn, I looked to my left to see a midsized car. Upside town. In some bushes. I did a quick u-turn, and pulled up to find a family of five standing in an orderly group, looking a little shaken but otherwise unharmed. Winding down the window, I asked them if they were okay - and remarkably, these were some of the only people in Murmansk to understand me - to which they politely replied 'zankyow, yez'. Are you sure? 'Yez. Isnowprowblem.'

There was a good amount of traffic on the road, and they had already put out an emergency marker, so I left them to it and pressed on.

An hour later I passed through a different checkpoint. No salute. No smile. I hand over my documents and the officer takes his time. Looks at me abruptly and says 'Open baggasje'. He appears to be satisfied with the tripod; after some time the barrier goes up, and I'm into military territory; no-photo territory.

This place looks like 1950. Men - teenagers, really - dressed entirely in olive green push carts of wood around, run in tight formations with a red flag at the front and a white flag at the back, stare down from watchtowers and drive beat-up old trucks from a to b. This, apparently, is where Yuri Gagarin came from, a base so big it spans multiple towns. Burnt out cars sit by the side of the road; several tanks line a lake and as I pass, a whole group of kids in uniform follow me with their eyes.

As I approach the town of nikel - that dimitry warned me not to chance photographing, being as it sits inside the restricted area - the chimneys belching grey-brown smoke are impossible to ignore. This is the nickel-mining facility that puts 300,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The Norwegians paid the Russians a good chunk of change - several million - to clean it up, but apparently the Russians spent the money on hookers and street meat, or competition exhausts for their new AMG. It looks nothing short of filthy.

So I had to chance a photo; one from the main road, two from a lower section, all the time wondering if, even if I escaped the town, I would be stopped at a checkpoint closer to the border, warned to watch for a small silver Suzuki.

I wasn't. But for some reason, traffic today was very light - so every guard I met took their sweet time, with nothing better to do.

The first border stop, where they unbolt a heavy iron gate and then raise the barrier, was staffed by a soldier who was perhaps a little slow. Four days earlier I had the benefit of a confirmed check ahead of time at the real border. This time I could have been anyone. So he checked my passport, checked the documents for the car, checked in the trunk - a tripod! You make photo? naughty naughty! - all the while singing to himself.

After that, you're in real border territory, where you don't stop the car. Tall, meticulously-maintained barb wire fences lined the road; taller watchtowers that I hadn't been able to see driving in the other direction stuck up from the treeline. I wondered what it would be like to try to get through there - apparently nine people had made it to Norway the previous year.

The border itself was much the same story, empty and bored. Customs checked all my bags, x-raying everything. I present my film for the hand exam and the first thing they try to do, like they do everywhere - is open it - glad I taped it securely. 'You can't open that,' I say. 'But we must!' Pause. 'IT'S FILM.' I've had this conversation a few times.

To be fair, all they see is a box that could contain any number of things, and they're not under any obligation to hand exam it. Everyone on this trip has been quite considerate once I explain it; especially if I make their lives a little easier by separating all my film containers out into their own tray.

After this, you schlep all your bags back into the car, where another man is inspecting the undercarriage, looking in the spare wheel compartment, digging through your seatback magazine holders, when he finds a Polaroid of the Murmansk bay. 'What is?' It's Murmansk. He rushes over to his colleague to confer, but decides to let it slide.

On the Norwegian side of the gate, it's like walking into someone's house. The room is tastefully appointed; a little R&B is playing in the background, and it smells of fresh pine. A motherly lady looks at your passport, smiles, and says 'welcome back', and suddenly you feel a little more appreciative of your background than you had a few days earlier.

Later that day, a flight back down to Oslo, where my grandma regales me with stories of my grandad's trips to Russia before the fall of the iron curtain ("CAPITALIST!!!", cried the random protester who had broken into the hotel with the express intention of trying to strangle my grandad - "of course, he didn't know what to make of this", noted my grandmother). And then an early flight back to the US, which struck me more than anything else as an interesting counterpoint to my experiences with Russian security; my passport was examined by no fewer than eleven different people between checking in and landing at Newark, making Russia seem like a bastion of freedom by comparison.

But it's still always nice to come home - to the invisible man making bad jokes over the luggage carousel PA, to the sunshine, the voicemails, the ridiculous wait to enter the holland tunnel, the friends you'll hang out with in just a few short hours, even though you're bushed and most of your body just wants to go to bed.

Next stop... Chernobyl? (seriously)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Day 10: Hello again

I had a really hard time falling asleep after the adventures with the federales; woke up just in time for breakfast at the hotel.

Finding things to eat here is tricky, mostly because the alphabet means nothing to me. I can eyeball a word and get a sense of what it means - some of the letters are same or similar - for example 'restaurant' looks like PECTOPAH, I think. But combine a new alphabet with wacky typography and sometimes you're out of luck. Being on foot would make it easier, but I'm mostly in the car due to the weight of the camera.

On top of this there's the total gamble that you face every time you look at a menu... And the tiny proportion of murmanskers (?) that speak English: so far most of my conversations have been a mix of drawings, sound effects and mime.

So, scarfed down some ham and pickles and a coffee, and hit the road. Three main objectives to tackle before I can start shooting:

1) fixing the flat tyre so that the rental shop doesn't have to look at the underside of my car, which is a total mess at this point
2) paying the fine for the port incident at a SBERBANK.
3) taking proof of payment of the fine down to the port authorities so they can clear the case

First stop, then, a tyre shop that one of the hotel guys had recommended. On the way to the place I caught a view of the city framed with Ladas, garbage and council housing, dotted with old people moving with arthritic determination to take care of whatever urgent business old people have in Murmansk. I climbed up onto a flat roof near the highway to shoot it. As usual, every passing car slowed to rubberneck.

I arrived at the tyre place and for the first time since arriving in Russia I knew what to say, thanks to the totally useless iPhone travel lingo app that I had bought for $10, two hours before boarding my flight. How much will it cost to fix, I asked, pointing at the huge screw protruding from the rubber. Of course, I already knew that I wouldn't be able to parse the answer, so I just grinned like a moron until he got a calculator and tapped out '310'.

Seemed a little high; I had a tyre plugged in NYC for about six bucks just recently. But whatever, I figured it's tourist price, and I was in no position to debate. Weirdly, they added another 150 to mount the fixed tyre, but whatever.

Next up, SBERBANK! Paying the fine was another hilarious nightmare. My federal friend had made a document that I was to hand to a teller at the bank; she would transfer the cash I handed her to the correct government account, and give me a receipt that I could show the port people.

First problem: the details that Dimitry had given me didn't match anything in the system. It was basically one of two accounts, neither of which was an exact match.

Second problem: she didn't speak a word of English.

Once we had picked an account - basically an educated guess - she asked me how much I wanted to pay. Given that dimitry had told me a thousand rubles, I just pointed at the note I'd placed in front of her.

At this point her eyes kind of went wide, and I became very confused. I wasn't sure if that meant that it was a huge fine (I think 1000r is like 70 bucks?) or a very small fine; no amount of charades shed any light on this. But eventually, having infuriated a whole line of old people behind me, the job was done.

Two down, so I headed back to the port with the note that Dimitry had given me to present to the security guards. Five minutes later I was back on the street, wondering if this anonymous donation to possibly the wrong government account had any paper trail linking back to close my case.

A few blocks away I spot Dimitry, this time in military uniform; he spots me as I'm pulling up to a traffic light, waves enthusiastically. I pull over, wind down the window, and we chat for a bit. He asks what I'm doing. You know, the usual. He laughs. I point out some spots on a map and we talk about where I can and can't go, helpfully recommending plenty of tourist spots (or, Murmansk's closest equivalents) that I know straight away will not yield anything good. Ignoring most of his advice, I spend the rest of the day getting some better shots, bringing the total to 46 colour and 32 b&w. Retire once again to the hotel to watch some more news - somehow, I never seem to have time to watch the news when I'm at home - and get ready for an early start.

The sound of newfound invincibility, damp roads and liberal application of handbrake on corner entry in downtown Murmansk: LCD soundsystem, 'disco infiltrator' (Buy it on itunes)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 9: Murmansk five oh

I drive around for a while in the morning, stopping every now and then to shoot. People seem perplexed by this camera, but I haven't had any contact with the police yet (Are, back in Vardø, warned me to expect to pay a lot of bribes for mythical traffic tickets). Bust into a huge factory, just by walking down the train tracks instead of going in the front door, and climb some ladders to shoot a photo that doesn't look as good through the camera as I'd hoped. Walk right back out the front again. Decide that this is probably the best way to continue, as asking permission continues to yield no love.

Nobody here speaks English, except at the hotel, and more than once in moments of frustration I have to remind myself that I'm the idiot. I only know how to say yes, no and thank you. Neither of my phones work - blocked from accessing russian networks - and foreigners are apparently not allowed to buy pay-as-you-go sim cards; the best I could do was to buy an hour of wifi from the hotel for the iphone. But I have not been able to contact a translator who was going to hook me up with a cheap hotel; he was expecting me to call again last night when I arrived.

The evening was a bit of a wash. First I had a puncture, which a nice Russian man changed in under two minutes after seeing me wrestle with my shitty rental car jack that couldn't get the car high enough. I tried to offer him some money afterwards, but he wouldn't have it.

Then I walked into the coal port, straight past security, just like in the morning, and started to shoot. Two security ladies stopped me within five minutes, but upon discovering the communication barrier, they left me alone. At this point I thought I was home free (note to self: seriously?) so I went deeper into the port. I'd just finished shooting a portrait of two dockworkers goofing for the camera when the ladies came back with an English speaking guy on the other end of their phone. He wants to know who I am and what I'm doing there. I explained to him how I had ended up here - uh, walked in the front door, nearly - to which he says 'well, now we have wery big prowblem'. So they take me to a room in the port security building and I wait for the FSB (for the record, FSB is one of the successors to the KGB). I pass the time by flirting with the bearlike security ladies in their nicely fading navy blue navy outfits.

After a while of watching Russian soap operas with the ladies, the Feds show up. There are two of them; the taller one, the one that speaks English, is wearing a Diesel printed button-down shirt and distressed jeans. He's called Dimitry. I greet him like I greet anyone, as if nothing's out of the ordinary, and I'm just genuinely excited to meet them (this works quite well on traffic cops as well, I've found, but that's a story for another blog.) The other one is shorter. He doesn't speak English. I don't catch his name. And he's fat, with a shaved head, and he's also dressed a little Euro, but in a tight green wifebeater. I figure that tonight, the part of the wife will be played by me.

Let's clear up the first bone of contention: it turns out I had crossed a border without permission. I'm assuming this is because the sailors and support staff on the freighters have perform their jobs without visas for every country they travel to. Exactly what country or jurisdiction I was in, then, was unclear.

It's 9.30pm, and they begin by asking what I'm doing there. They want to see my passport, but it's at the hotel, where it's supposed to be, although apparently foreigners are supposed to carry passports at all times, therefore causing a singularity from which time is apparently unable to escape. So we enter into some lengthy discussion to clarify the story.

Every time my new friends leave the room, I check my pulse, surprised that I'm not terrified. And every time it feels pretty normal. Bearing in mind that 747 landings, job interviews, and occasionally a pretty girl will give me the sweats, this seems superweird.

The highlights, since you're in a hurry:

- the guy asking if I wanted a cigarette, then it turns out we both used the Alan Carr easyway book to quit, and both spent a whole month eking out the last chapter. Lots of laughing

- I'm here on my Norwegian passport, which seems to make people relax. What does not make them relax is my new york drivers licence, especially after you have told them that you live in Oslo. That probably added two hours to the interview

- he offered me coffee, I asked for vodka. No vodka

- not being a perfect speaker of english, Dimitry finally tired of my drawings and charades and called his girlfriend to translate on the fly. She was in a bar, so with both of us on speakerphone, it was a little shaky, but he'd ask a question in Russian, she would flip it to English, I would reply, she would translate that back to Russian, and he would scratch some notes into his pad. Quite, quite hilarious

- as the meeting came to an end, he said that if he didn't have to be up in four hours, he'd totally be up for hitting a bar. Instead, we exchanged email addresses, so I could send him some of the other photos and we could catch up next time

The only bummer was just as it was looking like I was going to walk out of there with only a 1000 ruble fine ($60?), they made me hand over the six plates I'd shot. Interestingly, they accepted my word that the remaining two plates were unused, which made me wish I'd just told them that I'd only shot two, and handed over the blanks. I was psyched for the shots, but it could have been much worse.

They came back to the hotel with me to take a copy of my visa, passport, and immigration document. Afterwards the lady at reception told me that they had said that some agents would be back the next day to check on me. Weirdly, a couple of dudes showed up a few minutes later, and just stood around watching me as I went back to the car to grab the camera pack. Then, some guy got in the elevator with me and looked at his feet a lot. He didn't press any buttons, so when we got to my floor I motioned for him to go first, at which point he looked at his feet some more. So I got out and left him there.

Another awesome night in Murmansk!

Monday, July 28, 2008


Driving to Russia is nothing short of bizarre. First I wait for two hours to cross the border, which is completed without too much difficulty - just a lot of waiting. After the border, I am instructed to drive for 20km without stopping. If you stop, the military are on you immediately. So I go; after 20km, I come up to a checkpoint where they are expecting me (there's hardly any traffic on the road). A man unlocks a heavy steel gate and raises a barrier, and I'm out - but not free yet. No photos are allowed to be taken before the first passport check. A shame; the nickel plant at Nikel is an amazing sight, belching smoke into the air. I'm not inclined to try my chances; there are watchtowers everywhere, and as I pass, uniformed men watch on warily.

When I reach the passport check, a young soldier salutes me. I'm not sure what to do so I half-heartedly salute back. He checks my papers and has me step out of the car, opening the trunk and checking the glove compartment. He clears me, and I'm off.

The road has already been pretty bad; some huge unexpected bangs through the car. From this point it gets worse. I follow a sign for Murmansk- the only word I recognize in Cyrillic. After 40km the road disappears; just work trucks, diggers and cranes sat on a dirt road. Three or four workers mill around. I can't believe they'd completed as much as they had, looking so beat down and short staffed. But, the sign said Murmansk, so I continue. My phone loses signal, and I'm the only car on the road.

Sometimes it becomes a pebble road; sometimes mud. Every now and then I pass a deserted car on the side of the road; there's nobody here now. At some point I pass four people standing by their car. Like everyone else i've seen, they watch me with intense curiosity. I stare back, wondering why they have stopped, but there's no communication. As I'm about 200 feet past, I look in the rearview and it looks like they're waving for me to stop. But maybe not.

After a while longer of kicking the shit out of the car, I come across someone else going the other way. I roll down the window and wave. We stop, get out. I ask if he speaks English. No. Ok... Murmansk? I point east. He nods. But he also shakes his head. For a while we try talking in short syllables; no dice. He scratches '25km' into the dirt, but I don't know what he means. Murmansk has to be at least another 180km.

So I get back in the car, a little unnerved. My phones still don't work - neither of them, AT&T and Orange - but I press on; he must have come from somewhere, and he didn't seem overly concerned.

After some time - about 25km! - the road turns back to asphalt, but it's bad. A couple of times I hit a bump large enough to bounce two wheels into the air; a little scary when you're in the middle of a fast turn with river on the outside.

More concerning is the sign I pass that reads 'murmansk 145km'. I won't make it on the gas in the tank, and my map shows no sign of civilisation until I hit the city. And I haven't seen any towns, shit, hardly a living soul, the last couple of hours. I come up behind a truck and stay with it, thinking that if I run out of gas I can flag him down and get some help.

Finally I see a river with some smokestacks - but no way to get to it. I keep going. Eventually, with my fuel warning light on, I see a sign for gas. I pull off the road and head out to nowhere. See the gas station! But it's still under construction. But it's open! So I go inside, make speak with nice lady, and again we communicate in written basics - 30L x 92. And at last I have gas, after some questions about whether visa cards work in Russia.

Driving out I see a couple of teenagers walking up, trying to thumb a ride. I pull up, and again have some difficulty communicating. Eventually it turns out I'm going in the opposite direction. I feel kinda bad, being as I've barely seen another car on the road in the last four hours. ZANKYOW!, says one of the kids, as I pull away.

Finally i'm getting closer to Murmansk. I come through a small town that looks like something straight out of the cold war. Crumbling buildings covered in classic Russian typography; kids playing football on a dirt field, goalposts with nets of frayed rope, huge holes in them. A few more miles and I'm into Murmansk, trying to find my hotel.

Instead I find the huge coal piles that I'd seen on the satellite photos when I was planning my trip. The sun is just setting in the
background at 10pm, framing the cranes in this amazing orange dust. I pull up, whip out the camera, and walk in the front door to try my luck. Nice lady asks which ship I'm with; I say none. She smiles and says 'nyot poshhibl'. Ok.

I drive a little further and find my half-sunk ships that I'd scouted from 4000 miles away. Walking down to the water, I start framing up a shot when I feel something on my leg. I look down and totally freak out to see a bearlike german shepherd sniffing at my pants. He's just as surprised as me. Then I realise there's another one nearby, coming closer. But they seem friendly.

I walk up the beach - a tarry, black, smelly affair - to a spot with a wrecked cold war tank and another beached boat. Getting closer to the scrap, a bunch more dogs appear and start towards me, barking. These ones are not so friendly, so I turn and start walking back to the boats. They're getting closer, so I turn to yell at them. They stop, but only until I turn my back again.

This dude appears and shouts something, so I walk towards him and try to converse in Norwegian. He doesn't speak any, but it seems to placate him and I make the 'taking photos' mime. He shakes my hand and calls off the dogs. I set up and make a couple of exposures, the first of three different sessions at this location in different light conditions.

I drive for a while in the half light. There are stray dogs everywhere; at one point the car is surrounded by them. Some are missing a leg. Some are hilarious, fluffy little fellas that have gone feral and would probably take your leg off if they could, but still totally effete. I get a few more shots, but at this point I'm exhausted and head back to find the hotel. It's not great; the bathroom smells gnarly. Like, totally gnar.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Day 6: Vardø

Gunnar and I had been talking about my itinerary - once again, just looking at google maps and pulling up places with interesting topography or infrastructure. I showed him a place a few hundred kilometres away and he told me I had to see it - like the surface of the moon, he said.

So he called his friend Are, and within a minute or two had secured me a bed for two nights in Vardø - the easternmost town in Norway. It's up there, and while I know that the locals are sensitive to this, I had to wonder what would bring someone all the way out there. It wasn't connected to the mainland for the longest time until they built a tunnel in the 80s (a tunnel that totally looks like you're going to the stargate, and pops your ears as it takes you 88m below the sea bed). It's light half the year, dark the other half, windswept and barren. What I'm trying to say is, it's not an easy existence. But they seem to like it.

I took my time driving to Vardø, stopping in Vadsø and other spots along the way to shoot. The scenery was ridiculous; the kind that sometimes you just resign yourself to never being able to do justice on film. It can be frustrating, but usually it's only at this point that you can fully embrace the experience.

There's a big radar in Vardø. It purports to be for tracking satellites, which would explain the steady stream of high-ranking American military intelligence types that fly in regularly, and the signs that tell you in no uncertain terms not to photograph the structure, and the helicopters that come out from behind the hill when children ignore the sign and photograph it, and the fact that when a storm blew the inflatable domed cover off it, it was pointed directly at Russia - a country not known for being a destination for satellites.

The radar is essentially a breach of the ABM treaty, and the Russians are still pissed about it. But what can they do? It's for tracking satellites! Just like the American stealth plane that they shot down in Russian airspace a few years ago couldn't possibly have launched from within Norway, as all the workers at the base that it hadn't launched from staunchly agreed.

Radar? What radar? (Photograph by someone else on flickr)

Needless to say, not knowing any of this, the first thing I did on my arrival in Vardø was to drive up to the radar in the hopes of photographing it in the half-light, but upon reading the warnings I reconsidered.

Are and his family were lovely, keeping some dinner on the table for my late arrival and talking up a storm about this and that. A strange small world moment pops up when it turns out that Corey Arnold, a casual acquaintance of mine and a great photographer, had spent some time in Vardø as well. I email him immediately to WTF the WTF.

The following day I wake up with their dog asleep on my feet. We drive out to Hamningberg, a ww2 outpost in the middle of nowhere. It's so far out there that the road is closed in the winter; mostly the buildings are only inhabited in the warmer months. The terrain changes significantly three or fours times during the 50km drive, and reindeer are hanging out all over the place. (Hint: not easy to photograph with a large format camera).

That night we kick it in the sauna and have an early one after all the hiking, ready to roll back to Kirkenes the following day, pick up my visa, and head to Russia.

Here's your soundtrack for the drive to Vardø: explosions in the sky, 'the only moment we were alone' (Buy it on itunes)