June 2003

Carl de Keyzer
Siberian Prison Camps

Carl De Keyzer took the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way east. For several months throughout 2000-2002, in the summer and in the winter, he worked as a photographer in camps located in the former Gulags, each holding between 1,500 and 2,500 prisoners.

A reader of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, de Keyzer expected hell. Instead the first camp he visited, a model camp, was a cheap Disneyland painted in bright colors with wooden and metal ornaments, murals depicting glorious moments of USSR history and sleek black uniforms that made the inmates look like they might live in New York City’s East Village. Another kind of camp was cowboy-like, surrounded by forests, where prisoners worked as log-cutters. Yet another type was a complete village where inmates farmed and their families were allowed to live with them.

De Keyzer then decided that, photography being an art of appearances, he would photograph what he saw and only what he saw. That is to say what the Russians allowed him to see. He states that “there wasn’t even a possibility to get the real situation… so I decided to play the game, since the original idea - which was the only reason we had permission to photograph in the first place - was to take a positive approach to the new situation in the camps.”

De Keyzer never saw any punishment or discipline: “I guess the punishments are pretty bad when something happens, but I never saw that.” Or: “I got a sense of freedom in the camps.” However, he later writes in the same text that prisoners are not allowed to send or receive letters or pictures: the only way they are ever going to communicate with their families is through de Keyzer’s book.

Having seen only what the authorities wanted him to see, de Keyzer, who never tried to interview the inmates about their life conditions, proceeds to describe the camps as summer camps for adults. For his benefit, the inmates are constantly playing football, volleyball, basketball, ping-pong, and tennis (though it took the authorities half an hour to find racquets and they never did find balls). Their life is apparently a perpetual vacation: they go to the sauna, watch TV and dance in discos. The food, de Keyzer admits, is not too great but “the bread is high quality, though the soup isn’t and there is no meat.” No matter, since he can always buy rice or chocolate with his dollars. They help with that little problem that the inmates have of having to relieve themselves outdoors in subzero temperatures.

All along de Keyzer is having great fun – the best summer in his life, he says – and trying to persuade himself, and his readers, that he was right to do what he did. When the local TV came to interview him and the general together, “I said that if I had a choice between staying in an American prison and the Siberian labor camp I’d choose the Siberian labor camp.” After a while, de Keyzer “forgot about asking them to open this or that door, so I could discover something horrible. I abandoned the idea to reveal as much as possible.”

Even though he tries to redeem his images with a sense of irony – Calvin Klein-clad inmates playing tennis with no ball – what de Keyzer created is beautifully shot and composed color propaganda photography. We could even enjoy them for a while. But he need not have bothered to go to Siberia: he could just work for Benetton right here in New York City - and becoming Benetton ads is certainly what will happen to his pictures.

It goes to show that the line between irony and cynicism being very fine indeed a Magnum photographer has put his considerable talent into the service of self-promoting, “post-modern” cynicism. It would be understandable if he was in his twenties, but he is not, and quoting Dostoevsky’s “House of the Dead” in the beginning only adds to our malaise. After all, Dostoevsky possessed what is not in this book: a deep empathy for the prisoners, as he was one himself and suffered in his own bones the chill of the Siberian winters, the physical punishments, the hunger and the exile.

The very beauty of de Keyzer’s images is wrenching. Their truth lies in what he did not want to see: the contrast between the Disneyland environment and the story written in the inmates’ faces. They cannot hide their confusion, anxiety, sadness, anger, and bewilderment at having to play happy for the camera’s sake.

Hell could be painted in beautiful colors, and often is – in everyday life and in prison camps. It is, nevertheless, hell, and de Keyzer chose neither to go beyond the surface nor to do his job as a photographer and as a human being. No one said that job was easy.

-- Carole Naggar

Carl de Keyzer
Siberian Prison Camps
Trolley Publications
Trolley Ltd, London, 2003. Distributed by Phaidon Press