It's official. The gulags of Siberia are no more. Solzhenitsin's nightmare of the absurd does not exist. The prisons are still there, of course, with plenty of customers, probably more than a million, such as the 15-year-old boy serving three-and-a-half years for stealing two hamsters from a Moscow pet shop, or the mother of four who stole 12 cabbages - what can have possessed her? - and was rewarded with four years in Siberia. So the inhuman lunacy still exists, but it is now officially apolitical. In reality, it is an economic social endeavour. It does not pay to be a poor thief in Russia, since you will not have the resources to avoid the interminable train ride to the East when you are caught. Carl De Keyzer took that journey to photograph the prisons today, with two army colonels as his shadows, one to the left and one to the right, he photographed what he was allowed to see, and no more. But he has revealed a kind of winter wonderland, a Disneyland where all normal credibility is suspended. Look, for example, at the tattoos in the photographs. "Where do they come from?", he asked. The answer came: "What tattoos? There are no tattoos. They are illegal". So they don't exist.
It has been said that the collective memory is black and white. In "Zona", De Keyzer has elaborated on the brocaded fantasy of the Siberian prisons by using brilliant colour, as if from a hallucinatory dream. Look at the faces, and then the eyes, of the prisoners. There is a Zen despair there, as if they were wearing lederhosen in a remarkable holiday camp. They tell a disturbing story.
Buy Zona book by Carl de Keyzer from Australia's Online Independent Bookstore, Boomerang Books.
(243mm x 308mm x 25mm)
Publisher: Trolley Books
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Author Biography - Carl de Keyzer
Carl De Keyzer was born in Ghent, Belgium in 1958. He became a freelance photographer while teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts between 1982 and 1989. He has been a member of Magnum since 1994. He contracted TB during his first visit to Siberia, and returned heavily dosed with antibiotics. "Unfortunately you can refuse a girl, but to refuse a vodka is the worst of social evils. I had a hard time of it," he remembers.