Taken from his latest book, photographer Fabio Ponzio chronicles the tumult of Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus after the fall of the Berlin wall
On the night of 13 December 2009, I left my room at the Büyük Londra Oteli in Istanbul and took a taxi to the airport. That journey was to conclude twenty- two years of travelling in Central and Eastern Europe. I had started out from Istanbul in 1987, and continued into Poland, Yugoslavia and onwards into the Caucasus, to Georgia and Armenia. At that time, I couldn’t have imagined that a little later I would travel freely beyond the Iron Curtain. While the taxi motored across the city through the night, I thought about the time that had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and about how everything had changed over the last two decades, both in reality and in the minds of Europeans.
Before the collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes, every time I looked at a map of Europe my attention was always irresistibly drawn to the East and its mysterious names, inscrutable frontiers and roads that ran on into unknown, prohibited lands. The division between East and West was like an enchantment, holding us Westerners anchored to something unnameable that defined our lives, our vision of the world and our fears. The wall was the division between the conscious and the unconscious mind of Europe. Beyond that line, it felt like everything was played out in shadow, apparently without any connection to what was happening in the West. But like the unconscious self, the East was preventing us from forgetting our past.
To breach the confines of the East was to enter into a universe that had been crystallised, and where, at the same time, people and things had evolved differently. When I arrived in Poland in 1988, the country struck me as being on the verge of collapse. There was little food in the shops and the queues to buy bread were very long. The people congregated in the churches and gathered en masse during celebrations. Places like Jasna Góra or Kalwaria Zebrzydowska were islands of freedom, lost in a sea of grey immobility. The Polish people, one could almost say, existed between the elements of coal and incense, in sacrifice and transcendency. They had lived through the mines, the war and the gulags, and had survived thanks to their faith.
In Ceaușescu’s Romania, people’s lives were reduced to a succession of dark days, always in search of food. The Securitate had absolute control over the population and used informants, bribery and violence to suppress all manifestations of individual and collective freedom. When I first went to Romania in June 1989, I stayed just long enough to spend one sleepless night there. On the day after my arrival I was arrested and my passport was confiscated, with the accusation that I had photographed some phantasmagorical military airport.
In the same period, in Yugoslavia, the beginnings of what was to become the catastrophe of later years were being laid out while the West looked on in supreme indifference. On 28 June 1989, I watched hundreds of thousands of Serbs gather in Kosovo, near the plain known as the ‘Field of the blackbirds’, to listen to Slobodan Milošević give the famous Gazimestan speech, in which he laid out the ideology and programme that would lead to the tragedies of the Yugoslav Wars.
During my travels, I realised how important it was to immerse myself in this world that I was just beginning to comprehend. I had the distinct sense that history had created a vantage point that might allow us to see through to the essence of human beings with greater clarity.
East of Nowhere by Fabio Ponzio is published by Thames & Hudson