Writings

Zone of Absolute Discomfort

December 2014 — Inside the claustrophobic confines of a shipping container erected on an icy nowhere, a group of Russians waits out another day of an Arctic storm. Anton bakes blini. Andrei watches the same horror movie again. Alexei tries to craft a toothpaste holder from an empty tin can. Lisa the dog, who finds company among the 100 men in Camp No. 2, curls up farthest from the drafty door. The engineers gathered on this desolate patch of Russian tundra were hired by a geo-exploration company to look for oil deep below the permafrost. I am waiting out the battering winds with them, documenting the international race to domineer Arctic resources…

Another Great Leap Forward

China Uproots 250 Million Farmers

For generations, Li Rui’s family picked vegetables on his family’s plot in China. Recently, the 60-year-old farmer has been returning to the same land to harvest scrap metal. He bends down to pocket bits of twisted wire, screws, and whatever else he can sell for a few cents a kilo. The land, appropriated by government authorities to make way for a phalanx of condos, yields construction waste instead of food. Devoid of skill, Li is one of millions of newly landless farmers forced to adapt to a new urban life as China hurtles towards massive new phase of urbanisation…

Gift of Love

A girl embraces a brighter future, but leaves the traditions of her ancient village behind

August 2012 — On the third attempt, the old iron key cranks open the door and 50-year-old Wu Yuemeng pushes it ajar with her knee. She motions her daughter into the seldom-used second floor bedroom, dominated by a dusty, century-old wooden loom and a metal-banded chest.
Mother Wu reaches into the chest and extracts her treasures as her daughter, the cheerful 19-year-old Xia, looks on. She pulls out hand-woven shoes, finely embroidered silk ribbons, and fabrics dyed with intriguing patterns – all parts of ethnic Dong costumes and accessories. Finally, she reveals her prize: a glittering, ceremonial headpiece with swaying golden leaves, passed down through a succession of mothers to their daughters…

Midnight Blue

2007 — In a southern Chinese boomtown, the neon glow of a busy warehouse scars the moonless sky. Workers attack the thousands of pairs of jeans piled on the floor with unweildy, motorised grinders hanging from the ceiling. The scrub shears layers off the denim to create a “vintage” look, and disperses a sticky blue dust that covers the workers’ skin and clogs their lungs. Laborers at this factory compete with the sunrise to scrub as many jeans as possible before morning pickup, when the garments will be packaged and shipped. Every scratch on the fabric is proscribed, the size, shape, and location imitating real-life abrasions…

Photographing Racism

My experience in eastern Germany

I wrote this diary, published in Der Spiegel, at the start of my project in 2000. Germany has changed, and I have too; still, this excerpt explains a driving force in my early work, the spirit of which I continue today…

Walking on Thin Ice

Ice trekking across the world’s deepest lake

March 2008 — Spring arrives in Siberia as life stirs beneath the snow that has smothered it for half a year. The four of us set off for Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, near Russia’s border with Mongolia. We enter the small town Goryachinsk on the east bank after an overnight flight from Moscow and a 12-hour jeep ride. The moon is almost full, illuminating the frozen streets empty except for a few men clutching bottles of vodka around a food store. We check into our guest house with our guide, sit around a bed drilling screws into our soles to increase traction and stack luggage on our sledges…