From Madison to Nagorno Karabakh

From Madison to Nagorno Karabakh
"Square, Tiraspol, Transnistria" by Narayan Mahon, part of his "Lands in Limbo" exhibition at MMoCA

In Lands in Limbo, an exhibition opening in December at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Narayan Mahon takes viewers to Trandsniestra, Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh and other unrecognized countries. Given the captivating looks the photographer offers into everyday life in these unique places, it might be surprising to learn that Mahon calls Madison home.

Mahon kindly answered a few questions about his work, style and the experience of putting together Lands in Limbo.

How’d you become a photographer and what brought you to Madison?
I came to photography when I was doing my undergraduate degree in international studies in North Carolina. I’ve always been interested in different parts of the world and I loved traveling and I found I really liked photography as a way to document what I was experiencing, like a visual diary. From that I realized I wanted to try and make photography my career.

A woman brought me to Madison … or more like I followed her here … and now we’re married. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a city that I have loved so much—well, maybe ten or eleven months out of the year!

How would you describe your photography style or aesthetic?
I’m not good describing my photographic style. The first photobook I ever bought was Alex Webb’s Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds, and I think my style has been influenced from that first encounter with complex but clean compositions, these images with a lot of information in them and beautiful color … not that I always achieve that, but it’s the aesthetic that resonates with me most.

You’ve shot for the New York Times, USA Today, ESPN, Dwell and Rolling Stone (and Madison Magazine), among others. What are your favorite types of assignments?
My favorite type of assignment is one in which I learn something new. And that’s what I love most about being a photographer, that in a single week I can photograph a scientist, a baseball player and a politician … or a potato harvest one week and the next week lumberjacks. It’s that kind of diversity in assignments I enjoy most, no matter who the assignment is for.

What is it like having such an international career while living in Madison?
The international part of my career began before moving to Madison and that aspect has certainly slowed, but now I shoot more regionally and nationally, and I love that. I really enjoy shooting things that mean something to the people in the community in which I live and being a part of the community. That’s something new since moving to Madison and something I wouldn’t trade for more international work … not that I wouldn’t pee my pants for a shoot in South America in February or March!

Tell me about the Lands in Limbo project. What is it and why did you start it?
Lands in Limbo is a project about five unrecognized countries, Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria and Somaliland. These countries that have broken away or seceded from other countries by means of civil war. These are countries that have essentially won their civil war, secured the borders they claim, built their own governments, some more democratic than others, have their own military and passports, print their own money and provide some semblance of social services. Yet despite being effectively sovereign and independent, these countries remain unrecognized by the international community. The project aims to explore what life is like in a country that isn’t an official country.

When and where did you take the photographs for this project?
Abkhazia is in Caucasus region on the Black Sea, bordering Georgia (the country from which they seceded), and Russia. Nagorno Karabakh is in the southern Caucasus region, between Azerbaijan and Armenia and just north of Iran. Northern Cyprus is the northern half of the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. Transdnistria is between Ukraine and Moldova. Somaliland is the northern third or so of Somalia, bordering Ethiopia and Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. I started photographing this project in the winter of 2006, beginning with Nagorno Karabakh. 

How are the photographs for Lands in Limbo different from your other work?
I think the only difference between Lands in Limbo and my other work is content and scale. Lands in Limbo is a very large project that attempts to look at a broad range of issues, from national identity to isolation. My other work is much less ambitious!

What was the experience like working on Lands in Limbo? What about it surprised you or what did it teach you?
Working on Lands in Limbo was a big challenge for me. In many places I was watched with a suspicious eye, people thinking I was a spy! I was detained once in Transnistria and three times in Abkhazia, and near the end of my time in Nagorno Karabakh the Minister of Foreign Affairs asked me to leave. The former Soviet states have such a pervasive culture of distrust and paranoia that it can be hard for a foreigner to explore those areas freely.

Personally, my views of self-determination have changed since working on this project. Before, I thought, “Well, of course a group of people should have the right to govern themselves as they wish” … but I released that liberal ideal when it came into conflict with my other strongly held liberal ideal of multiculturalism … and I would think, “Well, of course we as a country should try to resolve cultural differences and find a way to live together.” “Stronger Together,” to steal the recent slogan from Scotland’s referendum on independence. And that is something I believe more strongly than I did before this project, that we are all stronger together despite our differences. So in the end, I think I came out of this project seeing multiculturalism as something greater than self-determination. Of course, we are only stronger together as long as everyone has the same privileges and treated equally. So I suppose there are conditions to that!

In a practical sense, working on Lands in Limbo was very frustrating. The logistics and costs of traveling to these places can be a big hurdle and complicated. Most of the time I didn’t have the funds to shoot when I wanted to or for as much time as I would have preferred. Lands in Limbo was my sole focus for years and that was also tiring, trying to get the work out into the world was challenging when most magazines are only interested in the news hook and not the context of the conflict or situation.

What are you most looking forward to in Lands in Limbo being featured at MMoCA?
I’m really excited about this upcoming exhibition at MMoCA, primarily to contribute something to the Madison community. The original goal of this project was to show people a world they might not know much about and I am really grateful to have the opportunity to do just that at a such beautiful and prestigious venue as MMoCA.

What do you hope people get from seeing your work?
If just one person says, “Huh, I had no idea these places even existed,” that’s enough for me.

What are you working on next?
My next project is a photographic interpretation of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

Lands in Limbo runs December 6–March 15 at MMoCA. For details, visit mmoca.org. For more information on Narayan Mahon and his work, visit narayanmahon.com.

Photos of, from top to bottom, “Square, Tiraspol, Transnistria,” “Store, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh” and “Black Sea, Abkhazia,” by Narayan Mahon and courtesy of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

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