The most famous woman with a camera in Central Asia, Umida Akhmedova—a photographer and the author of significant documentary works—talks about herself, her creative and personal path, self-realization in the face of public censure and rejection, a lawsuit against her, and the changes that women in Central Asia feel today.
An Interview with
Umida Akhmedova is a photographer and photojournalist working and living in Central Asia. In 2010 she was convicted of “slander of the Uzbek nation” after making a documentary. Since 2010, she can not participate in any official exhibitions in Uzbekistan. As a photographer she has participated in exhibitions addressing urban and rural issues and has collaborated on film and book projects including the presentation of the short film The Burden of Virginity. As an Associated Press photographer, her images have been published in the photography sections of the online editions of The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Globe and Mail. In the course of her work she has documented the traditions, disparate cultures and everyday events in the modern borders of Uzbekistan.
I always start a story about myself with the fact that when a person is 17 years old, he/she does not always know what he/she needs in life, hence he/she has no idea what he/she needs to do in life, and ambitions usually lead somewhere. Ambitious people always know that they need to do something so as not to disappear from the earth without a trace. It was with such thoughts that I unexpectedly found myself at the door of the Vladimir Kultprosvet (a cultural and educational school in the Vladimir Oblast of Russia). After failing to gain admission to Moscow State University as a girl from Parkent (in the Tashkent district of Uzbekistan), I could not return home. Now I understand, soberly assessing my academic preparedness at that time, that I could not have entered the Faculty of Philosophy of Moscow State University, but as a young girl I had high hopes. The school in Vladimir was not at all a prestigious educational institution. As my husband says, I was pressed against the wall. I had to study because I had left my home in Parkent for good. This school helped me find myself: I connected my life with photography. We were given FED cameras, and we took pictures ourselves, processed the pictures ourselves. At that time, I had a symbolic dream that foretold my future fate: I saw my photos and they were moving.
After graduating from the cultural and educational school in Vladimir, I resolved to continue my studies in the camera department of VGIK (the Moscow cinematography school). To do this, it was necessary to work as an assistant cameraman at a film studio. Before hiring me, the director of the film studio summoned my father. He told him that no girl had ever been hired as a cameraman, but that after looking at my photos, he was inclined to give me a chance. It was hard to work as an assistant cameraman, because the male operators did not really want a girl to carry the equipment behind them.
Nevertheless, I was preparing to enter VGIK, where there were strict criteria for admission. By a happy coincidence, I met on the set the chairman of the Panorama photo club, Mikhail Stein, who really helped me to prepare for the exams and later to become a photographer. Due to the experience of working in a photo club, I gained the knowledge for the creative competition for admission to VGIK. I passed that test—at VGIK they really liked my photos—and enrolled in the “feature cinema operator” department. I continued to work and studied via distance learning. In my third year, I asked the director of Uzbekfilm (the film studio) to hire me, as I wanted to become qualified as a feature film operator?. However, this time I had no luck. So I have stayed in the documentary industry, which I no longer regret at all. I would add that it is almost impossible to combine films and photography. I “departed” from photography during the perestroika period—or, as I like to say, the period “when socialism had not left, but the time of ‘Mustakkilik’ (independence) had not yet come.” It was a good period for creators because there was no state censorship or strict control thanks to Gorbachev’s short-lived Glasnost (publicity).
Later, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no point in staying at UzKinochronika either morally or financially. At that turbulent time, I threw myself headlong into my family and into photography. I have always photographed what I liked or what I considered significant. The image of my hometown, Parkent, did much to inspire my works. Even when I left my father’s house and later moved to Tashkent, that image was always with me.
See more photos by Umida Akhmedova: A visual journey through Uzbek society: Ten iconic moments by photographer Umida Akhmedova
In general, I have great respect for cosmopolitans, people who can live and create far from their roots. Unfortunately, I have a different story. It’s okay to be a globalist, a cosmopolitan, but to me, it is important to have a connection to your roots, the place where you were born.
There were many people—among them my parents—who were not obsessed with the issues of patriotism or sources of roots. Speaking of my parents, I would like to note that I consider my parents to be intelligent people, although my mother did not work officially anywhere. She had a phenomenal memory. In her life, she learned three alphabets: Latin, Cyrillic, and later Arabic, as she was deeply religious and wanted to read the Quran in its original language. She read many books. If all believers were like my mother, then there would never have been a single conflict on religious grounds. My dad was a doctor, a participant in the Second World War (1941-1945). All my relatives lived in Parkent. My maternal grandparents were progressive, they were literate. It seems to me that being a pioneer meant more in those years than it would later.
I think the intelligentsia are the intelligentsia everywhere; this does not depend on nationality. It is about spirituality, and my father understood this very well. He taught us to respect other cultures. Despite having been a soldier who fought on the front lines, he was not against German culture. He could distinguish between politics and art, and knew that one should not be confused with the other. This affected my family. My sister, for example, became a literary editor, writer, and translator. She has been translating world classics into Uzbek. I think the role of my family in my development is very important. Moreover, my love for Parkent—as my source, my family-related roots—is very important to me.
I will not say that Oleg [Oleg Karpov, her husband] was immediately accepted by my family. In our society, there was and still is a certain concern about shame, prompting questions like “What will people say?” and “How will we look in their eyes?” Such questions overwhelmed my parents, but I am grateful to them for not throwing tantrums. My parents showed wisdom, understanding that what is good for a child is good for the child’s parents. They treated my husband with great respect. From the very beginning, our relationship was based on mutual respect. Nobody was going to win over—or submit to—someone else. That is, no one was going to become Uzbek—or, conversely, become Russian. We understood that we were different and accepted our differences with great respect. That is, as usual in my environment, there was no cursing (“ok kyldym”). I knew a family in which the girl’s mother was Russian and her father was Uzbek. Despite the fact that the girl was not a pure Uzbek, her father cursed her for marrying a non-Uzbek. That friend put her son in an Uzbek kindergarten, and when the child went to his grandparents’ house and greeted his bobo (grandfather) in Uzbek, the grandfather kicked the child out. The child peed out of fear. This hostility toward people of different nationalities, which reaches horrific proportions in some families, did not happen in mine. I cannot say that I have felt discrimination or humiliation. This has not happened to us.
Women with Cameras
I was the first girl from Central Asia to graduate from the Cinematography Department of VGIK. Previously, I did not emphasize that I was the first and only, because I thought that I had not done enough for this. However, I accept it as a fact now.
As I said above, the cinematic community met me with suspicion; they did not trust me completely. The male directors were in no hurry to work with me. Gradually, once I proved that I was a serious specialist, they began to work with me. At the film studio, I had my own teachers among the cameramen, in particular Kakhramon Khasanov. I admired his attitude toward the profession. I received credence from a woman director, Galina Ogurnaya. She and I made such films as “The Deadlock of Baysun,” “Milky Way,” and “Zainuddin’s Golden Apple,” among others. She was a film director, I was a director for cinematography, but unfortunately, I did not work in the film industry for long. I consider men as techno whizzes; they are much more inclined to follow the technical rules. It is always more interesting for me to reflect the mood or the atmosphere than to pay attention to the correctness of the frame, staging, and composition while filming. It seems to me that this is less about gender than about your psychotype—your sensitivity and perception of the world. It also depends on your type of thinking.
Men are often more organized than women—but again, not always. Everyone is an individual, and therefore I can’t say that there are big gender differences between men and women’s works. Let’s take a look at the work of Margarita Pilikhina, a director of cinematography for the film Ilyich’s Outpost. It seems to me that a man would never have filmed as she did. She was an extremely talented artist. Unfortunately, she passed away early. I grew up at a time when the operator was a co-author of the film director. Now I don’t see this. We were taught to show our visual version of the scripts. We were taught to develop our handwriting. It seems to me now that cameramen shoot beautifully, evenly, but almost everyone has the same handwriting; few people have a creative personality. Certainly, this does not mean that they shoot badly; there is simply no individual style in the camera work.
It is very difficult for us to be creative in Central Asia. It always used to be hard, but now it’s even harder, I think. In general, we consider a woman with a camera extraordinary. I am still not considered an “earthly” person by my neighbors in Parkent. People are always surprised when I tell them that I have children and grandchildren. There is an opinion in society that a woman with a camera cannot have a family, and everyone is surprised at my “normality”—having a family is the norm in our society. I remember when I was shooting in my Parkent in Soviet times, I felt the same as those who had taken off the veil. From all sides, I heard ridicule, mockery. Yet although it was difficult at that time, there was a better attitude toward women with cameras; now, I think, the situation has deteriorated. Back then, there was the excuse that people were building the future, and therefore the difficulties of becoming were understandable, but today, people no longer have faith in the future.
People are always surprised when I tell them that I have children and grandchildren.
The attitude toward women here has always been suboptimal. From my perspective, I came into the profession from nowhere. During the Soviet times, a recommendation was important—it mattered “who brought you there.” It was important who was backing you; there were all these behind-the-scenes games on the path to professional growth. It was hard for me because I was not just a girl with a camera, but also a girl “from nowhere,” without connections and support. However, I had a strong desire to become a professional in my field. It was very difficult to grow without this extra support. I remember everyone who hurt me, but I don’t want to say their names right now. Many of them are no longer in this world. Besides the negativity, there was a lot of positivity too. There were always friends nearby, most of whom were professionals in my industry.
Exactly 13 years ago, in February 2010, there was a trial not only against me, but against a large group of people. The witch hunt began due to a fear of the Color Revolutions that were taking place in the post-Soviet space. That was the first reason. The second one was about the gender programs that bothered the authorities. It was important for the State Prosecution to know on whose initiative we had made our films, which organizations had commissioned them, what goals we pursued in our work. I have to admit that independent people are not liked everywhere. There is always a bit of annoyance toward people who are outside control. This is always an unpleasant feature of authoritarian societies, as it is believed that only the authorities have the right to public spaces. I remember accusations against the Soros Foundation, the Tashkent branch of which was closed in 2004. Then we had the Andijan bloody events in 2005. After these occurrences, repression of civil society increased, and many public organizations and activists suffered. They treated civil activists very rudely and unceremoniously.
My husband and I produced a film, The Burden of Virginity, that was the main argument for the charge of “insulting the feelings of the Uzbek people.” This film was accepted neither by the Gender Program at the Swiss Embassy in the Republic of Uzbekistan nor by the public. However, we screened it at the Cinema Museum founded by my husband, Oleg Karpov. There was a newsbreak due to Fergana.ru and therefore Oleg and I turned out to be the main defendants in this case. We were all granted amnesty later on, but I still do not like to remember that time. I felt great irritation that this was an insult to all active creative work and a clear civic position. I felt an echo of the Soviet legacy in the fact that I had to report to the authorities, who sought to control us all, in front of everyone. I’m glad that I had strong support in my family; thanks to the support of my husband, Oleg Karpov, I survived everything.
Whether Uzbek or Tajik, as women from traditional societies, we have always had limited rights in terms of our actions. Nevertheless, I always have great respect for our women: it seems to me that if our women want something, they always achieve it. Unfortunately, there are few examples, but they still exist. I believe that self-realization requires inner strength. You can’t go anywhere without it. Your life is in your own hands, and an ability to take risks is required for self-realization. “You can’t be a little pregnant” is a saying in Russian. If you worry about what people say, you will never achieve anything. You have to hold on; do not be afraid to stand out from the crowd. My neighbors got used to me, and your neighbors will get used to you. I remember that when I used to walk around with cameras hanging around my neck, everyone used to stare at me, but then they got used to me and I got used to them. I think no one in the neighborhood can now imagine me without a camera. The environment accepted me for who I am.
You have to get what you want for yourself. No one will come and do it for you. In general, what is the recipe here? We understand very well where we live, in what kind of society we reside. For example, sometimes I am asked about not covering my head. I reply that it is my choice to go without a headscarf. That is it. Women should do what they want to do, not what society expects from them. I love our rituals and traditions very much, but I do not always want to follow them. For example, why should I have a grand wedding to please society? I won’t do something to please anyone. We have to learn to rise above conventions. Actually, I am the same wife, mother, grandmother, I just spend more of my time on my profession, on self-realization. I realize that it is absolutely impossible to become free from society, but why not become an example of staying above convention?
For example, why should I have a grand wedding to please society? I won’t do something to please anyone.
Unfortunately, nowadays the situation is not very good for positive changes. If in Soviet times there was an ideology supported by the main Party Committee or the Komsomol, now this is all gone. Previously, in our youth, what we desired was knowledge, perseverance for excellence, but this is no longer the case. Now everyone wants to get married, if not legally, then at least illegally as a second, third wife, but always “to a wealthy man.” It makes me wonder why the victims of the liberation of the women of the East were needed, if my sisters are so comfortable being “slaves” to the rules. Ichgari (the inner side of the house where only a woman’s husband could enter) has become a symbol of young women’s success. Now, women are ready to endure many humiliations just to have the status of being married.
I am quite successful. I consider my education, the realization of my goals in my distant youth, to be my first achievement. The opportunity to meet new people and cultures is a further achievement. I feel empty if I don’t travel around the world. It is very important to travel and return home. My next achievement is my family. I am happy that I have a family, children and grandchildren. My husband is my co-author, my colleague, and my support. Despite the difference in our cultures, we have been able to create a strong family. My son (Timur Karpov), who is in the same profession as my husband and I, is different. I learn from him, because he belongs to the generation of younger modern visualists. There is always something new to learn about and to grasp.
 Umida Akhmedova was convicted of “offense through mass media” by the court in the capital, Tashkent, after government experts found her documentary “offensive to the Uzbek nation.” She could have been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but was released under an amnesty in honor of the 18th anniversary of Uzbek independence.
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