Over the past several years, Madison, Wis.-based portrait photographer Narayan Mahon has been diligently working on a personal project that has taken him around the globe. The project, Lands In Limbo, documents the stories of the unrecognized—and often forgotten—countries of Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland.
These de-facto states exist in a political, social and cultural limbo, waiting for international recognition and confirmation of their self-determination. Most of the countries included broke away from recognized countries after bloody ethnic conflicts. Now, the wars have cooled to the point of frozen, although no peace agreements have been reached.– Narayan Mahon
Struck by the stories and images, I talked with Narayan to learn a little more about his unique and engrossing photo essays.
What inspired you to create this project?
I was traveling by train from Ukraine to Moldova and the train stopped at the border of Transnistria, a breakaway state of Moldova. At the border, the guards shook me down for all the cash I had, holding my passport for ransom. I became fascinated by the idea of these breakaway countries, which have built their own countries but operate in a sort of black-hole while hoping and waiting for recognition. I studied more about that process of recognition and what it means for a country. I was interested in why a country secedes from another and how national identity plays into that. I wanted to know why some countries are welcomed into the international community and others are not. I started researching this subject before I studied photography. When I applied for graduate school, I said this was the project I would do for my master’s thesis… and it was.
How would you describe Lands In Limbo?
This project is about five unrecognized countries, how the people there live and how the country functions as a de-facto state. Countries that have vicious wars of secession and have struggled for decades for recognition. It’s about national identity. It’s about the struggle between self-determination and multiculturalism.
Did you face any challenges while shooting in these countries?
There are a lot of challenges that go along with working in these unrecognized countries. Just the logistics of shooting the project has been a challenge. Getting to a country that doesn’t officially exist can be it’s own adventure. Once I’m there, there are cultural challenges—the culture of paranoia and mistrust in the former soviet countries. There are environmental challenges and security issues. In Nagorno Karabakh, I’m shooting in freezing cold temperatures and in Somaliland it’s 115 degrees and I need to have an armed guard in order to leave the capital city. In Abkhazia I’ve been detained multiple times. In these places, nothing is easy. I also get caught up in trying to avoid what I see as cliches and trying to find something different and unexpected. But the greatest challenge is financial, and that’s why it’s been an on-going project for five years.
What kinds of responses have you received so far from the photos?
The response has been good. I have received some grants to continue the project. I also received an award from the Magenta Foundation with work from this project. It’s also been featured on NPR.org.
What do you hope to gain from this project?
Personally, I just hope to expand my understanding of the world and the people with whom I share it. And I want to share those experiences and that understanding with other people, in hopes of expanding their understanding of world and the people with whom they share it.
Have you learned anything about photography through this experience?
I’ve learned a lot about crafting a narrative, which is a skill I use now in my commercial photography.
Any stories from your time in these countries that have really stuck with you?
Too many stories! In Abkhazia I wanted to go to the tuberculosis hospital (TB is a major public health problem there) and I needed to get permission from Abkhazia’s Minister of Health. So I went to see the minister of health, who doesn’t speak any English. I was on a very small budget and couldn’t afford a translator so I was just winging it with the Russian I knew (in Abkhazia everyone speaks Russian). I sit down with him and I explain, as best as I can, who I am and what I want to do. The minister then starts talking and for 30 minutes I didn’t really understand what he was saying, I was just nodding my head saying, in Russian, “yes”, “of course”, “I know.” Then he picked up the phone and called the hospital, said some things I didn’t fully understand and then, finally, the words I really wanted to hear, “and so, yes, I think he can.” And that’s all I needed to hear.
In other countries, I am scared the old soviet airplane with no seat belts is going to crash over Djibouti, or I am being detained in Transnistria, or I am being summoned to explain myself to the Minister of Foreign Relations in Nagorno Karabakh for having gone to a certain town, or I am photographing the leader of Northern Cyprus when he suddenly takes out a camera from his desk and starts photographing me.
Would you consider this project complete?
I don’t think this project is done yet—there are some more aspects that I would like to explore. I think the next part will be to return to Nagorno Karabakh and explore the sense of loss that is experienced in these places when people are forced to leave the country. I am considering a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for that next part.