Experience

Umida Akhmedova: “We Live in a Reality Ruled by Fear”

Uzbek photographer Umida Akhmedova told Bird In Flight about defamation allegations brought against her, what her colleagues are doing and why she doesn’t consider herself an opposition activist.

In later March 2014 Islam Karimov won the presidential election (again). Karimov has been president for 26 years – he imposed a regime in the republic where to be brave and open with one’s viewpoint almost always means to get prosecuted. In November 2009, Uzbek authorities launched a prosecution against Umida Akhmedova for “offense to the Uzbek people and its traditions, creating a negative image of Uzbekistan in her works” (photo project “Women and Men” — about life in rural areas of the country and Uzbek traditions with a stress on gender inequality, film “Bondage of Virginity” — on the problem of preserving a bride’s virginity till marriage and what Uzbek families think about it). Akhmedova was charged with the “defamation” and “insult” articles of criminal code of Uzbekistan. The photographer was convicted, but freed in court by amnesty celebrating the anniversary of the country’s independence.

Bird In Flight talked to Umida about why she is not afraid to speak louder than most people in her country and how photography-related things and freedom of expression in general stand in Uzbekistan.

Umida Akhmedova 59 years old

Uzbek documentarist and photographer, member of the Union of Cinematographers of Uzbekistan and the National Arts Academy. Graduated from the School of Cultural Education in Vladimir (department of Photography and Cinema) and The Russian State Institute of Cinematography (aka VGIK). Worked as a cameraman on “Uzkinochronika”. Participated in exhibitions in Europe and the former USSR, held personal shows in Uzbekistan, Denmark, Russian and Georgia. Laureate of numerous awards, winner of “Press Photo of Russia 2004” contest in “Contemporary Photography of the Middle Asia” category. Silver medal winner of the 40th Victory Anniversary Contest (Moscow, 1985).

About Education

Unlike so many people who say that they “were asleep and dreaming of becoming photographers,” I have a different story. In the late 1970s I came to Moscow — to take entrance exams at the Faculty of Philosophy of the MSU. But the angels that I have a big faith in told me: “There is nothing for you there”. So after I failed my exams at the Faculty of Philology — which was a second attempt — my friend, who was from Vladimir region, told me that there was a higher school of cultural education with a photography department in Vladimir. That’s how I found myself in that school and fell in love with photography. I have been doing it for nearly forty years and I am happy to have found myself, my own way. Later I entered the State Institute of Cinematography. I am proud of the fact that I managed to get in only because the tutors really liked my photographs. Photography is my friend, it is my love. One needs to thoroughly study it. It can’t be considered an accident that all the famous photographers always have assistants. One needs to study continuously, all life long. I was a teacher too, for a number of years.

I guess I am too shy to call myself an artist of photography. The word “artist” is too big for me. My professional education and training made me a cameraman, but I never worked for big feature films, what I did was documentaries. So probably I may call myself a video artist. I feel comfortable with the fiend of contemporary art.


{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida02.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida03.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida04.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida05.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida06.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida07.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida08.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida09.jpg”, “text”:”From the banned album Women and Men: from Sunrise to Sunset” }

About Publicity

The time of Perestroika was a gust of fresh wind, when it was possible to do anything and to say anything — openly and without fear. People in Uzbekistan were very open. In the last eight or nine years things have changed – you can get stopped in the street and asked what you are photographing and what for, and you may need to show your documents. Nowadays Uzbekistan starts to resemble Turkmenistan. Everyone and everything is more closed now than in the past. Even during the Soviet time people were not as manipulated as now.

I was dreaming of photography environment but unfortunately Uzbekistan is not ready for it yet. Photojournalism — on the 21 century level — does not exist. We have a number of galleries and the House of Photography, but it is all very Soviet-like. From time to time there are even photo biennales organised under the aegis of Gulnara Karimova [the president’s daughter] . But I am not sure that it makes any sense to do exhibitions in Uzbekistan now.

Everyone is afraid to do brave projects. We live in a reality where everyone is afraid of everything. I ask people: “Why are you afraid?”, and they say: “We are afraid that there will be something in the internet about us.” I try to explain that the internet is just a mass media, but the phobia of the internet that they put into people’s heads, has reached an unprecedented scale. It is obvious that since the internet is much more difficult to control than to ban, it needs to be banned.

If one can get prosecuted for documentary photographs, it is awful for the country’s image.

Those talented guys who could do something really worthwhile, are forced to live in a survival mode. And photography, like any art form, needs dedication. Photography is not just your own inner world or your own vision, it is also your position, your inner culture. No matter how preposterous it sounds, but you have do dedicate yourself to photography completely, otherwise it just doesn’t make sense. If you don’t train every day, don’t keep thinking about it, don’t take new pictures, but stay with your past achievements, you risk to become a “classic” with a scent of naphthalene.

There are talented photographers in Tashkent — those who could make great professionals. To name a few: Elyer Nematov, Svetlana Ten, Shavkat Boltaev and Zilola Saidova.


{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida10.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida11.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida12.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida13.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida14.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida15.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida16.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida17.jpg”, “text”:”From Mothers-in-Law and Daughters-in-Law project” }

About Prosecution

I don’t like thinking back about that trial because a lot of people think that I made myself popular through it. Behind my back my colleagues keep saying that it was me myself who allegedly fabricated this criminal case —simply because I am too ambitious.

There is a multitude of versions why it happened. Probably because the [presently] blocked in Uzbekistan website Fergana published an article about “The Bondage of Virginity” film and photos I had taken. The film, by the way, is totally innocent — it is about rites and rituals. There is a version that someone brought an album for our most important person and said, “Look at what is going on here.” And allegedly he said, “And where have your eyes been?” Another important thing is my husband’s work. In his own auditorium at “The Cinema Museum” he did a video art festival — at his own expense and at his own initiative. It was quite a brave undertaking where everyone showed what they wanted. Or maybe — who knows — I have to thank my “friends” for it.

Probably I could have taken that amnesty as a blessing, dug myself into a hole and sat there shivering — the way 99 per ent of the population does, but I didn’t. Frankly speaking, in my panic I told journalists about it, but no one expected it to have such a great international resonance. In the government’s place I would have severely punished those who prosecuted me, simply because if in a country one may be tried for documentary photographs — it is awful for its public image.


{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida18.jpg”, “text”:”Umida Akhmedova’s old photographs” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida19.jpg”, “text”:”Umida Akhmedova’s old photographs” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida20.jpg”, “text”:”Umida Akhmedova’s old photographs” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida21.jpg”, “text”:”Umida Akhmedova’s old photographs” }

About Opposition

We had one opposition website, it is closed now, there was a programme where a small number of brave people — in the kitchen, with a cup of tea — were making fun of everything. It goes without saying that it was all watched by ‘“those who”. Generally speaking, they are our most faithful viewers. As a result the whole thing was presented in a distorted way – allegedly it was my family who started that program. So now we have problems. My son with his passport, and everything my husband was connected to was expropriated. And as for me — I can’t have an exhibition, nor have my photographs published anywhere. And people try to stay as far away from us as possible — just in case. Although I cannot say that we are opposition, because real opposition does something real: print leaflets, set up parties, draft programs, and we just say things out loud that everyone is thinking and whispering about.

None of my friend photographers has this kind of problem. None of them are dangerous. If they are told to take some nice pictures by a certain date — they go ahead and take nice pictures. As for me, I don’t understand how it is possible to close my eyes and pretend I am not concerned about anything going on around me. How can I keep calm, for example, about there being no free press in the country? Our reality is some kind of Soviet surrealism. You can always sense that “they” are watching you.


Irina Popova’s film about Umida Akhmedova for “The Country That is No More” project of Lenta.ru.

About Current Work

Now I am working on two projects: “Kazakhs in Uzbekistan” and “Banners and I.” The first one is about ethnic Kazakhs who were born here, live here, they are almost Uzbeks, but a little different. The Guardian has already published a few things from it. And for the second one I ask to be photographed with some kind of a political or patriotic banner as a backdrop. In the past it was “Glory to the CPSU,” now it is huge banners with Tamerlan glorifying our independence. I know it is going to pass away, it is part of history. But I am amused by this sloganization, these propaganda techniques. I am also going to photograph monuments to the Uzbeks fallen in the Great Patriotic War — they were created mainly in the late 1960s. A lot of them are already abandoned, many of them are being dismantled. At first it used to be Lenin everywhere, then he was replaced by grieving mothers.

I am interested in the way time changes people and human types. If you look at the late Brezhnev period, when there was stability, people’s faces were completely different!

I used to think that I can only shoot in Tashkent. But now I know I can photograph anywhere. I like taking pictures of people, I like photographing Uzbekistan. I am inspired by my home.


{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida22.jpg”, “text”:”From Banners and I project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida23.jpg”, “text”:”From Banners and I project” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida24.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida25.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida26.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida27.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida28.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida29.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” },
{ “img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/umida30.jpg”, “text”:”From the project about monuments to the soldiers fallen in the Great Patriotic War” }

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