Architecture, Landscape, Projects

Behind the shiny new structures of modern Baku, Azerbaijan

After hosting the Eurovision in 2012 and the European Games in 2015 Baku acts as a picture postcard of the country's newfound prosperity, but also of its contrasts. The country is home to known energy reserves of around a billion barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. But if until now Azerbaijan did not have to worry much about paying the bills – they do now. The slump in global oil prices has put a crimp in the country’s budget. Travellers are waiting for their bus near the Bulvar waterfront promenade which stretch 14 kilometers from Flag square to the city center. Baku, Azerbaijan. All images © Mathias Depardon, courtesy of the artist

In 2012, Azerbaijan hosted the Eurovision song contest in its capital city Baku. In 2015, the city welcomed the European Games. Spectacular and tightly stage-managed, these events present the modern face – but in the shadows, darker elements are at work in the city.

French photographer Mathias Depardon first visited Baku in 2012, shooting human rights issues at the Nagorno Karabkh border, and describes the place as “Orwellian”.

“I was fascinated by the effect the government had made to polish the city and make it look fast and modern,” he says. “It seems like they are trying to attract the attention elsewhere to make their reputation more respectful on the international scene.”

After hosting the Eurovision in 2012 and the European Games in 2015 Baku acts as a picture postcard of the country's newfound prosperity, but also of its contrasts. The country is home to known energy reserves of around a billion barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. But if until now Azerbaijan did not have to worry much about paying the bills – they do now. The slump in global oil prices has put a crimp in the country’s budget.  Lovers are hanging out in Sixov Beach facing the oil rigs on the Caspian Sea. Baku, Azerbaijan

Lovers are hanging out in Sixov Beach facing the oil rigs on the Caspian Sea. Baku, Azerbaijan

Once Soviet, Azerbaijan became independent after a bloody conflict with Soviet troops in 1990; a repressive government took control and, when the country found prosperity via a huge contract with a European oil consortium, the wealth was not even distributed.

More than 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the global slump in oil prices is now poised to push living standards down still further. It’s also casting dark clouds over the ambitious infrastructure spending that has transformed the city scape, and which so struck Depardon.

After hosting the Eurovision in 2012 and the European Games in 2015 Baku acts as a picture postcard of the country's newfound prosperity, but also of its contrasts. The country is home to known energy reserves of around a billion barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. But if until now Azerbaijan did not have to worry much about paying the bills – they do now. The slump in global oil prices has put a crimp in the country’s budget.  Two men are standing in front of the Crystal Palace which will host the Eurovision 2012. Baku, Azerbaijan

Two men are standing in front of the Crystal Palace which will host the Eurovision 2012. Baku, Azerbaijan

He’s visited Baku four times since 2012, taking a long-term approach to his project and fitting it in between assignments; many of his images focus on the city’s landscape, and the way its industrial oil extraction contrasts with its towering glass skyscrapers. “Baku is trying to look like the Dubai of the Caucasus,” he says.

After hosting the Eurovision in 2012 and the European Games in 2015 Baku acts as a picture postcard of the country's newfound prosperity, but also of its contrasts. The country is home to known energy reserves of around a billion barrels of oil and 1.3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. But if until now Azerbaijan did not have to worry much about paying the bills – they do now. The slump in global oil prices has put a crimp in the country’s budget.  City view of Baku and The Flame Towers representing the flames from the land of fire. Each year the Azerbaijani government spends more than $ 6 billion in the construction of the city of Baku. Baku, Azerbaijan

City view of Baku and The Flame Towers representing the flames from the land of fire. Each year the Azerbaijani government spends more than $ 6 billion in the construction of the city of Baku. Baku, Azerbaijan

“I’m not sure my work really shows the socio-political transition yet, but more a ‘blink by blink’ view of this corrupted and authoritarian society based on the economy of oil,” he adds.

“Buildings like the Flame Towers or the more recent SOCAR Tower are part of the urban landscape, along with the old soviet style neighborhood of Sovietski. The city is changing minute by minute.”

Find out more about Mathias’ photography here