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.”
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.
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.
“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.