Photography and Slander in Uzbekistan

June 3, 2010

Wednesday’s In the Picture event will focus on the Central Asian photography of Daniel Schwartz. Below, William Wheeler looks at the perils for local photographers in the region.

In February this year, the Uzbek documentary-maker and photographer, Umida Akhmedova, was sentenced by a court in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for “slandering the nation”.  She did this in a photoalbum depicting scenes of ordinary life, mostly in rural areas of Uzbekistan, and in a documentary film, which detailed the burden on young brides to prove their virginity.  Both were funded by the Gender Programme of the Swiss Embassy.  She was found guilty on the basis of the conclusion of a panel of "experts", whose expertise derived solely from their positions in state structures – positions which they have conveniently retained in the transition from the Soviet era to independence, lining their pockets while doing so. 

Although Akhmedova was magnanimously granted amnesty in honour of independent Uzbekistan’s eighteenth birthday, the message was clear: members of civil society like Akhmedova, particularly when funded by Western backers, do not have the authority to depict life in Uzbekistan – only the state can do that.

The case has rightly attracted notoriety, as a severe infringement of freedom of expression, which is indicative of the increasingly totalitarian atmosphere in post-Soviet Uzbekistan.  But to understand the full import of the case, we have to enter the minds of the "experts" who convicted her, and ask: what was she "guilty" of?

In the verbose conclusion of the panel of "experts", two points stand out.  First, she insulted the national traditions.  Perhaps most importantly:

“she interpreted relations to Woman from the position of ‘gender’ politics, without paying attention to the national mentality and centuries-old traditions…” 

Notice how "gender" – a newfangled, Western term – is put in inverted commas and implicitly rejected, in favour of "relations to Woman" – a phrase with inequality built into it, whose authority derives from "centuries-old traditions".  Never mind the fact that women occupied a relatively high position in Uzbek society in Soviet times; never mind the fact that "national mentality", if the term has any meaning at all, is always in flux, that "traditions" are never static, but always interacting with historical circumstances.

But secondly, she was found guilty of portraying only “backward” villages, which are of course not representative of the shiny modern Uzbekistan built by President Karimov and his cronies.  As a result:

“A foreigner who has not visited Uzbekistan, seeing this album, will come to the conclusion that this is a country where people live in the Middle Ages.”

This is even more insulting than slandering the centuries-old traditions. Clearly "guilty".

So on the one hand, Akhmedova has dared to insult national traditions from a modernist (i.e. foreign) perspective; on the other, she’s made a modern country look backward.  Aren’t these charges a bit contradictory? Actually no: for Uzbekistan’s state elites, divorced from the realities of everyday life in their country, "traditions" are both ancient and modern.  So, for state elites, a kitschy national dance performed to pre-recorded music and disco lights encapsulates what it means to be Uzbek. 

Akhmedova’s ‘crime’ was to suggest something wholly different, something much more complex – a poignant clash of tradition and modernity which marks Uzbekistan’s place in the twenty-first century.  And the rabid reaction against her demonstrates above all the paranoia of the state elites – the awareness that a member of civil society might depict more accurately what it means to be Uzbek than they could ever do.

Read more about Umida Akhmedova’s case on the BBC website here or book In the Picture with Daniel Schwartz: Central Asia, the hinterland of war.