German Photographer Explores Kazakh Culture, Energy Plans

ASTANA – Photographer Dieter Seitz, whose work focuses on people and cultural issues, has chosen Kazakhstan to be the subject of a multi-year photo project exploring its blend of cultures and the industry upon which the country’s prosperity is built.

(c)DieterSeitz_Triumph-of Astana_2009

A Dieter Seitz image of Astana in progress, taken in 2009

The photos, which he plans to show in exhibitions in Germany and Kazakhstan and publish in a book, are Seitz’s attempt to capture what he calls Kazakhstan’s three cultural streams, which he believes interlink and flow together in a way that is unique among the former Soviet states.

“There’s firstly the traditional Kazakh culture, which was suppressed during the Soviet era – but not completely,” he told The Astana Times in an interview on Oct. 17. “The second cultural stream is all the things connected with the Soviet socialist era, which you see in the architecture in places, in the behaviour of people and in many other things. And the third stream, of course, is the Western modernism that comes into the country. People are keen and wanting to get things coming from Western culture.”

In Kazakhstan, Seitz said, these streams are not fighting each other, but commingling. “In my impression, these things go together. There’s not only a change from one thing to another, but they are mixed, like a melting pot, and it makes the country very interesting.” It is this blend he hopes to capture in his photos of the country. In a previous, but smaller-scale country-based project, Seitz explored India.

Seitz first visited Kazakhstan five years ago, when he first conceived of this project. He hopes to finish by the end of 2016, if not before, and to return to some of the scenes of photos he’s already made to see how they have changed.

The end of the project coincides with the upcoming EXPO 2017, which will be held in Astana, and provides a neat framework for Seitz’s second theme, energy. In talking to Europeans about his project, Seitz said, he was always asked, “Why are you so interested in Kazakhstan?” Adding a project based on energy, always a global concern, seemed like a good hook for pulling interest toward the country and his work.

Exploring Kazakhstan’s relationship with its vast energy resources, he came across the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy announced by President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the end of 2012. “Part or most of this programme is saying, ‘We must have renewable energy and sustainable strategies for our economy in 2050 and we have to start now, because we know in 20-30 years, oil exploitation will get so expensive or no longer be profitable, and we must have alternatives to that.’ I didn’t expect that. I thought it was very ambitious, for Kazakhstan to take such a long-range view of things. So I thought, perfect. So my second theme is to take a historical view and a view of the future of this energy issue.”

Seitz will be visiting cities and towns across the country over the course of the next two years, seeking to capture the contrasts that he said are his way of illuminating beauty and reality. He also wants to show a side of Kazakhstan the world hasn’t seen much of. He is hoping to depict energy project works. “For other people to become interested in the country, they must see something new,” he said. “Not only landscapes. I want to show things people haven’t seen up to now. You must show more than the eagle and the steppe and things like that.”

“The point is, you must get close up to these things,” the photographer said. “People in other countries are interested, can be made interested. But they must see something new, and not only the stereotypes they already know about Kazakhstan: it’s cold and there is a big landscape and there are horses.”