Rather than telling the story of a Kyrgyz mining town shrouded by imminent disaster, Komenda sought to capture everyday stories that intersect with wider social and historical issues
British Journal of Photography presents its Class of 2020 – a selection of graduates from British colleges. Over the next month, BJP-online will be sharing their profiles.
Mailuu-Suu is a small mining town in southern Kyrgyzstan, where miners were once paid attractive salaries to perform dangerous work. Between 1946 and 1968, the town produced 10,000 metric tonnes of radioactive uranium, providing much of the fuel for the Soviet Union’s first nuclear power plants. At the time, little thought was given to future health hazards, and millions of tonnes of nuclear waste was hastily buried in the surrounding landscape, and the river that runs through it. Today, an internet search of Mailuu-Suu churns up pages of articles about the “most polluted town in the world”, where residents live in perpetual fear of the “Soviet waste dump” — just a landslide away from poisoning millions.
“But you get there, and people are just living their everyday lives,” says Alexander Komenda, who travelled to Mailuu-Suu twice last year, spending two weeks there on each trip. Far from the ominous shots one might expect from a town on the brink of disaster, Komenda’s body of work, Jove’s Palace, shows everyday life: children playing in residential courtyards and school playgrounds, home-cooked meals, and the impressive landscape that frames the homes of over 20,000 people. Despite the scaremongering headlines maintained by the media, much like anywhere else, normal life in Mailuu-Suu continues. “They can’t think about it every day, maybe for their own sanity,” says Komenda. “But the pollution is all they’re known for, so I wanted to veer away from painting it as a one-dimensional story, and focus more on normality, while retaining this idea of something bubbling beneath the surface.”
Komenda was born and raised in Canada to Polish parents — his father is a Human Rights advisor for the UN, and his mother is a photographer who worked for the government most of her life. This nurtured his interest in Slavic history, geo-politics, and ex-communist territories, as well as his fluency in English, Polish, French and Russian. Between 2016 and 2019, Komenda visited Kyrgyzstan six times, making contacts with photographers and journalists working in the region.
When it came to producing his final project for a BA in Documentary Photography at University of South Wales, which he completed this year, Komenda recalled meeting a French photographer who planned to visit Mailuu-Suu. He approached a local NGO, which facilitated his transport into the town and set him up with a host. Being able to speak Russian was a huge asset, as it enabled a natural connection and exchange with the community — that, and a running joke that he was a spy. Komenda organised photo-led workshops for local teenagers, and adopted a more collaborative, performative approach to photographing them. Without being able to speak the language, he feels it would be challenging to create this body of work. “I’ve just arrived in Finland to start my Masters, and not being able to speak the language immediately creates a cultural distance,” he says, “because a lot of culture is rooted in language”. For Komenda, the ability to combine the performative work with observational shots helped to “visualise the various nuances of the story”.
Mailuu-Suu is a small town, but its story intersects with wider social and historical issues. Over half of Kyrgyzstan’s population is under the age of 25, which presents limited economic opportunities. This is touched on in Komenda’s focus on children, play and the school — where he made many of his pictures. “It is a small story that relates to bigger ideas,” he explains, “it connects with the Cold War, uranium production, externality, and colonialism. I liked the idea being able to layer all these different meanings into one project”.
Although the work speaks of these issues that face Kyrgyzstan, Komenda makes it clear that his intention is not to point fingers at the evils of the Soviet Union. “There are so many things that go under the radar in everyday life,” he says, referring to the batteries in our phones, powered by cobalt sourced by child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. Much like the residents of Mailuu-Suu who live with the threat of disaster, “there’s not enough capacity in the human mind to always think about these things, or to be drowned in pessimism,” he says. Rather than focus on one localised angle, Komenda wants his images of the town to highlight how exploitative mechanisms of our past and present permeate universally, and manifest in our daily lives.