Sleeper grew out of a love of travel stories. Stories about people making epic journeys. The stories led me to Central Asia, a place I found fascinating at the border between Europe and Asia. For nearly a century, a secret war was fought in the lonely passages and deserts of Central Asia between two of the most powerful nations in history, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia. It's a story of high adventure and courageous travellers without maps setting out to discover little known lands controlled by local rulers who were not always welcoming. The prize they were seeking was India.
Inspired by these stories a journey of my own began to take shape, one that would take me overground from home in London to Russia, before heading South through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to India. Travelling by sleeper train, car-pooling with locals where the train lines ended, staying in simple accommodation, I made my way slowly through the landscape. In this era of low-cost airlines travel is fast and cheap. We parachute into a place without experiencing the distances travelled or places travelled through. Sleeper is about slowing things down, enjoying the journey and being in no hurry to reach a destination.
In Avoidance of Conflict
Published in fLIP: CONFLICT, 2014
On 29 November 2011 the British Embassy in Tehran was attacked and set on fire, days after the UK government had stepped up sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme. The Iranian embassy in London was closed and Iran's diplomats given 48 hours to leave the UK. This was the day I was to submit my passport to the Iranian embassy in London. It was the third visa being obtained for a project I was embarking on in early 2012, travelling by sleeper train from London to India. The passage through Iran had been firmly closed.
I work on projects that criss-cross national and international borders. Conflict has not been the subject of these photographs, so avoidance of it has shaped the paths I have taken. With a visa already secured for Uzbekistan, I returned to my map to join the dots. My journeys always develop from maps; looking at the contours, discovering unknown places, imagining the landscape, and finding ways to link places together. Perhaps my architectural background is responsible for the fascination with these two-dimensional drawings that are capable of communicating so much information about space. Maps are documents we refer to for truth, but not unlike photographs they can be misleading depending on the hand used to create them.
Planning a trip to Central Asia it’s easy to become engulfed by the history of conflict in the region. I am always torn by how much or how little to read in advance, wishing to see somewhere with fresh eyes. On this occasion I felt a need for literature, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game was an invaluable resource. For nearly a century, a secret war was fought in the lonely passages and deserts of Central Asia between two of the most powerful nations in history, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia. It's a story of high adventure and courageous travellers without maps setting out to discover little known lands controlled by local rulers who were not always welcoming. Inspired by these stories I began to chart a new route, one that would take me East through Ukraine to Russia, before heading South through Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan.
Over time conflict free regions change. Places we see as travel destinations become conflict zones and vice versa. Crimea was National Geographic's Best Trip suggestion for 2013. Following the recent uprisings, a train route through Ukraine would be coloured by conflict, and the journey itself could have proven hazardous.
Some destinations remain in conflict for long periods of time. Having been a popular destination for hiking and sightseeing until the late 1970s, the door to India through Afghanistan has now been closed for more than three decades. In 2012, the last 735 miles of my journey to India were aboard the Uzbekistan Airways flight 443 to Amritsar.
It is not just when travelling overland that we must carefully consider the route to a destination. After the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukrainian airspace on 17 July 2014, conflict avoidance has become 4-dimensional. Whose airspace is a flight passing through, is it safe to fly there?
My journey, Sleeper, could not escape conflict; it was physically shaped by both historical and present day struggles. How much influence these events had on the images captured is impossible to say, these became one of the many subconscious references that defined my vision.