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Dagestan – A Totally Blank Page Became a Love Affair

In 2015 I was asked to visit Dagestan for a book project I was working on. As an Asia specialist, the North Caucasus was a region I had never been to before and knew ever less about. Usually, I try to learn as much about a place as much as I can before I visit, through reading books, reports etc… but Dagestan had very little especially outside of Russian language websites. So my arrival at Makhachkala airport was really the beginning of my learning process. Fortunate to be connected to some wonderful local photographers for the next few weeks they showed me their Dagestan, the mountains they loved, the villages they lived and the culture that they adored. As a result, my photographs are really a visual personal discovery, a documentary that started at zero and slowly developed as I slowly learned and explored this new place. I learned about the people and their ways as I began to photograph them.

Dagestan is home to almost 3 million mostly Muslim people. Ethnically very diverse, it is made up of several dozen ethnic groups and is Russia’s most heterogeneous republic, where no ethnicity forms a majority. Whilst Russian is the official language, Russian’s remain less than 4% of the total population. However, since the 1990’s Dagestan has been the scene of an often violent Islamic separatist movement caused by an international Islamic struggle between the Traditional Sufi Islamic groups advocating secular government and the more recently introduced Salafist teachers preaching the implementation of Sharia in Dagestan. This conflict, that is now largely under control, only accentuated Dagestan’s feeling of isolation.

 

A remote mountain village road as it disappears up the hillside. Because of its remoteness, only a handful of street lights exist.


The village from the shot above is called Kubachi and is famous throughout all of Russia for its silversmiths. For centuries locals here have handcrafted everything from jewelry to objects of desire out of silver and as a result, compared to the other villages, become very rich from it. This shot in particular perfectly describes my trip here perfectly, a path illuminated by a few, heading into the unknown.

What started as a totally blank page became a love affair. I fell head over heals in love with the place. The kindness and generosity of the people was so genuine and their pride as Dagestani people was admirable. So I guess these images, whilst beginning as images of discovery, became images of a love affair with a new place.

Two men in a remote village mosque during Friday prayer. One man has begun to pray whilst the another pauses briefly, framed in the doorway before he kneels to the floor.


Bordering with Azerbaijan to the south, Chechnya to the west, Russia to the north and the Caspian Sea to the east this rugged and mountainous region often feels like a living museum of preserved traditions and culture. Because of its remoteness, its topography and lack of development Dagestan, outside the coastal cities of Makhachkala and Derbent, hasn’t changed much for centuries.

This shot shows a bridesmaid at a wedding dancing the traditional Dagestani dance, highlighted by the lighting and illuminated in her white dress.


At weddings, women sit and eat separated from the men and it is only on the dance floor, after the first few songs that any form of mixing will take place. In this photograph, the women, mostly dressed in black, dance whilst the men sit, drink and watch only to join them a few songs later.

A group of men, who after a party, drove to a natural hot spring in the middle of no-where. The water contained a gas which could catch fire and remain alight providing them with the only light they had in the darkness.


If you search for Dagestan in the news all you find is images and stories about terrorism and danger. Whilst reporting newsworthy events is important it can often have negative consequences in a remote place like Dagestan who receives few outsiders. The news becomes one of the only sources of information and often paints an unrealistic view of a place. For sure, at times Dagestan suffered from a violent insurgency, but it by no means encompassed the entire region. I wanted to show the other Dagestan, the real Dagestan, a place that whilst it has its problems, to most it is a peaceful and kind place. My photographs show these subtle moments of calm and peace. I know this is the way the people of Dagestan would like to be known.

 


Luke Duggleby

An award-winning freelance British photographer specialising in Asia. After completing a degree in Photography in the UK he moved to Asia, first China and then to Bangkok, Thailand, where he have been based for 12 years.

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