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Latvia’s Dark Past on @OpenSocietyFoundations Instagram

Go have a look, I just finished the week of 16 posts of images and stories from my recent trip to Latvia on the @opensocietyfoundations Instagram feed. From day one’s post and by way of explanation of the delve into Latvia’s past:

My father was born a refugee in West Germany after the Second World War and with Latvia being absorbed into the Soviet Union as an Iron Curtain soon divided Europe, we never became acquainted with the land itself until I began working and studying in the region, despite the fact that Latvian culture, humor and persistence permeate our day to day lives.

Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941-1945 before it was reoccupied by the Soviet Union from 1945 until Latvian independence and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Here are five images from the week:

"Here is a view from the Hotel Latgale in Rezekne that looks out at the United for Latvia monument. Rezekne is the regional capital of Latgale, which is the eastern region my family is from."

“Here is a view from the Hotel Latgale in Rezekne that looks out at the United for Latvia monument. Rezekne is the regional capital of Latgale, which is the eastern region my family is from.”

"When my friends and I arrived in my grandmother's town, we went to the store to ask if there was someone who might be able to tell us about the town's history. Inta, the shopkeeper, called Stanislava who met us in front of the school ten minutes later. We spent the afternoon touring mass graves and monuments to deportations. Here she is at the Red Army mass grave, the only one with names and burial plots, behind the school. Stanislava was great, she called me "my daughter" most of the afternoon, my friend said later, and gave us as thorough of a tour as anyone could. She was also more excited than anyone I've met when I told her the family names, and within the first few sentences said something my father has said many times, namely we must study history because it changes all the time."

“When my friends and I arrived in my grandmother’s town, we went to the store to ask if there was someone who might be able to tell us about the town’s history. Inta, the shopkeeper, called Stanislava who met us in front of the school ten minutes later. We spent the afternoon touring mass graves and monuments to deportations. Here she is at the Red Army mass grave, the only one with names and burial plots, behind the school. Stanislava was great, she called me “my daughter” most of the afternoon, my friend said later, and gave us as thorough of a tour as anyone could. She was also more excited than anyone I’ve met when I told her the family names, and within the first few sentences said something my father has said many times, namely we must study history because it changes all the time.”

"If you are a student of Eastern Europe, you may know what you are looking at. It is a site of genocide. In 1941, the Jewish inhabitants of the town were taken to either end of the town and shot. This is one end of the town. A small monument marks the place; it contains no names."

“If you are a student of Eastern Europe, you may know what you are looking at. It is a site of genocide. In 1941, the Jewish inhabitants of the town were taken to either end of the town and shot. This is one end of the town. A small monument marks the place; it contains no names.”

"With Stanislava we toured mass graves, monuments to deportations and acts of mass murder - the one in front of the school listed a relative. Stanislava invited us to the storeroom, where Inta, the shopkeeper, invited us to drink a strong 60 proof homebrew liquor called shmakovka while we asked each other questions."

“With Stanislava we toured mass graves, monuments to deportations and acts of mass murder – the one in front of the school listed a relative. Stanislava invited us to the storeroom, where Inta, the shopkeeper, invited us to drink a strong 60 proof homebrew liquor called shmakovka while we asked each other questions.”

"The Lido restaurant in Riga's largest outpost is on the outskirts. There is a range of every kind of Latvian national food (and lines for fried potatoes!) including many kinds of herring, fish, pork, cutlet, ribs, Latvian beers, and on the lower level, dancing. It is just the sort of place a less humble nation might call representative of freedom itself, Latvian-style."

“The Lido restaurant in Riga’s largest outpost is on the outskirts. There is a range of every kind of Latvian national food (and lines for fried potatoes!) including many kinds of herring, fish, pork, cutlet, ribs, Latvian beers, and on the lower level, dancing. It is just the sort of place a less humble nation might call representative of freedom itself, Latvian-style.”

The Phoblographer: National Geographic Photographers Talk About Their Scariest Moment

The Phoblographer writer Julius Motal asked me a few months back to tell him about a scary moment in the field while working on my National Geographic Young Explorer Grant projects in the Balkans and the Caucasus. I thought there was one important and not so obvious lesson worth sharing from my experiences:

“Don’t trust Google Maps in conflict or post-conflict zones as the roads may be mined,” said photojournalist Amanda Rivkin who worked on two projects in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus with National Geographic Young Explorers Grants from the Expeditions Council.

Unless the area has been substantially surveyed, it can almost be impossible to know where landmines are. Landmine accidents are an uncomfortably common occurrence, particularly in post-conflict zones. In some places, landmines aren’t discovered until they’ve gone off. In others, they’re well documented like in the Falkland islands where there are cordoned-off no-go zones. Penguins there have, however, capitalized on them because they’re light enough to not set them off. People, however, are not so fortunate. When data or a “Beware Mines” sign isn’t available, your best bet is to talk to people.

“Talk to trustworthy locals and garner opinions that warrant merit. Sometimes, as we found out, it’s just a crap shoot,” Rivkin said.

Read Motal’s full article on The Phoblographer, “National Geographic Photographers Talk About Their Scariest Moment,” which includes interviews with Bob Krist and Bob Sacha.

Open Society Foundations Instagram Takeover Next Week

This is Latvia.

This is Latvia.

Before you all go party crazy this weekend, take a moment to “follow” Open Society Foundations (@opensocietyfoundations) on Instagram as I’ll be taking over their feed next week with images from my recent trip to Latvia where I visited my grandmother’s hometown in the eastern Latgale region, which I’m told is a strange place even by Latvian standards, and quite a bit more.

Voice of America (VOA) Azeri Language Service: “I Admire the Courage of Khadija.” [Interview]

Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and presenter on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Azeri-language internet-only station Azadliq Radiosu, is seen during a live broadcast at Azadliq Radiosu's studio in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 31, 2011.

Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist and presenter on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azeri-language internet-only station Azadliq Radiosu, during a live broadcast at Azadliq Radiosu’s studio in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 31, 2011.

Yesterday via e-mail I gave an interview to Voice of America (VOA) Azeri language service journalist Emil Quilyev. The full interview in Azerbaijani can be found on the Voice of America website. Below is the unedited original, without translation which also appears on the website of Radio Azadliq, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani language service.

VOA: There have been some recent developments in Khadija Ismayil’s case. Nothing major. However, according to her lawyer Fariz Namazli, the accusation of disseminating state secrets have been lifted. What do you make of these trial proceedings?

Amanda Rivkin: I do not know enough about Azerbaijani trial law to comment on the particulars. My guess is that the state has come under tremendous pressure from international organizations over this case and slight developments can be used by the government, primarily for external purposes, to show Khadija is being given something resembling “fair treatment” under the law. Of course I believe this case is entirely political and based on her investigations into the president’s family’s businesses in Azerbaijan and their various offshore accounts and multinationals like Swedish telecom provider TeliaSonera, so any such claims would be merely a façade. The fact is the original charge of incitement to suicide based on an ex-boyfriend who was compromised by the state security agency who has since recanted his statements very publicly suggests this case is a house of cards.

VOA: Are you staisfied with the level of official pressure that is being exerted on the government of Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija’s release.

AR: I am absolutely not satisfied with the level of official pressure being exerted on the government of Azerbaijan in order to obtain Khadija’s release because she remains in jail, while still publishing investigations, which is so fierce and inspiring I am simply in awe of her courage. While I have personally been in contact with very senior officials in the US government directly about Khadija’s case and I know the issue has been raised at the highest level, it has not happened so publicly. This is very disappointing. I also believe the pressure by outside groups can be counter-effective, as we have seen with Malala Yousafzai, and make the individual concerned, in this case, Khadija, seem like a tool of outside governments and forces and used against her in terms of domestic opinion, although I know those within Azerbaijan who are aware of her case, like Khadija, are well aware that they live in a monarchic kleptocracy and support her efforts greatly. The fact is Khadija remains behind bars says that there has not been enough effective pressure placed on the government of Azerbaijan. I should also add that the money paid to opposition activists and activities is so small as to be symbolic when compared to the money given to SOCAR, to facilitate NATO using Azerbaijan as a transit nation for the war in Afghanistan for years, among other things. Basically US officials and other Western countries are checking boxes so they can save face when it comes to handling criticism they face from their own populations with regard to providing aid and resources to undemocratic states.

VOA: Many of Khadija’s friends in the iournalist community have joined in solidarity to support their imprisoned colleague and also put the corruption in Azerbaijan onto spotlight. Would you like to say anything about these efforts?

AR: See previous comments. While I am very supportive of the sentiment, I think no one has been more effective in embarrassing the government of Azerbaijan in this effort than Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini. He has earned my utmost respect for his outspokenness on her case. He was truly the first to come forward forcefully and publicly beyond the community of those, such as myself and other colleagues, who worked with her and follow events in Azerbaijan closely. Hosseini’s work is respected in Azerbaijan and she was his Azerbaijani translator.

VOA: How much damage do you believe the arrest of Khadija has caused to the reputation of President Ilham Aliyev and his government?

AR: My belief and understanding through talking with high level diplomats in the region is that Putin and the government of Russia have successfully planted a seed of belief in Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s head that the US seeks to overthrow him in the wake of events in Ukraine, which have spooked many leaders in the post-Soviet space. I believe strongly that this is incorrect as Ilham Aliyev has worked for years on behalf of Western interests, especially with providing oil and naturally gas to US allies in the region such as Turkey, Israel in particular, and of course Western Europe. Additionally, Russia is probably deeply concerned about the possibility of an Iranian nuclear accord which could open the way for a partial lifting of sanctions and greater US investments in that country, particularly its energy sector. Halliburton, which is registered in the UAE, has already been in Iran for at least the last 10 years or so (I am not certain exactly how long) and I met a few Iranians working for Halliburton at bars popular with oil workers in Baku when I last lived there three years ago in 2012. Let’s be clear, Khadija’s case is a small part of a much bigger puzzle and geopolitical game, as is Ilham Aliyev. If anything, he has elevated her stature internationally and she may be more widely known than he is abroad at this point.

Ilham Aliyev was and remains the consensus choice who has maintained his position by being one of the few things Russia and America could agree on. It was Ilham’s father, the former president of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev who said, “Washington is the new Moscow.” There seems to be very little desire within Azerbaijan and among the Azerbaijani people for anything dramatic to occur politically within their country and without that domestic support for something resembling regime change, I strongly believe the US would be crazy and outright foolish to try. To this end, my conversations with people involved in the promotion of democratic values in Azerbaijan were working for much smaller things, accountability of low level officials, dialogue with the outside world, and youth activism, including with the pro-government group Ireli. Any damage caused to Ilham Aliyev and his government is therefore largely the result of a self-inflicted, self-fulfilling prophecy. The US government is well aware, especially in light of events in Libya, Syria and Iraq that this is not the moment to topple a secular, relatively stable Islamic country’s head of state. Azerbaijan is not Ukraine. To do so would be bonkers and likely pave the way for either an Islamic government or one that tilts full-scale toward Russia and her interests, if it isn’t installed directly by Russia.

VOA: Do you believe that Khadija’s arrest signals the beginning of a new era in Azerbaijani politics? To what extent is Khadija’s arrest is intertwined with the strategic choice of the Ilham Aliyev government both in terms of domestic and foreign policy?

AR: Please see my previous answer for a long explanation to this end. But yes, in short, Khadija’s continued detention signals a decisive shift towards Moscow, whereas previously Ilham Aliyev and his father were engaged in far more of a balancing act between the great powers, something I may say they handled with great skill and agility.

On TIME Lightbox: See NATO’s Massive Training Exercises in Eastern Europe

TIME Photo
June 19, 2015

Associated Press TIME Photo

“The big buzz word was interoperability.”

Sergeant Stephen Murphy with the Fourth of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment of the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team monitors an airdrop from a C-17 aircraft that took off from Nuremberg, Germany before it drops members of his unit at the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in Poland on June 15, 2015.  NATO is engaged in a multilateral training exercise "Saber Strike," the first time Poland has hosted such war games, involving the militaries of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and the United States.

Sergeant Stephen Murphy with the Fourth of the 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment of the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team monitors an airdrop from a C-17 aircraft that took off from Nuremberg, Germany before it drops members of his unit at the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area in Poland on June 15, 2015. NATO is engaged in a multilateral training exercise “Saber Strike,” the first time Poland has hosted such war games, involving the militaries of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Poland, and the United States.

Thousands of NATO troops took part in a two-week exercise in Poland and the Baltic states, practicing sea landings, airlifts and assaults, the Associated Press reports.

The series of massive maneuvers, each with its own code name, took place on NATO’s eastern flank and in the Baltic Sea, where 5,000 troops from 17 NATO and partner nations took part in the maritime BALTOPS exercises. This year, the naval maneuvers took place without Russia.

Freelance photographer Amanda Rivkin was embedded with multi-national troops in Drawsko Pomorskie, a northwestern Polish town. “The big buzz word was interoperability,” she said, referring to NATO’s goal to show that its members can cooperate in the face of a potential crisis. “This is clearly being done as a show of force against Russia’s show of force in Crimea and in the Baltic,” she added.

Polish and Baltic state leaders have made it clear that they want to host large numbers of U.S. and NATO forces as a deterrent in the face of a resurgent Russia, the AP reports. “We must know how to defend ourselves. It is our goal to assure a stable order,” said Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna.

Telluride Mountainfilm Wrap-Up + Press

Images of postwar Bosnia's reconstruction on exhibit at the Aa Haa West Gallery during the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado on May 22, 2015.

Images of postwar Bosnia’s reconstruction on exhibit at the Aa Haa West Gallery during the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado on May 22, 2015.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I was in Telluride, Colorado for the Mountainfilm Festival thanks to the support of National Geographic Expeditions Council and the Young Explorers Grant Program. It was a fantastic weekend spent in the company of some great friends, and when it was over and our presentations complete, we sat down and watched my beloved “politics by another means” Eurovision Song Contest. But once it was really over, the local indy paper, the San Juan Independent, came knocking and sent over some questions for a Q + A. Here are the parts that are relevant generally to photography today:

[…]

Q: As a photographer, how do you believe technology has and will affect the field of photojournalism, if at all? Specifically, we are seeing more advanced cameras and equipment at more affordable prices, including GoPros and camera phones, and more “average Joe’s” being able to capture images and moments they could not years ago. Is this a good thing for photojournalism and photography or does it have a negative impact?

A: A photojournalist is not a guy with an iPhone recording a police shooting of an unarmed black man, but what that guy produces, that level of documentation, is photojournalism. Photography is about ways of seeing, not merely seeing. I think prices for photography of a certain level are very low, lower than they have ever been. Photography is about how we see and the way we produce a narrative to relay the truth as we interpret it with regard to contemporary events and lives.

Q: Why do you do what you do? What are the things you find most rewarding about your work? What project have you completed that has had the biggest impact on you personally?

A: This is a very hard question because every day we are challenged by continuing to do what we do. Economic circumstances in the industry right now are terrible and nearly every photographer has supplementary income that is tangential to the photography or an extension of it. I do what I do because I believe in the need for physical documentation of historical events because memory betrays us all too often. do not hope or expect change. I actually believe and fully expect most things will get worse while a modicum of things will improve slightly. What I hope for with my work is to serve the broader purpose of historical memory.

Q: What are the most substantial challenges you and your peers face as photojournalists? Do you believe the hurdles you face would have been the same or similar years ago, or are there circumstances in the present that cause different problems?

A: Right now there is a certain crisis of truth, which we saw come to the fore with the recent World Press photo scandal with a haphazard investigation after the organization stood by a photographer who placed a flashlight in a car while his cousin fornicated and called it a found moment. Eventually the work was disqualified because it turns out it was not even where the photographer said it was. There are more flaks than ever and the language of the war on terror has completely obfuscated even simple dialogues about random acts of violence. Every era has its challenges; this era has many.

Q: What challenges do you imagine photojournalists might face in the future?

A: Depending on where you are in the world and what the security situation is, photojournalists experience different types of peril. As our own security weakens or strengthens, I believe we can look around the world in order to figure out what to expect.

[…]

Q: Generally speaking, what is the future, or the fate, of photojournalism? Many people seem to believe print journalism will eventually become obsolete. Do you believe photojournalism could be headed down the same path, or does the medium transcend?

A: It depends on what your pictures look like and the paucity and historicity of what you photograph. People love documentation because it has a validating effect on our lives. I don’t believe this tendency of humanity will change anytime soon.

And here is a short 30 second video tour of my show at Telluride Mountainfilm: