The landscapes and portraits that Elliott Verdier captures are beautiful in their stillness; there is a quiet contemplative quality to them. The layers of history, memories and culture appear in both the scenes of the Kyrgyzstan landscape and the faces of the people he photographs. Scenes of small towns, aging factory equipment and structures, Soviet uniforms still cherished by old men, and the fresh faces of the country’s youth evoke the aura of an uncertain future, as well as the remnants of the Soviet government that previously ruled the region for generations. Both of these phenomena exist in harmony, at least visually, knit together by the people of Kyrgyzstan. But the underlying purpose of Verdier’s book is to freeze these moments in time, sharing them for as long as possible to highlight the primary consideration that connects us all: our existential struggle.
The young people of Kyrgyzstan are very connected and modern, especially in the capital city of Bishkek, and they are influenced by the now-globalized Western and Russian cultures. But the main problem these young people face is a feeling of invisibility to the wider world. Today’s global culture is about self-esteem and empowerment, and A Shaded Path raises the pervasive question: If you don’t exist in the eyes of others, what is the reason for your existence at all?
How do the people of Kyrgyzstan see themselves? Their sense of individuality and the place they live have been influenced by the transition of their country into a post-Soviet culture and economy. How do they strike a balance between the younger generation’s idea of their place in the world with a sense of nostalgia for the formative years of the country’s older generation? Verdier recognizes this younger generation’s yearning to be part of a dynamic modern world, and the nostalgia of the older generation’s formative Soviet years. “A Shaded Path explores the trials of a fledgling country struggling to simultaneously form a national identity while keeping apace with the global economy. In this faraway place, relics of past eras mingle with the faces of a population that is struggling with the tensions between tradition and transition,” Verdier explains. “A Shaded Path undeniably speaks of the country, its history and its people, but the story that I wanted to tell was, above everything else, a human story. It shows our relationship to the past, the future, and the fragility that exists between them. It’s not about translating an experience, because the primary goal of A Shaded Path is to speak to emotions and sensations.”
It’s easy to view these portraits and scenes as an exotic ‘Other’ place—a Neverland isolated in the past, now trying to find its footing among other countries that have separated from the former USSR. But Verdier’s images help demystify this place by defying the stories perpetuated through tropes and propaganda generated by political regimes. The images of everyday people and views of the landscape in Kyrgyzstan are what help the viewer feel a sense of commonality with the subjects. For example, the human experience that Verdier presents could easily be recognized by people living in similar Canadian terrain. This sense of sameness is one of the many strengths of A Shaded Path, creating parallels between us as people with human stories, struggles and victories alike.
For this project, Verdier worked with a large format 4x5 film camera. This equipment is bulky and time-consuming to set up and work with, especially compared to a hand-held device, but this process allowed Verdier to be involved with his subjects on a very personal, intimate level. Political views took a secondary role to each human story that Verdier recorded. In talking about taking portraits of people during his four months in the country, Verdier described his subjects as quite guarded and private. “In Kyrgyzstan, I would say people have a certain restraint towards strangers, but there is a warmth there despite the respectful distance they posses. I find people who reveal themselves over time to be far more touching. Personally, I think having to dig deeper to reveal someone’s humanity is a far more rewarding exercise.”
I ask Verdier about what sense of responsibility a photographer has towards the people and places he documents. He reflects, “I think the responsibility that a photographer possesses resides in the fact that they have to forget their own preconceptions of their subject so that they constitute a sincere, honest and free approach.” He continues, “The main goal is to keep in mind the responsibility that the photographer has towards the people and the subject he or she photographs, so that the truth shown is not the photographer’s truth, but the subject’s truth.”
“The art of taking a good photograph,” Verdier adds, “lies in a subtle and delicate balance. In my opinion, the key is to find the point where storytelling and aesthetics work together in perfect harmony. There can be an infinite amount of reasons for why an image is strong, but the photographs that have touched me the most are the ones that make you feel the weight of time, while also telling you that everything will still be fine.”
Speaking about the concept of ‘place’ in his landscape work, Verdier reflects on how his series incorporates this pervasive theme. “Even if I have more of an attachment to the portraits, the landscapes are still a very important part of the series,” Verdier explains. “The dialogue that happens between the portraits and these landscapes touches on many subjects, but one stands out in the forefront of my mind. Despite their contextual importance, these landscapes show us how humans can adapt their environment to their own wishes, but their surroundings still always win in the end. They show the passage of human beings and the wear they have on their environment. In essence, they represent the fleeting nature of man.”
When asked about the parallels between nature and man’s inclusion—or exclusion—with nature in his work, Verdier replies, “Kyrgyzstan has beautifully-preserved landscapes that are a large part of tradition and people’s lives. Everybody I met there was attached to it in some way. As humans, I think our environment shapes us. In Kyrgyzstan, the wildness of its nature is clearly traced across people’s faces and mentalities. Even if people rarely appear in my landscapes, there is always a trace of their passage. In the series, it was important to me that the portraits and the landscapes were linked, working together towards the same goal.”
As the title suggests, A Shaded Path hints at the journey these people are on. The present is where they find themselves, and the past is what is known for certain. There is some comfort in a known past, especially in contrast to the unfixed, uncertain future for the country and people who reside there. Verdier’s book is a delicately-balanced quest for beauty through the stories of struggling people full of nostalgia, melancholy and sensitivity.