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|| News Item: Posted 2008-01-29

Sports Shooter Destination: I heart Kazakhstan
David Honl challenges photographers to take a step away from their normal surroundings.

By David Honl

Photo by David Honl

Photo by David Honl

Fergie and bust their humps for 20,000 young Kazakhs at an old outdoor running track.
Yes, Kazakhstan is a real country. Since it's been on my regular travel schedule, I can count on at least four hands how many people have made me a reluctant small talk ambassador by asking me to "say hi to Borat for me". Even my well-traveled photographer and photo editor friends can't resist this verbal gut reaction to my travel plans. Having spent most of the last half of 2007 working there, I've deduced that creator Sacha Baron Cohen threw a dart at a spinning globe to pick Mr. Sagdiyev's homeland and in the same stroke saved Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan from being the butt of the joke for moviegoers everywhere.

I've been lucky enough to experience this curious country firsthand, shooting everything from horsemeat sausage makers at the Zelyoni Bazaar, to Kazakh weddings, to a crowd of 20,000 exuberant young Kazkakhs at a Black Eyed Peas concert. Kazkakhstan is one of the most camera-shy countries I've worked in (due to those pesky repressed Soviet times), but it stands as one of the most rewarding and pleasurable for me. In public, and especially with the older generation, many times my camera felt more like a surveillance device than a creative instrument so it took quite a bit of extra time and effort to nurture my subjects and shooting opportunities.

The younger generation of Kazakhs is an educated lot, and as they become influenced by Western marketing through the Internet, fashion, and music I predict a powerful economic force in the not-to-distant future.

Once a holding of the former Russian Empire, Kazakhstan is extremely oil-rich country that neighbors China, Russia, and a handful of other 'stans. It was also, during Soviet times, a center for the Soviet space program, nuclear testing grounds, and weapons factories. There's no better sign of the results of that booming oil economy than in the northern capitol city of Astana, whose construction lined landscape shows hints of a city that resembles Las Vegas. Oversized theme restaurants and gargantuan buildings are being built to order for the impending splurge of consumerism. Perhaps I'll be toting rolls of quarters for the slots next time.

I rode through Astana on my way to an assignment to photograph a factory in Stepnogorsk near the northern border with Russia. The nearly 3 hour drive was a jerky one on a poorly maintained highway through millions of acres of old unused wheat fields and patches of trees, reminding me of my childhood surrounded by birch trees in northern Minnesota.

Photo by David Honl

Photo by David Honl

Father and son doctors in Stepnogorsk's hospital.
The remote town I grew up in was a factory town too, a sort of epicenter for making snowmobiles and windows. But in Stepnogorsk their factory made biological weapons, specifically anthrax. During the Cold War it was a secret city not marked on any maps and it drew the Soviet Union's scientific elite to produce anthrax at the plant named "Progress" on the outskirts of town.

Along with writer Daria Vaisman, I was there to photograph not only the guarded buildings still closely guarded by the Kazakh military, but some of the citizens and former weapons scientists. Whenever I'm in one of these unique historical shooting situations, I can't help but do a little traveling back in time and imagining what it was like in its heyday. I was helped along a bit by listening to longtime Stepnogorsk residents talk about Soviet times and what it was like living in a secret city. They really weren't much different than I or the people I grew up with in my one-horse hometown back in the U.S., sans the KGB agents.

Back in Almaty, I was assigned to photograph The Black Eyed Peas before and during their concert at an old outdoor track stadium. After living in L.A. for 15 years the thought of rock star ego wasn't really at the top of my exotic experience list, but both privately and publicly they turned out to be a very welcome surprise.

A couple hours before the show I found Fergie,, Taboo, and Apl.De.Ap some of the coolest humans I've met in the business. Fresh off the heels of her MTV VMA Best Female Artist award, Fergie took a real interest in the culture and tried not only fermented horse milk, but camel's milk too, both known by nomads for their miracle thirst quenching properties. Somehow I can't see Madonna or Britney with the same enthusiasm. Next time you hear a rock star canceling a show because of "dehydration", send them some horse or camel's milk and they'll get right back up on stage.

As photographers, we have the most legitimate of excuses to get out and live and breathe the rest of the world, so I challenge you to take a step away from your normal surroundings- even if it's only to the next city, county, or state. Photograph what you experience, not necessarily what you see!

(David Honl is an American photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.)

(Have you visited an interesting, cool or out of way locale? If you have and want to contribute an article for this series, email:

Related Links:
Honl's member page

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