The Wagon Hall Series: Interview with Azeri Photographer Nihad Gulamzada

Nihad Gulamzada is a photographer that we’ve been fond of for a long time at No-Yolo. He’s a Baku native that has been working in photography since 2012. He is a student at Bakı Jurnalistika Məktəbi (Bau School of Journalism) where he is majoring in multimedia. In 2014, he won first prize in Take a true, a photography competition hosted by the organization Art for Democracy. He is also an actor and studied violin for a couple of years but was no good at it. He kindly agreed to answer some questions that we had for him about his work, Baku and its railways:

Since the independence of Azerbaijan, Baku has been awash with money from the oil revenue generated by SOCAR. There has been a tremendous amount of investment spent on infrastructure and construction that has transformed the city from a typical post-Soviet city into the Dubai of the Caucasus. How do you feel about this transformation?

This is too controversial of a topic. It is good if Azerbaijan, especially Baku, is compared to Dubai. However, the question is, “Are people happy in this beautiful ‘Dubai’?” Nope, I don’t think so. The money that is coming from the oil belongs to the people. It should be spent only for people but unfortunately it is not like that. Poverty is growing day by day. It is okay that glorious buildings are being built and some of us admire them from afar but can people enter those palaces? No they can’t. The reason why Baku looks beautiful is because it’s new facade is geared towards glamorous people. So, Baku looks happy but the population isn’t.

I first took notice of your photography because I thought they made Baku appear almost charmingly dark. They conflicted with the attempts by the Azeri state to advertise the city as this bastion of high fashion and fine dining. Despite the amazing economic growth of the city, the identity of Baku as a city has not been solidified in the public imagination in Western Europe/North America, unlike cities such as Moscow and Kiev. What makes Baku unique as a city? What is that distinctive cocktail of flaws and beauty that makes Baku what it is?

My photos indicate Baku’s real face but it isn’t always beautiful. What can I do if I see the ugliness of Baku every day? I must shoot what I see. Baku was a beautiful city in the past. For me, Baku now looks tired and miserable. It had sincerity in the Soviet period. It was poor but it was kind and had a good landscape. Today, Baku just looks like a girl with too much make up.

The government presents Azerbaijan’s national food all around the world but a normal Azerbaijani can only eat those meals during holidays. Azerbaijan was known for its rich culture but today it is declining. The arts are not supported and artists get no help from the government. The are only two independent theatres in Azerbaijan and they cannot pay their rent. Even governmental organizations try to ignore them. Look, that’s why today’s Baku is not old Baku. A city ignoring arts can only face a collapse. The young try hard to prevent it but they’re not supported.

It was interesting that you set this photo series at the railroad station because it offers a very symbolic contrast with the new image of Baku. The railroad system was infrastructure implemented by the Soviet Union whereas other modes of transportation, like the refurbished Heydar Aliyev International Airport, are utilized to present the new image of Baku. What aspect of the train station appealed to you?

Heydar Aliyev International Airport is really beautiful. It was supposed to be beautiful because it was named in memory of our current president’s father who also was the president before he died. That’s not true of our railroads. That infrastructure is a leftover from the Soviet times. I believe that it will be repaired right after it is named in honor of Heydar Aliyev. It will be number one in the world!

I live near to the station everyone knows as Old Station. I used to walk along its long platform. It was a calm and quiet area. Trains there carried mostly the poor passengers. I wanted to take many photos there but after three or four hours I could only manage to take seven pictures because it is forbidden to take photos while in the station. The police were preventing me, as you know. I was curious to take people’s photos while they were crossing very fast in front of me without stopping. It was a good landscape. It was peaceful for me. The train stopped and people were crossing. I could only take those photos in the series. Who knows how many millions of people had crossed there since the Soviet Union? How many people those trains had seen?

Lastly, you surely know from our communication No-Yolo firmly believes if you want to understand anything about a city then you must get drunk there. Where would you suggestion people get drunk in Baku?

Baku has got a lot of pubs and cafes, but I’d advise guys who would like to drink in a civil and quiet place to go to TRASH Art Cafe. This cafe is located inside a theatre. People would enjoy themselves quite a lot there. Actually, this cafe is specifically for people who value politeness and want to have fun in an enjoyable way. If you would like to just get drunk, you could go to the pubs near the Baku Train Station!