Photography as a Modern Fairytale: Jason Eskenazi’s Black and White.

Numerous photographers of the twentieth century have been confronted with the events that took place during the century: their camera has filtered, reproduced and painted the rise and fall of great societies, reproduced the irreversible changes of the modern and contemporary world. While the photographic eye has immortalized historical events in a spontaneous and natural way, there is a part of the photographic process that is full of mystery and magic. Jason Eskenazi, a photographer from the United States, has been able to capture this mystical reserve through various journeys to discover worlds and realities at odds with the everyday life of the West. His use of black and white sets the stage for a silent and almost eerie atmosphere of contrast between West and East.

Fallen Soviet Monument, Chechnya 1996 © Jason Eskenazi

Eskenazi was born on 23 April 1960 in Queens, New York. He attended Bayside High School before studying psychology and American literature at Queens College. While a student, he served as photo editor for the yearbook, while also assisting various commissioned photographers and working as a freelance photographer himself for the Queens Tribune. After graduation he concentrated on darkroom work, obtained local photography assignments and, while continuing as an assistant, undertook an internship at a New York photo agency. At the age of 29, inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he began to travel and make his own photographic journeys. His first trips were to Romania for the country’s first democratic elections, to Germany and finally to Russia in 1991.

It was in the former Soviet Union that Eskenazi carried out his most renowned and certainly most intense project. “Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith“, which encompasses almost a decade of work and research in former Soviet countries such as Romania, East Germany and Russia, is an intimate yet objective investigation in which the photographer measures up to the changes taking place within the nations under construction. The modern and the past mix and confront each other in a tug-of-war that is revealed within Eskenazi’s images.

Paratroopers Day, Gorky Park, Moscow 1998 © Jason Eskenazi

One of the most important features of this research is the overcoming of the American way of thinking towards the USSR in a delicate period such as the early 1990s. The United States of America had been going through a period of strong polarization towards the Soviet bloc, aided by the hostile policies of presidents such as Richard Nixon, McCarthy, and Ronald Reagan. This ideological framework is the starting point from which Eskenazi decides to have a first-hand account of the end of the USSR. The decline of this empire so demonized by American propaganda is the backdrop to seek a more human sense within a country of contradictions

Dead Russian Soldiers, Chechnya, 1996

In the preceding photograph, a man’s torso occupies half the image. His T-shirt displays perhaps one of the most glowing symbols of Western prosperity: the cover of The Beatles’ Let It Be. The smiling faces of the British rock stars, however, are contrasted by a dark and desolate background with a number of dead bodies. The gaze struggles to sustain the vision, making the juxtaposition of two opposite states of mind cruel. In the background, what seems to be a Soviet memorial stands out, mockingly witnessing the horror at its feet.

The image is saturated with possible readings and carries within itself all the vicissitudes and traumas that a former communist country has gone through. The mystery with which the desire for well-being and leisure is intertwined with the naked and raw reality is perhaps the key to access the path that Jason Eskenazi takes. It is important to read this path through a feeling of innocence of the gaze that Eskenazi’s photographs convey to us. The composition of the human figures in relation to the urban and rural landscape tell us a lot about the everydayness of life and death, joy and pain.

Precisely in the composition, the author establishes a hierarchy of gazes between that of the camera, that of the characters and that of the viewer. On the one hand, in fact, Eskenazi affirms that there is nothing orchestrated in his work and that he is merely making the shot, thus formalizing his work as a document and giving it a testimonial value. On the other hand, he wants to underline its absolutely subjective value, showing how the photographer’s gaze inevitably filters reality in order to give it a personal vision.

Last Day of School, Tver 2000 © Jason Eskenazi

Giovanni Troìa

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