Umida Akhmedova: “I Cannot Abide Being Told What to Do”

Photographer Umida Akhmedova: “I Cannot Abide Being Told What to Do”
Geliya Pevzner
May 20, 2016

Umida Akhmedova, Tashkent: Inner Courtyard of the Kukeldash Madras, early 2000s

On May 5, 2016, it was announced that photographer and filmmaker Umida Akhmedova had been awarded the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. In 2009, Akhmedova published the photo album Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk and shot the documentary film The Burden of Virginity. She was subsequently charged and convicted of defaming and insulting the Uzbek people. Akhmedova answered RFI’s questions before the awards ceremony on May 25 in Oslo. 

Umida Akhmedova: To be honest, [the prize] was quite a surprise to me. Such people have received it: Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky, and Iranian artist Atena Farghadani. But the press release says that I teach young people a lesson with my documentary photographs. In part, I agree with this. I do not consider myself a hero, but I have never yielded to the state’s machinations. I shoot what I see. I do not reflect on who will like it and who won’t. No, I shoot what is there. I have never once thought it was heroism.

Nevertheless, you were criminally prosecuted.

Yes, of course, and I have not yet been exonerated. Some people still shy away from me as a convicted offender. Six years ago, we appealed the conviction to the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan, but since then we have not heard a peep from them. They have not responded to our appeal. I was charged with “defaming and insulting the Uzbek people” by publishing the photo album Men and Women: From Dawn to Dusk and releasing the film The Burden of Virginity, which was produced as part of a program on gender sponsored by the Swiss Embassy.

How exactly did you slander the Uzbek people?

My lawyer also asked the question. No one responded, because only the president can decide what slander is. No one, in fact, has any intention of responding. Who personally filed a complaint against me? After all, the law says that if I have slandered you, you go and tell the court I have slandered you. But there was no such complaint. I don’t know how they cooked this up, but nor they did deign to prove anything.

Let’s return to the prize. Was it awarded to you for this album or for your whole body of work?

You know, it was not even for the album or that film. They said it was for my creative and civic stance. Because after everything that happened, I did not going into hiding. I have continued to do my art, and I have been active on the social networks. I was convicted yet again for the protest action “Uzbek Maidan,” as they exaggeratedly dubbed it. We did not expect it would be an Uzbek Maidan when we took a petition to the Ukrainian Embassy in January 2014. Yes, we were sympathetic to the Maidan, and our sympathy boiled down to the fact that the eight of us had our picture taken next to a monument to Taras Shevchenko. We were detained and tried a few days later. True, it was an administrative hearing. Maybe I got the prize for this as well, for having a civic stance. It is what it is. How can you not have a civic stance? How can you call yourself a photographer or documentary filmmaker if you don’t have a civic stance? I don’t understand this.

What are you working on now?

My husband Oleg Karpov and I continue to make films. Actually, the film Burden of Virginity was our film, because he is a director, and the ideas in the film belong to both of us. We recently made a film entitled Samarkand, and now I have a photo project called SNAP, which stands for “means of visual agitation and propaganda” (sredstva nagliadnoi agitatsii i propagandy), which was a subject in Soviet times when I was a student. It is written on every corner in our country that Uzbekistan is a country with a great future, that Uzbekistan is my pride: communist slogans like this, but updated for today’s needs. Meaning that the ideas for visual agitation and propaganda still have their source in the old life. I had myself photographed in front of these banners. You don’t have to look hard to find them. If you drive around Tashkent for half an hour you can take dozens of such photographs. “Shine bright, my native Uzbekistan,” “Independent Uzbekistan has a great future”: every year they come up with some slogan or other about our great country. It comes from the Soviet era. They haven’t invented anything new.

You will be awarded the prize on May 25. Are you working on a speech?

I will talk about the fact I am not a politician or a member of the opposition. I am not a member of a party, a sociologist or a political scientist. I am just a person who cannot abide being told what to do in her art. And I will also talk about fear. When it takes control of you, fear is a really nasty emotion.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) has also awarded the prize this year to Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani and Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky.

Translated by the Russian Reader