July 19, 2012
by Jacob Aue Sobol
The first shock comes as I enter the train. It’s completely empty. The whole idea of the project is to meet people on the train and make intimate stories from their compartments. But riding this ghost-train, I have to change the concept: The intimate work has to come from my encounters with people in the cities I pass and the train will be the red thread connecting Moscow, Ulaanbaartar and Beijing.
Once the journey begins this “ghost train” atmosphere becomes very interesting and I begin focusing on the landscapes. I wake up around 6 am the first morning and I don’t remember where I am. I look out the window and see the most amazing twilight as the train takes us through a Russian forest. The rhythm of the train and the smell of coal completes this moment.
Even though I am a photographer, I try to avoid being a voyeur. It has always been my ambition not only to look, but also take part in life, which can be quite frustrating, especially if you have a tight deadline. If I meet someone playing soccer in the street, I immediately feel like playing with them instead of just watching. I never found it interesting to look at someone from the other side of the street, or to be “invisible” as a photographer. I hope this is the reason why people never feel like a voyeur looking at my images– because you feel that you are taking part.
But on this train my face is glued to the window and there’s nothing I can do about it. For every house I pass, for every person I spot, I wonder who they are and what their lives are like. And since I can’t ask them, I start making up stories. The train attendants all seem grumpy and homesick– and besides a lonely mother traveling with her child, there’s no one to meet.
After four days of traveling through Russia, the train compartment reminds me more and more of a prison cell. A place from where I can only watch and not take part. It is with a certain relief that I wake up on the fourth day to the sight of the frozen Lake-Baikal. I wish I had time to jump off and go ice-fishing with the locals, but soon we will reach Ulan-Ude and I will change from the Trans Siberian to the Trans Mongolian Railway. I can’t wait to reach Ulaanbaatar. I can’t wait to be among people again. The Mongolians.