Taken 12 years after the war that displaced tens of thousands and made it a de facto independent state, Jonas Bendiksen’s 2005 series shows Abkhazia through the eyes of both the locals and a new wave of snap-happy tourists. It features photographs that look like they could have been taken years apart: images of bombed out apartment blocks without running water and scant electricity next to grand seaside hotels where visitors — dressed head-to-toe in holiday attire — are just checking in.
This photo story, entitled A Vacation In A Non-Existent Country, was shot in Abkhazia over the summer of 2005. Bendiksen travelled there neither as a correspondent nor as a holiday-goer. Before he arrived in Abkhazia, he had spent two years living in Russia. He says it was an unknown family link that brought him from his native Norway to the former Soviet region. He recalls: “Just as the USSR was collapsing, my mother [born in New York to Jewish immigrants] got a letter from a relative in the Soviet Union we didn’t know existed.” For Bendiksen, the breakup of the Soviet Union became inextricably linked to a familial reconciliation. The USSR was no longer the “monstrously big country across the border” and he had wondered what life there looked like. “Suddenly, from inhabiting sleepy suburbia in America and Norway, a middle class narrative I knew so well, our family story was thrust into the final endgames of the Cold War.”
He travelled first to Siberia in 2000, then settled in Moscow. Rather than set out to build a complete picture of the ruptured post-Soviet territory, what he was looking for during his travels were unfinished stories — “moments that make you wonder how it ends”.