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Carl Dekeyzer at the Southeast museum of Photography
Zona: Siberian Prison Camps


To many Westerners, Siberia remains geographically and culturally distant, a place notorious for the horror of Stalin’s prison camps. Officially disbanded in 1960, the legacy of the Gulag persists and today the camps still house a free labor force of around a million prisoners. Zona is Siberian slang for prison. In a territory as big as Europe, prisoners live in a ‘country’ of its own governed by specific rules and practices. Carl De Keyzer traveled to Siberia in 2002 and photographed some 35 camps, revealing a harsh way of life totally isolated from the rest of the world. The resulting body of work, taken within the constraints of the restricted access he was granted, contains contradictory images such as the positive view of reformed conditions that the prison authorities wish to project, juxtaposed with De Keyzer’s observations of the remaining hardships of camp life. De Keyzer ‘s images, often in startling color, jolt us with their immediacy and offer a rare insight into the lives of those inhabiting these isolated institutions. The images are wrenching. Their truth lies in the contrast between the Disneyland environment and the story written in the inmates’ faces. Confusion, anxiety, sadness, and bewilderment play across their faces. "In a women’s camp in winter, some women were cleaning the snow in the square and some others were inside playing cards.  I asked “Why are certain women working outside while others can stay in?”  And the chief answered very simply: “Well, the ones who are sweeping snow outside are the ones that killed their husbands.” Zona text. "Beyond the gate was the bright world of freedom where people lived like everyone else.  But to those on this side of the enclosure that world seemed like some unattainable fairyland.  Here was our own world, unlike anything else; here were our own laws, our own dress, our own manners and customs, here was the house of the living dead, a life like none other upon earth, and people who were special, set apart.  It is this special corner that I am setting out to describe."    -Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the House of the Dead

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