Iceland finished 19th in the Eurovision Song Contest. This was not the first time Icelanders received bad treatment in Azerbaijan.
Two years ago, Iceland Review’s photographer and editor, Páll Stefánsson, was arrested twice in Azerbaijan while shooting photos for a book on the world’s most polluted places. Sumqayit, Azerbaijan’s third largest city, is among these places. Some of his photos were put on display in Reykjavík on Saturday May 26, the day of the Eurovision contest. The show is in Crymogea, Barónstígur 27, Reykjavík.Páll Stefánsson in 2010. Photo: Benedikt Jóhannesson/Iceland Review.
Páll arrived in Azerbaijan in 2010 for taking photos of reportedly one of the ugliest places on earth. If so his photos don’t really reflect that. They are well in line with his other work as one of the best photo artist in Iceland.
Páll recalled that when he had arrived at the place he was being followed: “I noticed that I caught attention in the industrial district. In the end I was taken to a police station and questioned for three hours”.
“They generally don’t speak the same languages I do. Finally they found an elderly German teacher to interpret. I tried to explain in my high school German that I was only photographing man against nature,” he continued.
“All of my papers were in order so they didn’t have anything on me. In the end they let me go. After that it felt uncomfortable photographing. […] They were following what I was doing.”
Later he decided to photograph some trees outside the hotel where he was staying before departing for London in the afternoon. “Then suddenly nine armed men in three cars arrived and arrested me.”
He was allowed to call the civil service of the Icelandic Foreign Ministry. The Icelandic Embassy in Moscow immediately called back and asked to speak with the police officers. But they wouldn’t take the call and took Páll back to the police station.
Another interpreter, an elderly English-speaking woman, came and said: “You are in serious trouble,” Páll described. She explained that the police would confiscate his equipment and films. His passport was also removed. “They questioned me and constantly asked what I was doing. I replied that I was taking pictures.” Apparently they thought his visit to the city was suspicious.
Then one of the men in the room received a phone call, which Páll believes came from the Foreign Ministry in Azerbaijan. He assumes that either the Icelandic Foreign Ministry or the Icelandic Embassy in Moscow had contacted the police. Suddenly the questioning was over. Stefánsson’s passport was returned along with all of his equipment and films and he was driven back to the hotel without explanation.
Sumqayit, Azerbaijan’s third largest city. Photo:.Páll Stefánsson
Sumqayit is polluted because of the local chemical industry which was built up around the oil wells in Azerbaijan. Páll describes the pollution as a grayish cloud that covers everything.
So far Páll Stefánsson has photographed the lead and arsenic mines in La Oroya in Peru, chemical industry in Vapi, India, Mountaintop Removal open coal mine in West-Virginia. His book, intended for the international market, focuses on the daily life in these polluted places, not the ugliness.