Run a Google image search of Turkmenistan and you’ll get maps, diagrams, architectural photos devoid of any humans, and a few images of women in traditional dress. That’s how little filters out of the closed-off Central Asian republic. What we do know about it—that it’s rich in oil and eccentric autocrats—is intriguing enough. But the country, named an enemy of the internet by Reporters Without Borders, rarely grants access to journalists. Thanks to her job as a French language teacher, however, photographer Eleonora Strano was able to live in Turkmenistan on and off over a period of three years. What she found there was “completely absurd and surreal,” she says. Her body of work, atmospheric in photographs that blend beauty and unease, shows the people she met there: “a very diverse mix who coexist in a closed environment.” She joined R&K from her home in the South of France.
Roads & Kingdoms: When did you first go to Turkmenistan?
Eleonora Strano: It was in the Spring of 2011. I went there to teach French as a second language. I hadn’t realized where I was going really, I just needed money so I took the first job that I happened to find, and I went. When I was there, I realized that it was the perfect opportunity for a photographer, and I did everything I could do go back again as a teacher, because it’s impossible to enter the country any other way than the official routes. I went back in 2012 and 2013 for longer periods of time. I wasn’t the only French person there though. At the time, there were a lot of people living in Turkmenistan who worked in construction companies. Bouygues Construction pretty much rebuilt the entire capital, the official buildings, the President’s palace, the former President’s mosque where his tomb is. The company has been around for a while there and so there were thousands of French expats actually. Of course, it’s not really talked about because Turkmenistan is still a dictatorship.