30 October 2019
Detail: Newsreel, Nippon News No. 1, 1940, The Captured Collections, Library of Congress.

Detail image: Newsreel, Nippon News No. 1, 1940, The Captured Collections, Library of Congress.

To accompany the exhibition The Potemkin Project, at the Slought Foundation, Sam Gregory of Witness and I are holding a discussion titled “Weapons of Perception,” on Friday, November 1, 2019, from 6-8pm. The event has been organized in partnership with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, and is part of Slought’s ongoing Photographies of Conflict series.

The Potemkin Project  is an exploration of the falsification of reality in media and new frameworks for civic integrity, on display at Slought through November 1, 2019. The exhibit includes Into The Fold Of The True, work which I made while a fellow at the Library of Congress, alongside installations by WITNESS, on synthetic media and deep fakes; Global Voices, on threats to online expression around the world; Bellingcat, on the online forensic investigation into the downing of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014; and projection artist Robin Bell, on the people who work in the power structures that govern us. These works and projects share a common inquiry into the many media forms that assert authority over our perceptions, and of the logic that underpins those claims. They explore how media events drive and shift real-life events, from the history of war propaganda to current obsession with disinformation; from the hype surrounding virtual reality to the effects of so-called deep fakes and synthetic media.

This event will explore the enduring fascination with images in relation to mechanisms of control, surveillance, restrictions on rights, and misinformation by governments and their agents as well as technology companies. We will focus on likely scenarios for the future, and lines of tension and conflict in the use of imaging as a means of influence, control, and creation. We will also discuss projects and ideas for retaining and expanding integrity and trustworthiness in civic life. How can we use imaging technologies ethically and creatively? How can we read images critically in an era of easy manipulation and the discrediting of authenticity? How can we retain our privacy, autonomy and rights to expression?

These Are Clear Proofs, 2019. Photographic interpolation and audio of projected 16mm films, “Ufa-ton-woche No. 204,” August 1, 1934, “In New York, the 7th infantry regiment practices with tear gas bombs and machine guns against Communist strikes,” and “Ufa-ton-woche No. 195,” May 30, 1934, “25,000 German-Americans protest against the boycott of German goods: the enormous rally in Madison Square Garden in New York.” Video Installation, Slought Gallery, 2019, Philadelphia PA.

These Are Clear Proofs, 2019. Photographic interpolation and audio of projected 16mm films, “Ufa-ton-woche No. 204,” August 1, 1934, “In New York, the 7th infantry regiment practices with tear gas bombs and machine guns against Communist strikes,” and “Ufa-ton-woche No. 195,” May 30, 1934, “25,000 German-Americans protest against the boycott of German goods: the enormous rally in Madison Square Garden in New York.” Video Installation, Slought Gallery, 2019, Philadelphia PA.

The Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, one of the sites of coordinated bombings that took place in the country on April 21. Photo by AKS.9955 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, one of the sites of coordinated bombings that took place in the country on April 21. Photo by AKS.9955 via Wikimedia Commons.

As the tragedy surrounding attacks on churches and hotels unfolded in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, the Sri Lankan government took the unusual step of preemptively blocking a range of social media sites.

The president’s office announced a block of Facebook and Instagram, reasoning that they could be used to spread misinformation. Internet censorship research group Netblocks reported evidence that WhatsApp, YouTube, Viber, Snapchat and Messenger were down as well.

Shutdowns like this are a clear violation of international rights to free expression and access to information. The protection of these rights is especially important in emergency situations, where people may need to call for help or communicate with family and friends to ensure their safety. While internet shutdowns are increasingly used as a tactic by governments to control online expression, pre-emptive shutdowns are quite rare. For instance, Bangladesh justified a block of Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp in 2016 as as a public security measure.

 

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Into the Fold of the True is the working title for investigations into archives of war and conflict at the Library of Congress, where I’ve been a fellow in digital studies in 2017-2018. This talk in October 2018 at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab is my first public discussion of the initial research and working method, with initial images and a prototype digital installation, and a conversation into the use of archives as material for creative expression.

Profile pictures from a large network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

Profile pictures from a large network of pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts. Image by Lawrence Alexander.

With the F.B.I. indictment of 13 Russians for interfering in 2016 United States presidential elections, Global Voices revisited its extensive research into Russian online interference, underscoring the importance of open-source data and research to understand its impact.

RuNet Echo, a Global Voices initiative, began covering Russian automated bots, trolls and paid bloggers seeking to influence online news, conversations, and political campaigns as early as 2011. RuNet Echo’s main purpose is to “expand and deepen understanding of the Russian Internet (RuNet) and related online communities.”

GV was the first to publish evidence of the existence of networked trolls and bot farms operating in a coordinated fashion to distort public discourse, setting the frame for much of the reporting that followed.

Through the research of Lawrence Alexander, Global Voices was the first to demonstrate, using open source tools like NodeXL and Gephi, that specific bot networks existed on Twitter linked to the Russian troll farm run by the Internet Research Agency (I.R.A.) operating in a coordinated fashion to and from a specific location, and tied to specific accounts to disrupt and influence online discourse.

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This story was originally published on Global Voices.

Protesters fly a flag upside down as a signal of distress outside the offices of The Washington Post in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. Photo: Ivan Sigal.

Protesters fly a flag upside down as a signal of distress outside the offices of The Washington Post in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. Photo: Ivan Sigal.

In his recent manifesto, Mark Zuckerberg asserts that the response to our dysfunctional and conflict-ridden politics is to build a stronger global community based on ubiquitous interconnection. We know of course that Facebook stands to profit from this utopian vision, and we should be skeptical of the motives underlying Zuck’s position. But it’s worth taking a second look at the idea of working on underlying economic and political issues in our societies, rather than focusing on the effects of online expression—particularly in the context of the moral panic over “fake news.”

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This story was originally published on Global Voices.

 Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

The residents of Washington D.C. came out of their houses and apartments last Sunday morning. They walked, biked and took buses down to Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, for a spontaneous demonstration, in tandem with other protests across the United States against Trump’s Executive Order banning entry to the U.S. for immigrants, visa holders and refugees from seven countries.

Perhaps 5,000 people, seemingly unaccustomed to protest. In a tightly-packed space between left-over fencing from the previous weekend’s Presidential inauguration, the event began with the same improvised spirit in which it was organized—through a Facebook page, then rippling across social media into the flesh-and-blood world.

In the absence of a stage or a clear leader, people in the crowd looked to each other for cues. They were less a mobilized march than a collection of individuals deciding, on the spot, how they should behave. Here were people coming out of their social media shells, out of communities defined by work or school and into a fully public civic space. There were rumors that political leaders attended, but they were not visible or audible from any of the vantages I achieved. Instead, people negotiated with others nearby, for space, for direction. And perhaps because this crowd was not united by any organizing principle other than the need to demonstrate resistance, those negotiations took place mostly in silence, with looks and nods and occasional gestures.

 Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Perhaps they were angry, or determined, but the chants and calls of “Shame”, “No ban, no wall” and “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here” rose in restive pockets within the crowd, never reaching a volume or pitch that could be mistaken for aggression. As the crowd packed into the space from the rear, some took the initiative to announce a march along Pennsylvania Avenue, to the Trump International Hotel, and then onward to the Capitol. The jam broke, and we started moving.

 Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

Faces of participants of the No Muslim Ban protest at Lafayette Park, in Washington D.C., January 29, 2017. Photos: Ivan Sigal

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This story was originally published by Public Radio International.

Listen to this story on PRI.org »

We follow the tweets of 7-year-old Bana Alabed and her mother; the last messages of activists and fighters waiting to surrender or die; and seek to verify chemical attacks or conflicting stories about the bombings of hospitals. And at the same time, we struggle to understand whether this information fits into our existing worldviews, or upends them.

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Over the past few months, I’ve been in conversation with the photographer Anton Kusters, on Instagram and on our respective websites, under the hash #image_by_image. The dialogue has taken shape as a curious collaboration, now with some 40 posts and going strong. The posts are public but we have not been actively promoting the work. Our original idea was simply to write to each other in public, with a few constraints, and see what might happen.

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By Ivan Sigal. Read full post.

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5 July 2016
Tetrapods, normally used to build piers, have been used in Mariupol's defense, and today are found around the city painted with Ukrainian folk symbols. Mariupol, Ukraine, July 4, 2016. Photo: Ivan Sigal

Tetrapods, normally used to build piers, have been used in Mariupol’s defense, and today are found around the city painted with Ukrainian folk symbols. Mariupol, Ukraine, July 4, 2016. Photo: Ivan Sigal

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol sits 20 km from the front line between separatists and the Ukrainian military. It is a city at peace, but close enough to hear the war. Fighting between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military has escalated over past months, and residents in Mariupol hear mortars and rocket fire when the wind blows from the East, from the front-line towns of Shyrokyne and Novotroitske.

The Ukrainians have made defense of Mariupol their line in the sand: it is a port city with crucial transport infrastructure, access to the Sea of Azov, and two huge steel plants as well as assorted other heavy industries. It is also the city the Russians would need to capture in order to build a land bridge to Crimea, which would secure the strategic viability of their claim to that territory.

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This story was originally published on Global Voices and written with Tanya Lokot.

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“The Luhansk videos focus on the mundane. And that. . . is the point.” Screenshot from a dashcam video posted on YouTube.

A car revs and pulls forward. Volume cranked on the radio, out blares a Russian pop song from the 1990s, all static and drum machine. Streets, pavement, peripheral view of buildings, trees, kiosks, streetlights, pedestrians. Occasionally the driver remarks on something unseen in the landscape. It is a woman. It is a man. It is late spring and the poplars are shedding their white tufted seeds. It is winter and heavy wet flakes land on the windshield. The road is white. The route is through intersections, around corners, past monuments, gas stations, schools, apartment buildings, parks. It had no obvious beginning; it seems as if it could continue forever.

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This post was originally published in The Guardian as “Numaish Karachi: can art installations change this violent megacity’s image?” on June 5, 2015.

Photo by Humayun Memon. Used with permission.

Photo by Humayun Memon. Used with permission.

Karachi, a city known for intractable political conflict and as a shelter for militants from the Afghan wars, has difficulty escaping its reputation as the world’s most violent megacity. It has suffered some 13,500 killings in the past five years – a level of violence that has significantly degraded public safety and access to public spaces, and has instead encouraged the creation of sectarian, ethnic and political enclaves.

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5 May 2015

As with flock, herd, murder, or coven, blogs in their late maturity should finally receive a collective descriptor. Agony, denoting a sense of public contest, a chorus observing and commenting upon the affairs of the day, and a sense of extreme pain, feels appropriate, as it captures the current discord of our civic speech. These agonies are our struggles to create meaning for ourselves and to express them in the world. They exist both in the conversations we have amongst ourselves and in the structuring of speech through information technologies. They are the trolling battles in the comment sections of newspapers, the edit wars on Wikipedia, and the virtual armies assembling to attack and silence those they disagree with through DDOS attacks, data theft, and coordinated public shaming and hate. They are also the silences of our deserted personal blogs, comment sections empty and hyperlinks broken. They are the endless and numbing stream of our social media feeds. The agonies are also our moments of agreement, consilience and humor, in those times we are fully present with our communities and friends. Our agonies, as with other choruses, require harmony, yet we clearly see that the creation of an agreeable group implies the exclusion of others, just as the success of one social media platform implies the demise of others. The iron law of attention leads to winners and losers, to the dominance of first movers, to the power curve of popularity. Our agonies are made and unmade by the same hand.

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KCR appeared at Harvard’s Fogg Museum as a nine-channel interactive on April 20, 2015, and a second time in July as part of the workshop Beautiful Data, a two-week course on interactive media to help curators and archivists “develop art-historical storytelling through data visualization, interactive media, enhanced curatorial description and exhibition practice, digital publication, and data-driven, object-oriented teaching.” It featured in the Lightbox Gallery, a space dedicated to digital installations in the new, Renzo Piano-designed addition to the museum. The installation was built in the programming language Processing, an open source project built to manage interactivity, nonlinearity, and graphic design. Coding help from Sands Fish and editing assistance from Robin Bell. Following is a sample clip of the installation:

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12 April 2015
KCR screening at Frere Hall in central Karachi, April 2015.

KCR screening at Frere Hall in central Karachi, April 2015.

A screening of KCR – a visual exploration of the Karachi Circular Railway – is part of Numaish Karachi, an exhibition of over two dozen art installations at Frere Hall in central Karachi, from April 6-22.

Karachi Circular Railway
Video installation
Filmmaker: Ivan Sigal
Material: Single-channel version

KCR is a multimedia installation that traces the path of the defunct Karachi Circular Railway. The film takes the viewer on a meditative journey through one of the world’s most complex and conflicted megacities, exploring its urban and human landscape through video, stills, text and drone footage. It is available for display in several formats. In Karachi it is a single channel video projected onto a large outdoor screen.

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This article was originally published in Building Peace Forum; it reflects upon the work of Global Voices support for online freedom of expression.

In 2013, a group of Ethiopian bloggers and journalists created a blog to express their interest in a more open, inclusive, and democratic country. They called the blog Zone9, an ironic reference to the eight zones of Ethiopia’s Kaliti prison; their collective writing intended to demonstrate the possibility of a more open civic life. They chose to publish their writing on the Internet both out of necessity—it was the only public venue easily available to them—and aspiration, as it connected them to a global community of writers, thinkers, and translators with similar ideas.

Given Ethiopia’s history of imprisoning journalists and intellectuals, they knew their work was risky. When eight of the bloggers and journalists were arrested in April 2014 and charged with a range of offenses under Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, they were not completely surprised. It was, however, a troubling turn that the evidence against them—and the reason they were legally charged with criminal intent—was that they had received training in the use of digital security and encryption tools from the Tactical Technology Collective.  The journalists remain imprisoned, awaiting trial, as of March 2015.

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This post was originally published in Foreign Policy as Karachi’s Killers, and is part of a project funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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KCR Footbridge in Nazimabad, Karachi, Pakistan, 2014.

On Sunday, June 8, militants brazenly attacked Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, and managed to control it for several hours. By the time the Pakistani military was able to end the battle, at least 38 people, including the attackers, had been killed.

While the attack has done little material damage to the port city, it inflicted a serious moral wound. It exposed the weakness of Pakistan’s security and revealed the ease with which armed men can brutally disrupt the lives of the country’s citizens — not that Karachi’s residents need to be reminded that the state’s hold on the safety of their streets and homes is extremely tenuous. They have endured this kind of dramatic political violence for years — from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on the city’s streets in 2007 to the bombing of a Shia religious march in 2009 to the 2011 attack on the Mehran naval base outside of Islamabad.

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This story was originally published by Creative Time Reports.

The top of a mosque moved more than a mile by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as depicted in a poster displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

The top of a mosque moved more than a mile by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as depicted in a poster displayed at the Aceh Tsunami Museum, Banda Aceh, Indonesia.

Last year I visited Banda Aceh, a provincial capital located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. The Indonesian city was the epicenter of the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, which tore through communities from Thailand all the way to Somalia, killing approximately 230,000 people. While I had traveled to Sri Lanka to help right after the storm, I followed Banda Aceh’s story of recovery closely over the years. I wanted to see for myself the choices a community made in rebuilding and memorializing those lost in the disaster. What I discovered was both haunting and instructive, a monument to a past catastrophe and a harbinger of things to come.

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Summary: a joint post with Tim Davies reflecting on our learning from a recent Berkman Center Network Stories hack-day

There are hundreds of different digital tools for building online stories, and myriad ways to use them. Building stories online often requires creating alternative production and distribution paths for stories, in the context of networked, online communities.

The choice of tools affects the way a story is told and experienced. When starting a new project it can be challenging to work out which tools to use, how to use them and whether they work together.

Over the last few months the Network Stories group at the Berkman Center has been exploring different approaches to storytelling in digital media. This Saturday around 20 of us got together at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media for a full day, hands-on exploration of different digital storytelling approaches. We were a diverse group: coders, journalists, data scientists, theorists, filmmakers, scholars and artists.

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In June 2013, two sisters in the Chilas Vally in northern Pakistan were murdered by their step-brother, after a video of them dancing in the rain was shot on a mobile phone and circulated in their community.

The killing may have been sparked by an offended sense of honor, or possibly part of a plot to take the family’s property. While investigating the case and the trajectory of the video from creation to dissemination, my Global Voices colleague Sahar Habib Ghazi and I noticed that many of the hundreds of thousands of online videos tagged “Pakistani Dancing” are intentionally misappropriated and mislabeled images of woman dancing in private settings. These are personal videos that someone tags with terms such as “sexy” and “hot”, taking innocent images and adding a metadata layer of overt sexualization. Some of these videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

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23 October 2013

What shall we make of the flood of images and voices coursing through the Internet, and how shall we understand it? In our minds, the details of so much material overlap and overwhelm. On the Internet, we say, our attention is getting shorter, but our memory is improving. And yet, when I turn off my wifi, take off my glasses, and confront the flicker and hum of images in my own degraded memory, I know that the Internet’s recall will be as partial as my own. But, it seems to me, it will fail differently.

Human memories have half-lives. I remember seeing a video some years ago of two Russian football mobs clashing on a bridge. Red shirts versus blue, vicious kicks and punches, someone pushed into the water, the back-and-forth rush and blur of faces and bodies, all recorded by a shaky hand on a balcony overlooking the scene. I used to live in Russia, and I’ve been on those balconies; it could have been me standing on that slab of rotten concrete in the sky, camera in one hand, bottle of Baltika strong beer in the other.

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1 July 2013

Over 500,000 videos have been uploaded to the Internet from Syria during the past two years. Many document the course of protest and conflict, while others promote the views and perspectives of combatants, protesters, peace movements, and ordinary citizens who are witness to events. Despite this profusion of eyewitness perspective, the Syrian conflict has been poorly covered by media outlets worldwide. In part, this is because narrative descriptions of the war do not easily fit into a framework of good and evil, right and wrong. It is also because many videos that emerge are created with an absence of context, editing, or explanation.

While many of the uploaded videos are created by individuals, collectives and organizations have been active in curating, vetting, subtitling and promoting the content. Several groups function as virtual news agencies, both investigating and guaranteeing the sourcing of content, and syndicating the videos to mass media outlets and through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and especially YouTube, as well as livestream sites such as Bambuser and UStream. Emergent Syrian organizations distributing citizen video include the ANA New Media Channel and Shaam News Network. Syria Deeply tracks and organizes coverage of Syria, and also produces original analysis. Syria Untold documents the under-reported peace movement, which has continued despite the escalating war. Global Voices has ongoing special coverage of Syrian citizen media. The New York Times produces an ongoing compilation of material called Watching Syria’s War.

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New Directions in Visual Storytelling is a graduate-level seminar that focuses on alternative production and distribution paths for documentary, visual storytelling, and photojournalism in the context of networked, online communities. It explores the effect of technological change on the aesthetics, production methods, distribution, and social impact of visual storytelling. I taught this class in the master’s photojournalism program at Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington D.C. in autumn 2012.

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21 February 2013

A partial list of interviews and reviews of White Road, the book and the show:

“White Road consists of a two volume set, one primarily text, the other pictures, that explores Ivan Sigal’s photographic work over a ten year period in Central Asia. The publication accompanied an exhibition of the same body of work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC in 2012 and 2013. The publication’s two volumes, beautifully produced, echo each other in text and image. The pictures function like little parts of speech, a noun here, a verb there, that collectively form a poetic interrogation of life in this part of the world. Sigal’s non-fiction text is comprised of fragments, much like his photographs, that form a kind of call-and-response to the images. Coordinated by Paul Roth, Senior Curator of Photography and Media Arts, this book and exhibition explore the role that photographic sequencing plays in the creation of narrative forms.” Russell Lord, Freeman Family Curator of PhotographsNew Orleans Museum of Art

Booooooom, November 17, 2014.

Interview on Too Much Information, on WFMU, July 1, 2013 playlist.

New York Times description and slideshow.

LeJournalDeLaPhotographie review and slideshow of the book.

The Guardian’s audio slideshow.

BBC News review and slideshow of the book.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interview and slideshow of the book.

Eurasianet.org review and slideshow of the book.

Washington Post Express review of the exhibit.

Washington Diplomat review of the Corcoran Gallery exhibit.

Washington City Paper review of the Corcoran Gallery exhibit.

Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit description and press release.

30 October 2012

An exhibition of White Road opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. on November 3, 2012.

A brief description of the exhibit:

From 1998 through 2005, American photographer Ivan Sigal traveled through Central Asia, using his camera to record the unsettled lives of Eurasians in provincial towns and cities. Through nearly 100 photographs and accompanying text, White Road addresses an elusive question: What was left behind when the Soviet Union’s ideological superstructure was dismantled, eliminating the imposed meaning on people’s lives? Sigal’s first solo museum exhibition reveals a diverse population adapting in extraordinary times. The term “white road” means “safe journey” in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek. These words are imprinted on road signs at the edges of Central Asian towns, wishing travelers well as they enter the vast and empty space.

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Support for Ivan Sigal: White Road is generously provided by the Family Alliance Foundation.

 

Printing at Steidl for the forthcoming book, White Road, available in November 2012.