Nation Building: Exploring Unrecognized "Independent" Countries

By Conor Risch

© Narayan Mahon
Narayan Mahon was intrigued by the idea that countries, like Abkhazia shown above, could exist without recognition from the international community. To see more images from his "Lands in Limbo" project, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Photographer Narayan Mahon traveled through Eastern Europe in 2005 as an undergraduate student. During the trip he visited Abkhazia, a small territory, formerly part of the Soviet Union, that was once a prosperous area favored as a vacation destination for Soviet leaders.

Though many consider Abkhazia part of Georgia, since the early 1990s it has existed as an independent territory with its own borders and government. Yet for complicated political reasons it remains unrecognized as a nation by the international community.

Mahon was intrigued. “It just never occurred to me that there was an alternative to being a fully fledged country, and still I find that interesting,” he recalls. After returning to his studies and researching Abkhazia further, Mahon found that there were other unrecognized countries, including Northern Cyprus, Trandsniestra, Nagorno Karabakh and Somaliland.

When he decided to apply to graduate school for photography, Mahon wrote about his desire to create a major project about these unrecognized nations. “This was a curiosity of mine before I knew how to photograph it,” he recalls.

Mahon made his first trip to Nagorno Karabakh, also formerly part of the Soviet Union, in 2006, and has since made multiple trips to Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Trandsniestra and Somaliland for his long-term project, which he calls “Lands in Limbo.”

When he began the project, which he has photographed using a Hasselblad and a Canon EOS 5D, Mahon took a literal approach to making images. He would try to find ways to show important elements like “security” or “military.” As he has grown as a photographer, he has sought more metaphorical representations of psychological conditions common to all of the unrecognized countries, like isolation or the desire to be a part of the international community. “Showing that visually is tough,” Mahon says.

Mahon’s photographs show citizens living amongst dilapidated infrastructure. In one image from Abkhazia, we see two women sitting on a wire bed frame outside a massive, white apartment bloc while a cow grazes freely in front of them. In another image, a man dives from a crumbling pier into the Black Sea.

In photographs from Trandsniestra, another former Soviet territory that seceded from Moldova, Mahon shows soldiers participating in military exercises, and people socializing in pool halls or outside of modest cottages in clothing from another time.

In Somaliland, an independent territory in the Horn of Africa with a democratically elected government, images of Muslim religious practice and local commerce are set against backdrops of colorfully painted, single-story cement buildings.

Each of the territories was borne out of war and conflict, and there are other universal similarities in their situations and the mentalities of the people, Mahon says. “Part of the commonality is how much people want to be a part of the world, and that’s a tough thing to show, so what I look at more is their isolation.”

While prospects for work are often extremely low in these countries and living conditions are incredibly difficult, those challenges are tempered by a core faith among the citizens that these nations should exist. In Northern Cyprus, the Turkish occupied section of the island, for instance, “People are pretty resolute in their belief that they are right, so the nationalism that’s built around that is so strong. Few people get away from that, no matter how progressive or liberal a person might be,” Mahon says.

For the most part Mahon, who also works as a commercial and editorial photographer, has funded “Lands in Limbo” himself. In 2009, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supported a trip to Somaliland as part of a larger series on fragile states.

Distributing the work in the media has been difficult, Mahon says. Editors find the story interesting, but often ask, “Where’s the [news] hook?” He’s placed some of the work in the magazine Foreign Policy, and the Pulitzer Center-supported photographs were published in the journal The Virginia Quarterly Review. Redux Pictures, which syndicates his work, has also placed some of the images in other publications, Mahon says.

His major focus, though, is turning the work into a book. “There’s a narrative between all of the places,” he notes. “It is about the denial of self-determination and cultural identity. It is about the consequences of separatism, beyond the bloody wars,” he writes on his Web site. “‘Lands in Limbo’ asks, though does not presume to answer, the question: Is war and the ensuing decades of isolation, denial of identity, poverty and uncertainty worth sovereignty?”

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