Monika Bulaj – Behind The Great Game. Central and Western Asia Project.

Monika Bulaj

Behind The Great Game. Central and Western Asia Project.


What lies behind the conflicts and power struggles vying for control of the oil resources of Western and Central Asia? The aim of this work – The Central and Western Asia Project – is to give voice to those who are the unwilling protagonists (and often victims) of that which Ahmed Rashid terms The New Great Game, in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian republics.
In Afghanistan, a country that was to be saved from itself, despite the millions of dollars in aid and the presence of military personnel, over half of the population depends on food aid for their very survival and the condition of women is still among the worst in the world. Pakistan, increasingly torn apart by civil strife, is the victim of American political myopia that has bred a hatred for the West and has rendered impossible any serious opposition to the extremists, undermining the very founding values of the Pakistani state: democracy, a secular educational system, a functioning civil society.
In the work that I did in this Region (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Iran) I’ve tried to go beyond the facile geopolitical characterizations of this region and its inhabitants and bring to the light its invisible spaces: spaces that resist the political monochromes, populist rhetoric and imported understandings of radical Islam. There is another, hidden world here, ignored by the media: that of the Sufi, despised by the Taliban; that of Islamised shamanisms  and pre-Islamic traditions; that of the various nomadic tribes and other religious minorities, such as the animists, whose sacred places have long been seen as a powerful threat to the dominance of Taliban Wahabite ideology.
I’m trying to bring to the fore also the condition of women: their struggles with depression and suicide, with the impositions of morality, their aspirations, their sexuality.




Free-lance photographer and writer, for GEO, East, National Geographic (Italy), La Repubblica, periodicals by  Gruppo Espresso and Rcs, Courrier International, Gazeta Wyborcza. Born in 1966 in Warsaw, she has completed five-years studies in the Polish Philology on the Warsaw University. She has three sons and worked until 2002 as an actress and dancer. She has published books:  ‘Libya felix’, Mondadori; ‘Figli di No?’ Frassinelli 2006 (minorities and faiths in Azerbaigian); ‘Rebecca e la pioggia’, Frassinelli 2006 (the nomadic tribe of the Dinka of South Sudan); ‘Gerusalemme perduta’ with Paolo Rumiz, Frasinelli 2005 (about the Eastern Christians); ‘Genti di Dio, viaggio nell’Altra Europa’, Frasinelli 2008 (researches in East Europe and Israel), Bozy ludzie, Bosz Editions 2011. More than 50 personal exibitions. Awards: Grant in Visual Arts 2005 from EAJC, Bruce Chatwin Award 2009 ‘Occchio Assoluto’, The Aftermath Project Grant 2010. Her book ‘Genti di Dio’ has just been published in a new and larger edition.

Related links

Monika Bulaj

Central Asia Project

47 Responses to “Monika Bulaj – Behind The Great Game. Central and Western Asia Project.”

  • I’m not sure how to respond to this. I like the photography. The photos are interesting as photos. And assuming for discussion that the photography has given voice to the unwilling protagonists and victims, how are those who view the photos to respond to them? Clearly the U.S. response has solved nothing. I have no way as an individual to respond to the undeserved suffering of others other than to rail against it.

    I often wonder if those being “given voice” in projects like this believe, as many photographers who do this work seem to believe, that allowing them to speak can make any difference.

    I think these photos would be better presented without context, certainly without the context of this artist statement.

  • Sublime. I clicked the link and walk away while the gallery loaded. Returning I glanced at the screen and just stopped everything. Wow, beautiful. I love how the second boy’s hands are subconsciously mimicking the boy with the paper, and the stare of the boy in the shadows. The second picture was jaw dropping. Rather than settle in a pattern, the rest of the essay kept surprising me again and again. The mastery of light and texture is something I would normally think is only the province of painters …

    I haven’t read the introduction yet or any of the captions, not my normal MO but I didn’t want to risk ruining it.

    Now I’ve put myself on a limb. If someone wants to argue the essay steals beauty from poverty, or violence, well, maybe … I need to read the story … but I can’t argue against this kind of beauty regardless. It draws me in, connects, makes me hope it’s worth mining for something that will last.

  • I took too long typing and Jim beat me to the punch. I don’t know about what the photographer or the subjects believe about the cause and effect of this work. It’s really not in their power. I suspect photographer and subjects are in this together because they want to tell the story, or the story wants to be told. Stories are powerful, acts of faith, foolish to some, offensive to others. We may see wisdom in a story, or it may not be there. To me this story is worth looking at more closely, first because it’s beautiful, and second because it’s beautiful with life. Okay, no more BS from me.

  • No words.
    THANK YOU Monika Bulaj.
    THANK YOU burn.
    THANK YOU David.


  • Important stories, beautiful photography (I see no conflict with that). Great work. Thanks.

  • Absolutely beautiful images and what mastery of color and light.

  • fantastic work!!

  • Makes all suffering worthwhile…for the beauty of photography…………… nothing wrong with that?

  • Imants…

    OK I see your point and it’s true. Actually I usually always understand your concerns and agree with them, but I also understand the other points of view…
    Now can you give me or us a photographer who photographed suffering which you find acceptable? This is a truly honest question, just wondering…

  • When I first saw these images I envisioned how all the usual contributors rushed to their keyboards to let us all know their opinion and in depth evaluation of this body of work.

    – suffering for the beauty of photography . . .
    – suffering photographed acceptable . . .


    These are simply strong images – period!
    Beauty is something else in my mind …


  • yes… beautiful images…. the color.. the light… the shapes… the shadows… **
    and i have to respond to
    jim p and Imants….
    I understand what you both say..
    these conditions exist without these photographs…
    maybe, just maybe,
    these photographs will raise awareness for ONE person, if nothing else… or inspire someone to get involved on a grass roots level.. or on a personal level.. or to want to learn more…. or have a dialogue such as this…
    the change needed is greater than this story,
    or any photo story…
    I believe change comes from within..
    and these photos are a part of that…

  • Wendy, these are terrific photos. I’m glad they were featured here. But lets drop this conceit that we can change things with our photos, or that anyone actually “hears” any “voice” that photographs might give to those depicted in them. If there is a voice coming through our photos, it is our voice. And we do a disservice to our subjects by presenting our voice as theirs.

  • jim
    I’m talking of a bigger change..
    BIGGER than photography…
    photos are only a part of it….
    and of course our photos are only our voice..
    whose else would they be???

  • Really very nice work.

  • When I read this words,

    “I’ve tried to go beyond the facile geopolitical characterizations of this region and its inhabitants and bring to the light its invisible spaces…”

    I thought, “a bit of hyperbole, no doubt.”

    But no, the artist really did go beyond. Each image is poetry. A world is described.

    Jim, I think you miss the point – it is not so much that these images will change the world and make everything right for the Sufi – these images tell a strong, troubling, yet beautiful story. They create a record and pass on knowledge that until I viewed them I did not know of – of a place so important to us, so misunderstood by us, so gravely impacted by us.

  • marcin luczkowski

    hmmm… I thought Monika Bulaj is master of photography not emerging photographer. Well I am sure Monika is the master. Wrong place, wrong presentation.

  • Marcin:

    Poor David. He has explained this so many times – his mix of the emergent with the iconic, the masters.

    I am just grateful to have seen this powerful piece of work here. Maybe sooner or later I would have seen it anyway. Maybe not. But I saw it, today, because Burn chose to run it. I am glad. It was the right thing to do. Right place. Right presentation.

    Just perfect.

  • marcin luczkowski


    I know how David show photographers here, and what idea of Burn is. I just drop my opinion. And maybe I am little teasing…
    from long time i adore Monika Bulaj photos.

  • See most here are quite content to see suffering shown as beauty in photography as the comments indicate. Word like adore, can’t argue against this kind of beauty regardless,beautiful story, beautiful images…. the color.. the light… the shapes… the shadows… Absolutely beautiful images
    To me it is just like a coca cola and bourbon advertisement sweet and clouds the reality

  • Paul I just consider that other media such as video are better suited forms of communication.

  • and we have that much maligned taken for granted media of radio

  • Then we did have that photo of the dead bloke in a ditch…………. the price tag $$$$$ created that image.

  • Imants, I would totally understand your outrage, if that’s what it is, but I disagree with your reasoning. Beautiful images don’t necessarily convey poverty is beautiful; I think they can convey that life in poverty is beautiful despite everything else. I don’t think poverty or wealth is inherently beautiful or ugly, but there is beauty and ugliness on all sides. Beauty itself is not the issue but what it reveals. Ugliness in art is the same. Of course, few are willing to see.

    I disagree that great images are all that matters, or that beauty can compensate for a lack of substance, if anyone holds those views.

    The idea of an artist calculating the price an image of suffering is worth bothers me very much. But it’s enough for me to worry about what’s going on in my own mind.

  • I don’t think I was clear enough. Life is beautiful. Life is ugly. Cover it all in shit or drape it with diamonds and life will still be beautiful, and ugly. If life is beautiful, even in poverty, then we cannot excuse ourselves ourselves for doing nothing or live easily with our exploitation of the poor.

  • Beautiful images don’t necessarily convey poverty is beautiful; never meant that I am saying that photography has the ability to make it look romantic, pleasing to the eye, it is a form of tom foolery.The misinterpretation occurs with an audience, not all audiences are educated in what really happens in places as depicted especially the western audiences of our world. This is about photography on this site not the poor or maybe it is about rewards and promotion……. Dunno?
    Photoshop and apps do wonders

  • Imants – I agree with what you say about romanticizing poverty. Photography can have that effect, more so if the audience is primed for it. But consider that many people (who come from the developed world to hard places) who ARE NOW educated in what’s really going on started out with romantic notions. And IMO a touch of idealistic love (better yet realistic idealism, as Gandhi put it) is very much preferable to cynicism and despair. The former learn and persevere, the latter learn and give up (get drunk and have sex with each other).

  • Then we have that very honest photojournalist style as with John Vink a lot more palatable information wise

  • marcin luczkowski


    Youd should consider that some of photographers who have “romantic eye” in photography are from countries where powerty is or was part of every day life, like Bulaj or Salgado for example. Coca Cola and $$$$ is western way of looking at things. You think photojournalist should have more raw style? What for? This is only excuse for western world. For people who will read an article, drinking coffee in cafe with sweet cake, or dispute with friend drinking wine in club and pizza.
    yes, honest photojournalistic style for very well informed broker on wall street.

  • Marcin the west actually uses the romantic beauty poverty style to extract monies via all the charities that are dancing around the planet, it is not coca cola etc that are doing this.
    If someone is presenting me with facts sure a raw style it works for me everyday, I do know that poverty exists Marcin, been there and done that myself as a refugee kid and it ain’t beautiful.
    Marcin you are spending too much time typecasting people I know stockbrokers that cry and not just about money they are humans as well. I even know greengrocers that take pity as well

  • marcin luczkowski


    Yes, poverty isn’t beautiful, but is not ugly or raw also.
    but I have to agree with the last two lines.

  • It is ugly and bare to the bones ………………… anyway that’s it from me nothing wrong with the photos as photos……. the execution of intent a no from me

  • Imants

    Even more palatable because bigger images on the new website :-) :

  • Thanks John sure makes a difference

  • Loved the essay! #14 my favorite. I do have to say that viewing the photos first and not reading the statement I was surprised to read that this was about the Sufis….then again my vision of sufism is the swirling dervishes…

    The self immolation picture reminds me of what is currently happening in Tibet…a similar situation.

    Again, great work! and a really sad situation….

  • Spectacular, beautiful and meaningful.

    Will it change the world? likely not. Does that make the work any the less? Not at all.

    The photographer does what s/he can, it’s all any of us can do.

  • This is simply amazing. Thank-you and congratulations Monika. I’ve not been familiar with your work until now. Spectacular is not too strong a word.

  • Great photography, not sure about the text and title. Not the first time, nor the last.
    Congratulations Monika.

  • sublime…

    have been a big fan of Monika’s work for a long time….and my only lament is that I’d love to have been shown more, only because I cannot get enough of her humane eye…

    about all else, what Monika does so exceedingly well, and it’s particularly true in her body of work on Central Asia is parse the political history and the momentary strife, but a wider and broader story of lives lived….

    increasingly, I become only despondent when looking at ‘jouranlism’ and actually get quite angry at the tradeoff of using others lives and conditions (subject) to further one’s own professional/photographic hoolaboloo ($$, awards, prestige, etc), but I’ve never felt that at all about Monika’s work because her work, to me, has always seemed a simpler one, one born of a simple truth and that is, the only way to attempt to make sense of one’s own life to to see its connection to the life of others…both its beauty and its ugliness, its calm and its horror, its suffering and its celebration….

    remarkably humble photographs (and all that empty space and silence in which one hear’s the human hum) considering their formal strength and their insight into a simpler calculus…

    to reach out is not always about the promotion of the self but the extension of the self and that is all i see here….powerful, humane, and distilled….

    for her type of photographic practice, it is be bettered….

    thanks for sharing and thanks for Burn for publishing


  • I’ve been missing your comments Bob. Thanks once again for the great intelligence and insights.

    “the only way to attempt to make sense of one’s own life to to see its connection to the life of others…both its beauty and its ugliness, its calm and its horror, its suffering and its celebration….”

    “remarkably humble photographs (and all that empty space and silence in which one hear’s the human hum) considering their formal strength and their insight into a simpler calculus…”

    Damn Bob, that is so right on.

  • Let me second what Gordon just wrote… I think Bob’s comment is eloquently right on target and expresses my own reactions better than I could myself.

  • So many stunning images in this series… such painterly light – kudos. So glad I saw these.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Echoing the above comment – the light in this work is stunning; interior or exterior. Subjects etched out of the shadows and rich, deep color which does not betray the meaning or the moment. This might be equally effective, human story telling in black and white. So many highlights here but #8 is a Dutch masterpiece – by way of Warsaw.
    I feel the photographers connection to her subject (which as Bob notes seems absent in a good deal of contemporary photojournalism) – I feel her caring, her compassion and it is expressed here in this short series, frame after frame after frame.
    Not much more to want from this work. Except a dozen more……

  • The photographs in this essay are amazing, the colors, the light, and each one has a captivating story! And the series as a whole is truly compelling!
    Congrats for making it on burn! Another great burn moment !

  • not really read anything above, no comments, no bio, no captions.
    personally i dont want to see suffering… it affects me and also wants me to click to the next page

    there is something human/ humane about this depiction.
    like there is hope and life after…. maybe the light through unexpected cracks or the upturned faces.

    thanks burn for publishing.
    thanks monika for taking care to see the human behind the inhumane conditions of day to day life.
    your portraits have given me hope today.

  • eduardo sepulveda


    inmerso nel vostro sitio web in questo stesso momento! che lavoro!

  • First two pictures have hipnotize me!
    The rest made me float!

    Thanks for this!


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