A Look at the Lives of Migrant Workers in Kazakhstan

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan fared better economically than many of its neighbors, eventually experiencing something of a construction boom. With this came an influx of laborers from elsewhere in Central Asia—Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—most of them working illegally in Kazakhstan. Many employers have seen this inexpensive labor supply as an opportunity for exploitation. In 2009, the Open Society Documentary Photography Project awarded Valeriy Kaliyev a grant to spend six months documenting the phenomenon.

Kaliyev established relationships with construction workers, market vendors, and agricultural laborers. He was often surprised at what he found:

People are people everywhere. Everyone has problems. Some have more and some have less. But when I first met those people, in Taraz or in other towns of southern Kazakhstan, no matter if it was a market or a construction site, none of them complained about their lives. These are very strong people; they don’t despond.

Before receiving the grant, Kaliyev had extensive experience working as a newspaper photographer, most recently for Noviv Vestnik. The shift between newspaper photography and long-form documentary isn’t always easy. Newspapers demand a single, eye-catching shot encompassing all aspects of a story, while a strong documentary project uses a portfolio of photographs to explore many sides of a nuanced narrative. Each picture may have a different role in reaching this goal.

The Documentary Photography Project partnered with educator Jessica Murray, director of Al-liquindoi,  to coordinate grantee workshops. Murray had this to say of Kaliyev:

Inspired by the medium to apply for the grant, but limited and creatively caged by the dictates demanded of him as a local press photographer, Valeriy didn't have much access to alternative ways of thinking about photography until last year.  With his mentor Yuri Kozyrev's persistent guidance and encouragement, Valeriy transformed from a spot news photographer into a storyteller creating a beautiful visual narrative about the lives of migrant workers in Kazakhstan.  Since the end of the grant period, he has continued his documentary work using image and incorporating audio to help bring attention and raise awareness about migrant labor in his country.

The resulting body of work is currently on exhibition at the Karaganda Regional Ecological Museum in Kazakhstan, also funded by the Documentary Photography Project. Kaliyev has been working with the newspaper Novy Vestnik, as well as the organization MediaLife, to conduct targeted outreach surrounding the exhibition and to inform audiences about the legal rights of migrant workers and their employers' obligations.

The exhibition will be on display through May 31, 2011.

The goal of the Production Grants for photographers from Central Asia, South Caucasus, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Pakistan is to enable local photographers to tell local stories. The program is open to photographers who are working in their home country to use the medium to explore a social issue of local significance in a way that may have international reach. Grantees participated in two master-level workshops, multimedia training with expert Bob Sacha and a six-month mentorship with master photographers Yuri Kozyrev and Antonin Kratochvil.

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