Z is for Zagreb.

1991 Yugoslavia – Images by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Z is for Zagreb, in Croatia. The early 1990’s, Eastern Europe was falling apart, or getting itself together, which ever your point of view is.

I’d gone there on a whim with a fellow snapper, the ever-a-good-pal NooYawker. London to the Balkans.

We wandered the streets, NooYawker saw a vision, the shadow of Christ’s crown of thorns on a wall and below it a gypsy mother and kid sitting on the ground. Meanwhile I was holding our place in the queue for the bakery to buy some lunch snack and could only watch as he shot the visionary moment.

We wandered more. It became evening, it rained heavy, but the light shone on the wet cobble stones and tram lines. We thought it great fun, photographing shadows and light, rain and stones, people scurrying, a soldier laughing. All great fun. Then the police came and asked us who we were and what we were doing, they wanted to see our passports, and got told to be on our way, get in out of the rain, you’re making people suspicious.

We wandered more and met other journalists and snappers. Alexandra Boulat was there, we’d all met in Romanian previously, and now here we were on the next stop of the Eastern Europe tour. She told us of an imminent press conference and somehow in the days to come NooYawker and I got there, to Brno. A press conference with the 6 heads of the states that at that time made up the soon to fall apart Yugoslavia.
I forget the details but remember the room, a big room, and the top table was far away in the viewfinders of our Leica’s and their 35mm lenses. Although I think I was also shooting on my Nikon and a 180mm lens, but even that was too short.
Recently I found some transparencies of the event, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic in the same room, the other less household name leaders with them also – one with a big moustache, one an old man who looks like he should be sitting on a park bench.
In a few of the transparencies, seemingly not from the press conference, it’s obvious I’m shooting from about 4 feet away from Slobodan Milosevic, not a moment I can recall in memory but I have the transparency to tell me I was there and saw it, shot it. Only one problem is that in all the pics I’m shooting at a poor angle, and there’s no clear view of his face, only the right side of his face, and from slightly behind. Three or four feet away from a despot war criminal. Jeez, could have seized the moment and changed history.

We wandered more, exploring the streets of Zagreb, and out into the countryside with a journalist from The Independent to photograph a demonstration/political rally.

We wandered for a week I think, and on our last day found a cultural event in the park near the Zagreb train station. Men in folk dress with musical instruments, we shot and shot, rolls of Tri-x going through the Leica’s. One eye on the train time to get to the airport. And we shot more, another roll of Tri-X, then I notice something strange. NooYawker’s lens was all misted up, behind his filter was a layer of condensation, and it being a viewfinder he’d not noticed. All those rolls of Tri-X were going to have foggy blurry images. I smiled, found it funny, he was of course thoroughly upset. It was time to leave.

And so we wandered no more, we boarded our train to Ljubljana I think, to fly home. But the train inched along, stopped for what seemed like hours. Time was ticking away, our stress levels and worry rising. Finally somehow, we got to the airport, there may have been a taxi involved. But I remember running into the airport shouting “London, London”. Somehow we made it. And even now I can see the aisle of the plane as we walk down it, covered in sweat from the run and stress, other passengers looking at us. Another escapade with my good friend NooYawker coming to an end.

Y is for Yarmag.

Y is for Yarmag, in Mongolia.

The taxi dropped me off in the middle of what would usually be the Mongolian steppe, near the village of Yarmag, somewhere outside the capital Ulaan Baatar. Usually the fields would be grass and empty of life as far as one could see. But now, in July, the land was occupied by yurts, people and horses- lots of horses.

Naadam festival was upon us, and the nomadic horsemen were here to compete, to tie their kids to horses and send them off on 20km races across the grassy steppeland to win the prizes, the honour, the glory, to enter into fable.

I was shooting a photo reportage of the Naadam festival, a black and white story with my trusty Leicas. I’d been to the training camps of the wrestlers, I’d seen the archers, I’d hired a jeep and gone out into the land they come from, and now I would shoot more horse photos.

The sun beat down mercilessly on the open expanse of land, burning all moisture from the red earth leaving only the dust, dust which would then be kicked up by every passing horse. It was one of those days which when finished I would be sunburnt, red ears, nose and neck, with dust in my ears, in my nose, in my hair.

I wandered in amongst the yurts, and even though hungry I avoided the dreadful food stalls. I shot images of youths filming their steeds with camcorders, images of horses having haircuts. I watched the races from the finish line, expectant crowds waiting, waiting, waiting for the first glimpse of horse coming back from some far off distant race- ‘there !” the cheer would go up, a horse was coming from a point on the horizon. It grew larger, the crowds surged forward, and now we could see the rider, the jockey- a mere toddler almost, a child of 4 or 5 years, tied to the horse, bouncing around in ungainly fashion, the horse taking them home. Men wore wide brimmed hats and flags fluttered, the landscape was wide and accommodating for the crowds and for my images. It was hard to go wrong.

I found an area where winning horses would go, people pushing to touch it, to touch the sweat of the animal, to feel the glory and to hopefully gain some of the tired, panting animal’s luck. The crowds pushed in, and men lashed out with horse whips, a riot of manes and tails and leather, men in Mongolian traditional coats, long knee length boots which looked like family heirlooms. Another roll of film, and another, and another.

Weary with luck, weary with walking I’d decided the day was spent, the moment gone, my energy reserves depleted. My white shirt was no longer white, my skin was now pink, my lips dried and burnt. Somehow I got back to the capital, a short drive away.

I headed for a Chinese restaurant I’d found and which had become my favourite eatery. I took a table, ordered food with a beer to wash it down. I emptied my films from pockets onto the white table cloth, and counted them, 17 in total. A good haul, enough that my left eye had the focussing square of the rangefinder burnt into my retina.

The food came, my favourite dish, chilli beef and rice. I’d ordered it in this restaurant three straight nights in a row, and now, for the third night it arrived in timely fashion, and now for the third time, the meal was something entirely different from all previous orders.


-You can also read a Naadam story here, on EPUK,  about one particular image.

-See a photo slideshow about Mongolian children’s prison here.

X is for Xi’an.

X is for Xi’an, China.

I’d been on holiday, in Mongolia (see photographs of Mongolia), then travelled by train back into China, to Hohhot, to Beijing. And then, my first time in China, onwards to Xi’an as the schoolboy archaeologist in me wanted to see the Terracotta Army.

On arrival at Xi’an airport I’d booked a bus tour of the city’s sights. “Would you like to be on a Chinese tour, or a tour for Foreigners with English speaking interpreter?” the travel agent had asked me. “Chinese one please”. It seemed like a good idea at the time, a jolly wheez, but then on the day of the tour I did feel like I’d made a bit of a mistake. After all it would have been good to discover the history of the burial grounds we saw, to understand the history of the Terracotta Army, to be able to read the menu at the free-for-all riotous roadside restaurant we stopped at for lunch. But hey, I like experiences.

Xi’an was fun, a few days of walking, up on the ramparts, photographing flags blowing in the breeze at dusk, bartering for Mao’s wee red book and calligraphy brushes, pointing at noodles that I wished to eat.

Then, time up, time to fly back to Beijing. I’m out at the airport, and the plane seemed to be delayed. I sit, not quite knowing what is going on. The time on the board keeps changing, more sitting, more waiting. To alleviate the boredom I turn on my UK mobile, and to my astonishment, a minute or two later, it rings. “Jeremy?, this is Claire at American Express in Hope Street”. Ah Claire. For a few years Claire was my go to girl for flights to corners of the globe, Claire at American Express travel agency in Hope Street, Glasgow. Claire and I were pals, we’d discuss her decorating of her flat, of holidays, of the travel business. And now, here I was in Xi’an, and here she was on my phone. “My computer tells me you haven’t reconfirmed your return flight from Beijing to UK” she told me, and indeed she was correct, I hadn’t, “You have to do it as soon as possible or you may not get a seat”. Such service, so great.

Eventually the Xi’an to Beijing flight is called, and onto the plane we go. And we sit down. And we wait. And wait. Nothing happens, no doors to manual and cross check. Then an announcement, everyone back off the plane. Back into the terminal. More waiting. Then a couple of hours later it’s called again, back onto the plane.

On the plane and we take off, up, up and away from Xi’an, high over Communist China. Then just as all was going well, “bing bong, this is your captain speaking”. Well, I’m guessing that’s what he said, it was in Chinese.
More words of Chinese, Chinese this, Chinese that. Then all of a sudden, a Chinese dragon roared. All around me Chinese men, women and their single child policy children erupt in an outpouring of Chinese frustration, shouting, cursing, anger, confusion, and the venom of a 1000 dragons. Me? I’m sitting in my aisle seat looking around, slightly worried. Where’s Claire when you need her ?

A stewardess approaches and I try to ask her what’s happening. She looks flustered and says to me “Dalian, Dalian”, “Dalian?” I ask. “Dalian, Dalian, no go Beijing” she says in her best English. Great, now where the f*ck is Dalian I wonder. Suddenly feeling very lonely I grab my Lonely Planet book from my bag, flicking through- ahhh Dalian, that city just to the right of Bejing on a different peninsula, just beside North Korea. Great, how convenient that will be I think, as I need to reconfirm my UK flight.

So on we fly, and then land in Dalian. Off the plane and into coaches, general mass Chinese Confucious confusion everywhere. We drive through Dalian- looks nice, and I send text messages to home in Scotland, and incredibly get replies. At least someone speaks English I think.

The coach arrives at an anonymous looking building which turns out to be some sort of naval academy, and out we all pour, 3 billion Chinese and me. All into reception, running, straight to the desk, 3 billion and one people looking for a room for the night. The poor receptionist is lost, hidden behind a swarm of locusts. She hands over slips of paper and keys, and they’re grabbed, people taking them, elbowing back through the crowds, gone into the night. I’m at the side of the crowd, elbowing my way in best photographer fashion, “excuse me, excuse me…”, my manners lost in a tumultuous heaving mass of humanity. The crowd is lessening, people have rooms numbers and keys, only a few people left. My lone English voice is getting louder, and finally, the angel of mercy that she is, the receptionist scrawls a number on a piece of paper and shoves it at me. I look at it, a room number. A young Chinese guy sees me and tells me “breakfast, 7 morning”. “She-she” I say.

With trepidation I knock on the room door, and it opens, a Chinese man stands in his white Y-front underpants. A cigarette in his hand. Behind him the television roars football. “Good evening” I venture. He looks at me, lets the door go and sullenly retreats to his bed at the far end of the room. There are three beds in the room, I take the one nearest the door, leaving a courteous one bed between us. With no attempt at conversation we watch football- the great common denominator of male humanity. He smokes. Somehow finally the lights go off, and we try to sleep.

In the middle of the night three things keep me awake, – a mosquito, Mr. Y-Front’s snoring, and the beep of my mobile as a text message arrives from an ex-girlfriend in England. All disrupt the night, all are equally annoying.

Next morning comes quickly and I’m up, wanting out of the nicotine fog of my room, leaving Y-Fronts to his morning cigarette. Downstairs breakfast is up for grabs, and I nod to the young guy who alerted me to the morning plan. And then, tea, egg and rice devoured, onto the coach, back to the airport.

A few hours later I arrive in Beijing, to find there’d been a massive electrical storm the previous night with hundreds of planes diverted. I make my way straight to the airline desk for my onward flight to UK in a day or two’s time. And Claire in Hope Street is right, I needed to re-confirm my ticket. The desk try, and then tell me there are no seats left at my ticket price, I need to pay another 80 pounds. I argue. But no, no eighty pounds, no seats.

I think of Xi’an, of Claire, of confusion, of the mid-air dragons, of Dalian and Y-Fronts. Tiredly, I pay the eighty pounds.

W is for Where Two Continents Meet.

W is for Where Two Continents Meet, in Istanbul, Turkey.

The job came in, go to Uzbekistan (see my photographs of Uzbekistan). So I begin talking with my trusty colleague, Mr. Orange from New York, who’d also be going, to make the logistical plans for the assignment. “Ok, we can get there by flying via Istanbul, but hey, I need to have a quick meeting in Istanbul, so lets have one night there. Book your ticket to arrive on…” etc etc, is what he said. Great.

So I arrive in Istanbul, taxi to the Hotel Turkoman, a great little place, one of my favourite hotels. I go out for tea beside the mosque leaving Mr. Orange a note on where to find me.

We meet, laugh at our good fortune once again, another adventure about to begin. But first Mr. Orange needs to go and meet a correspondent, someone he may work with, a gentleman known as ‘Tommy The Turk’. Now as far as my memory serves me this gentleman wasn’t actually Turkish, but had gained the name due to the length of time served reporting from the country. A good nickname none the less.

Up to Taksim district we go, as Tommy The Turk’s directions had noted. Down this street, past this mosque, round here, over there, down that street. And then the directions stopped. The notes Mr. Orange held petered out. It all got a bit vague. We were on a certain street corner, and from there the directions purely said “Shout for me”. So we did. We stood on a street corner, and in a very disbelieving that this would ever work way, we shouted “Tommy ! Tommy! Tommy the Turk!”. And of course, like idiots, we stood, looking around, looking at each other. “Tommy !”. Nothing happened except the locals gave us frowns of annoyance.

Minutes passed and then we phoned him from my mobile, an international call to the next street via Scotland. We were given more directions, directions which took us a good few minutes walk away from where we’d been told to stop and shout his name from. Scepticism about the meeting was rising, annoyance building, but on we went. We found his building, we pressed the buzzer, up we went.

And the door opens, Tommy The Turk exists. A real guy. If my memory serves me correctly, a real guy with a big moustache. He ushers us in. And all of a sudden, as we enter his living room, our spirits rise, we’re glad we came, glad we made the effort. Glad we stood like idiots and shouted his name out loud a few blocks from here. Glad we’d stood our ground in the midst of the unfriendly frowns of locals.

Tommy The Turk had done well in Taksim, finding himself a good place to live. We stood just inside his living room door, a few sofas light in colour, a few book shelves. And straight ahead, two complete walls of glass windows, floor to ceiling. And beyond them a view. A view only Sultans should be allowed. A view of Sultanic proportions all visible from one window, without moving our heads. A view of Asia, the Bosphorous, and Europe. Tommy The Turk had done well.

So we sit, we marvel at Asia, we look over the buildings and minarets of Europe, we discuss the shipping on the Bosphorous. And the afternoon goes on like such, tea is served, talk of the Caucuses, talk of politics, talk of Turkey, anecdotes are swapped. Tommy The Turk asks us if dinner on the rooftop would be ok, we suppress our squeels of good fortune, and say sure. The door to the roof should be open now and I’m free to go up he says, and I take the opportunity.

Up on the roof the view is larger, two continents from one roof. There’s a young man cleaning, doing chores of some sort. He offers to take my picture for me and I let him.

As the afternoon light begins to fade, everyone moves to the roof. Some of Tommy The Turk’s friends arrive, coming over to meet the visitors, to eat dinner. Some rice is cooked, a pilaf of sorts, with a crusty burnt rice layer at top, a specialty from somewhere in the region apparently. Cushions lay around and we make use of them. Tommy The Turk cooks some wild boar meat that he tells us he’d hunted himself, and as I eat it I forget all meat I’d ever previously enjoyed. From now on this is what meat would be compared with.

We talk, we laugh, we drink the heavy red wines and marvel at Tommy The Turk’s cooking. Around us the minarets call their muezzin, the ship’s horns declare their navigational intentions, the shouts of locals in the street drift up from Europe, into the night air and on across to Asia.

V is for Vulnerability Whilst Travelling.

V is for Vulnerability Whilst Travelling. So I’m in Bucharest, few years back, late 90’s or early 2000’s. I decide to go for a walk mid-afternoon, and take my Leica in case there’s anything to be seen.

Out into Piatta Rossetti, out into the blinding sunshine from the dark interior of the home I stay in whilst in the city, and I’m walking towards the Piata Universitatii. On my left the buses, the Dacia taxis, the horns of impatient drivers, and the dust their cars unsettle. On my right I pass the garishly coloured pizza shop, past the political party graffiti chalked on the walls, past the gypsy flower seller – her roses bright and beautiful.

And then, as I walk, there’s a guy on my left, he’s come from nowhere, walking right beside me, on the kerb side. Too close. He’s trying to keep beside me as I dodge and weave around people. Finally, feeling unsettled, and thankful for the fact I speak decent Romanian I abruptly and curtly ask him “what do you want?”. He looks at me, “change money ? change money ?” No I tell him strongly, and wave him away. I walk on.

But he stays beside me, “don’t be angry, don’t be angry, change money ?”. And then suddenly there’s a guy in front of me. With both hands I grab my Leica strap on my right shoulder, somehow thinking the camera was the target and was about to be ripped from me. The guy in front of me grabs the guy to my left, turns to me and asks “is this guy annoying you ?” With that, he pulls out a small leather wallet, flicks it open , shows me some credentials which are half covered by his fingers, and says “Police. Is this man annoying you ?”.

“Yeah” I tell him, he is. The Policeman hits the Guy across the face, shouts at him. I’m standing there, dubious about this whole thing, still feeling the Leica is about to disappear in the crowd, without me. Both men are wearing suit jackets, no uniforms, nothing special about their appearance. People are looking, watching.

The Policeman asks me “ did you change money with him ? Show me your money, show me your passport”. It’s becoming obvious it’s a con. I say to him- and my speaking in Romanian has unsettled him, “I don’t have my passport, it’s in my house”. The Policeman again asks me, this time in a stronger tone, “did you change money with him? Show me your money from your pockets”.

“Show me your credentials again”, I demand of him. He pulls out the leather wallet, flashes the inside to me for an instant. I don’t see much, but I’ve seen enough Romanian paperwork in my years to know it isn’t police credentials, more like a driving licence, or a library card. “You’re police? I don’t think so” I spit sarcastically at the guy. I push around and walk away, shaking slightly and unnerved, trying to walk fast and put distance between us.

Back home I tell the story. My host, the intrepid Igor, smokes a cigarette, smiling. His wife Magda utters words and curses no-one called Magdalena should know or utter. They tell me it’s a known con doing the rounds, two men working as a team, good guy, bad guy. The con has a name, they tell me, “It’s called ‘The Maradona’ ”.