By | Rachel Brooks
April 8, 2021
Image taken at the Heydar Aliyev center. Courtesy of creator Gregory Herpe.
Republic Underground had the chance to interview French photographer Gregory Herpe on his visit to Azerbaijan. Herpe sees Azerbaijan as a nation waiting for the rest of the world, with arms open to welcome visitors from the West.
Our guest described his Azerbaijan Summer 2019 visit. A year and two months later, Azerbaijan would be plunged into the 44-Day conflict of the Karabakh.
I had the opportunity to visit the country for the first time in June 2019, invited by the French association “Les amis de l’Azerbaïdjan”.
Very dynamically chaired by former French senator Jean-François Mancel, whose aim is to promote Azerbaijani culture, to make Azerbaijani people aware of it, and to strengthen exchanges, whether they be tourism, culture or trade. I knew little things about the country.
Fine sandy beaches on the Caspian Sea or hiking trails in the Caucasus mountains, hotels as luxurious as in Dubai.
There is a Formula 1 Grand Prix, a thalasso petroleum, the Gobustan mud volcanoes, and a ski resort (The Shahdag Mountain Resort Complex). Which is located in the Great Caucasus Range and near Shahdag National Park, known for having an intact ecological system and an untouched flora and fauna. The nature of Azerbaijan is very rich, with eleven of the thirteen types of climate on earth being present in the country.
Despite what I had read, I thought I found a less developed country than what I found.
Then there is the capital, Baku, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, a real open-air museum of architecture.
But I didn’t know much about his people.
I was very well received, wherever I was in the country. I believe that Azerbaijanis have the sense of welcome and sharing, and they are very eager to see more tourists from the West.
I believe that the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is complex, and I am not a politician or a historian.
I believe that Armenia is a great and wonderful country; and I believe that Azerbaijan is too!
So I can only speak about what I have seen with my own eyes.
It is very remarkable to know that women have had the right to vote for more than a hundred years in Azerbaijan!
In France, women have only been allowed to vote since 1945.
The Western world should realize that this country has changed, and for quite some time. A rich country (the richest among the former Soviet republics) thanks to oil.
It is a people who wait for us.
The Caucasus, the mountains, offer absolutely fantastic landscapes and the tourism infrastructure is very good; the ski resorts in particular. It is an almost unknown tourist destination, which nevertheless offers all the pleasures (sea, mountains, desert, discotheques and museums, etc.)
In follow up to his message about Azerbaijan’s fine qualities, Rachel Brooks interviewed Mr. Herpe on what reception his views received in the western world.
Questions are in bold text, responses in plain text throughout.
What sort of political or social backlash did you face after you visited Azerbaijan?
To be honest, I did not experience any political or social backlash after my trip to Azerbaijan.
Around me, people were rather interested because they knew very little about this country.
I wrote several articles about Azerbaijani culture and architectural design in Baku, to accompany my photos, which were published in the Netherlands, France, and England, and everything went well.
Have your portraits of the surprising beauty of this Caspian shoreline nation been attacked or politicized by Armenians, secular French, or westerners?
There was not a single attack on my work or on me before the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Things changed a bit after that.
However, I never wrote any political line, and I never answered a political question in an interview by taking one side or the other.
But war causes so much suffering, that I am not surprised that some people get angry. On social networks, especially!
I had some attacks from Armenians who were upset that I was showing the beauty of Azerbaijan, and reproaching me for supporting the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. But I never said anything about this man!
I don’t want to do politics because it is a prison for an artist.
If so, how did you promote your art despite these attacks?
I have not changed anything in the way I promote my art. These photos have been exhibited in several galleries or festivals, in many countries, and have been well received. My pictures are only about what I know, and they show a very beautiful and welcoming country.
On the other hand, I had to go back to Azerbaijan in January, and specifically to Nagorno-Karabakh, this time.
But the trip has been canceled several times because there are still landmines everywhere and it is too dangerous.
What, in your opinion, would need to change to open the doorway for more artists such as yourself to learn about the magnificent country of Azerbaijan?
First of all, it is necessary to find peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan. These two neighboring countries must live in peace for the good of all. The scars will undoubtedly take time to heal, but they are two great peoples and I believe in their intelligence of the heart.
I strongly advise western artists to go to Baku, in the Caucasus, or to Gobustan because this country is inspiring.
I think that Azerbaijan has done a lot to attract holidaymakers to their country, and even entrepreneurs.
The Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Eurovision contest have made the country known all over the world, and they have created a really great hotel infrastructure.
The museums are amazing too! Especially the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid; it is an architectural masterpiece!
I think that despite all these efforts, the country suffers today from a lack of recognition for several reasons. It’s strange because other former Soviet republics have done rather well in the turn to the west, like Estonia which is at the forefront in e-technology.
The recent war, of course, has given a negative image of the region. But I think that what is missing above all are ambassadors with a strong potential in terms of image. Influencers who would put Azerbaijan more in front. A great actor, a pop singer, or a great sportsman who would make people dream.
I don’t know the cinematographic policy of the country either, but I would advise the competent authorities to offer to the directors of the whole world very big facilities to come to shoot their films in the multiple natural settings of the country!
Romania and the Czech Republic have done this very well! Azerbaijan has the chance to have the sea and the desert, mountains, ski resorts, typical villages, and a capital that still has a thousand-year-old city, a district with soviet architecture, and high-tech buildings… happiness for the big world cinematographic productions!
There is no better way to promote a country.And then, more personally, I would be delighted to be invited to exhibit my photos in Baku! The message is passed on!