Azerbaijan Portraits | Colleen MacDonald

I saw so many people, and many people saw me. To most I was simply a cardboard cut-out; my labels were very distinct: American, woman, white, non-Muslim, dangerous, not married, entitled, spy, loose woman, prostitute, divorcee. I had my own labels for people too: old, religious, uneducated,  simple, needy, cunning, greedy, Muslim, rural.

I started taking portraits, something I had never thought I was good at – does any photographer? – since I did want to understand, at least the faces, the variety, the story contained within the frame, the anomalies that make people so fascinating. My only regret is that I did not purposely seek out more faces and stories.


He was very young and very old and very puzzled: why would a stranger take his photo?

This man was old, kind and everyone knew him, my students said he was wise and blessed by Allah himself. He gave a blessing to my students – none of us can remember what it was now. At the time I’m sure we were too eager to hike, flirt, drink coke and escape the daily grind.

We wandered up to the gates. An American and a German with cameras and  depthless smiles. Azra spoke Turkish, I Azeri. They let us in, we took their portraits, they had never met foreign women before. We drank tea  under a photo of Heyder Aliyev and a dog-eared copy of the Koran.

She was young and lived in a resort abandoned by the Soviets. Her curiosity was contagious. Why am I not married as she is? Why do I not love children? The mirror with the drawers was part of her wedding dowry.

She was 17 at the time and lived in an abandoned swimming pool. 3 weeks later she was ʻkidnappedʼ by a relative twice her age. Later I had dreams of her calling for help. Her father called my mobile phone in a drunken rage, hoping I knew something about where she was. I can’t remember her  name; this is guilt I carry.

He was nearly blind but loved the tar. His fingers were so bent and arthritic; he tried to play, proudly, yet with pain. His shining moment was when he opened up an old box to show us his wedding photographs. There were no cars, so they were sitting in a horse drawn carriage. The photo was faded and he had tears in his eyes. She died a while back.

We wandered through the bazaar. The men yelled, women yelled, the  noise was deafening; the sounds jarring. They were silent. They had been trafficked, sold, forced into a profession that made them unclean.

Somewhere north near the border we almost couldn’t believe our eyes. A real, traveling circus. With animal costumes, a heard of show goats, and a proud man. Everything was faded, but in the sun the colors took on unnatural hues.


The hidden, derelict and marginalized attract her; with a desire for adrenaline rushes and a love of heights, Colleen has photographed everything from abandoned highrises in Detroit to Particle Colliders in Russia. With an eye for portraits, a belief that everyone has a story, and a love of drains, she has been wandering through foreign countries since 2007. Accused of being a spy, a prostitute and a missionary; having repelled down elevator shafts, been caught up in political protests and nearly arrested, she has developed a fearless approch to photography seeking out the moments both violent and peaceful that give life meaning.

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