Azerbaijan's photographers: Facing arrest for capturing the raw truth

Rasul Jafarov and Rebecca Vincent look at the work of some of Azerbaijan's courageous photojournalists, who document what life’s really like under the Aliyev regime

09 Oct 2013

In the run up to today’s Azerbaijani presidential election, we publish an article and photographs from Index on Censorship magazine showing how the authorities have cracked down on journalists, activists and artists that criticize the government. These stories of the risks journalist and photographers face show how far the regime will go to silence its critics including intimidation and prison sentences. Writers Rasul Jafarov and Rebecca Vincent document the stories of some of the country’s courageous photojournalists, who have documented what life is really like under President Ilham Aliyev.

“In authoritarian regimes, art can serve as a powerful means of expressing criticism and dissent, subverting traditional means of censorship. Photography is particularly telling, capturing the raw truth and making it difficult for even seasoned propagandists to refute. These photographs, from Abbas Atilay, Shahla Sultanova, Mehman Huseynov, Aziz Karimov, Ahmed Muxtar and Jahangir Yusif, show a side of the capital Baku that contrasts sharply with the sleek, glossy image President Ilham Aliyev’s government seeks to portray. They expose an authoritarian regime prepared to arrest those who document protests and criticism — journalists, human rights defenders, civic and political activists and even ordinary citizens.

But those who embrace subjects others prefer to avoid, exposing unsavoury truths the Azerbaijani authorities would prefer to keep hidden — such as corruption and human rights abuses — do so at significant personal risk and hardship.

As journalists, they face intimidation, harassment, threats, blackmail, attacks and imprisonment in connection with their work, which is seen as direct criticism of the authorities. As artists, they face economic hardship and restrictions on where they can display and disseminate their work.

Most of these images were taken during unsanctioned protests in Baku. Photographers face particular hazards when covering protests in Azerbaijan, as not only can they be injured in the general chaos, but they can also be singled out because of their work. The Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety reports that so far in 2013 there have been 17 attacks against journalists and photographers covering protests.


Narimanov Park, Baku, 15 May 2010. Police forcibly detain a political activist during an unsanctioned protest. Photograph by Abbas Atilay


Fountain Square, Baku, 10 March 2013. A political activist during an unsanctioned demonstration protesting the deaths of military conscripts in non-combat situations. Authorities used excessive force to disperse the peaceful protest and detained more than 100 people. Photograph by Jahangir Yusif


Sabir Park, Baku, 11 March 2011. During an unsanctioned political protest
in the wake of the Arab Spring, a police officer encourages journalists to take his photo. This was a rare move, which the photographer believes was intended to distract photographers from other aspects of the protest, such as police physically restraining protesters. Photograph by Mehman Huseynov


Shamsi Badalbayli Street, Baku, 2 April 2012. A resident is forcibly evicted from the area where the Winter Garden will be constructed. Approximately 300 complaints have been sent to the European Court of Human Rights related to forced evictions from this area. Photograph by Ahmed Muxtar


Fountain Square, Baku, 20 October 2012. Police detain a young opposition activist during an unsanctioned protest calling for parliament to be dissolved after a video was released showing an MP discussing the sale of parliamentary seats. Dozens of activists were detained during that protest. Photograph by Aziz Karimov


Hijab ban, 5 October 2013. Photograph by Aziz Karimov


Investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova confronts police. Photograph by Mehman Huseynov

Nevreste Ibrahomova, head of Azerbaijan Islamic Party's Women Council, holds the photo of an arrested Azerbaijani Islamist and chants freedom to him. Photograph by Shahla Sultan

Nevreste Ibrahomova, head of Azerbaijan Islamic Party’s Women Council, holds the photo of an arrested Azerbaijani Islamist and chants freedom to him. Photograph by Shahla Sultanova

Photographers also face arrest and protracted legal action as a result of their work. Mehman Huseynov faces up to five years in prison on politically motivated hooliganism charges stemming from an altercation with a police officer during protests ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2012. The photographers featured in this story are among the few courageous individuals in Azerbaijan who remain willing to take on the risks associated with this work. They need international support and protection before they, too, become the subjects rather than the artists.”

Rasul Jafarov  is the chairman of the Human Rights Club and project coordinator of the Art for Democracy Campaign. Rebecca Vincent  is Art for Democracy’s advocacy director. She writes regularly on human rights issues in Azerbaijan

To find out more about the magazine and for subscription options, and read more about stories from the issue click here. These photographers will be part of an exhibition in London this winter. For more details, follow @art4democracy Join us to launch of Index on Censorship’s autumn issue on 15 October. To register for the event, click here.

3 responses to “Azerbaijan’s photographers: Facing arrest for capturing the raw truth”

  1. Sunshine says:

    Garen, you are damn right too. Armenians of Karabakh should be ruled by the Armenian government that fires at its own people at peaceful protests and kills eight, as it happened in 2008 after presidential elections. The pictures may depict human rights violations that are unfortunately common for many post-Soviet developing states, but at least in Azerbaijan, people know that there will not be gunned down by their own law enforcement forces.

  2. Garen says:

    You’re damn right Terry, how could anyone imagine Christian Armenians of Karabakh (Artsakh) to be under Azeri rule?

    During the Soviet period Moscow somehow could manage to keep the situation more or less stable despite the Azeri authorities` discriminatory policies towards Karabakhi Armenians. As soon as Moscow`s control weakened, Azeris used military aggression against Karabakh Armenians to suppress the freedom movement that had started in 1988.

    Today, seeing how they treat their own Azeri population, you can imagine what could happen with the Armenians if they were under their rule.

    Money can`t buy freedom!

  3. Terry says:

    No wonder the Armenians of Karabagh, which broke away from Azerbaijan 20 years ago, do not want to be under Azeri rule ever again.

    I know I would want nothing to do with Azerbaijan even with all its oil and gas wells and barrels of cash.