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2008 - 2013


10_03_2013 – Phone call to the Embassy of Azerbaijan in the Netherlands


06_08_2009 – Car on the holy mountain of Beshbarmaq


In my photographs, people peel potatoes, hang up the washing, water plants, say grace before a meal, mow the lawn or wash their car. I photograph the smallness of life. In 2008 I celebrated my 50th birthday. It was a good moment to take stock. Wasn’t it time to go into the grown-ups’ world, the world of power, of big money, of intrigue, booze and women? It is a world that scares me. I had no idea what my focus should be, but it felt like it was now or never. The world: I was suddenly reminded of Mr Kiel, my enthusiastic high school geography teacher. Geopolitics was his hobbyhorse. When we went into the classroom, he had written on the blackboard in large letters: “It all comes down to natural resources!” It was 1973 and the height of the oil ­ crisis. He extensively discussed The Limits to Growth, a report published by the Club of Rome. It predicted that within 40 years fossil fuels would be largely depleted. That prediction has not been entirely correct, but fossil fuel reserves are of course finite.

06_05_2013 – Peeling potatoes

In early 2008 I read an article about an oil pipeline running from Baku in Azerbaijan via Tbilisi in Georgia to Ceyhan in Turkey. The BTC pipeline, then the longest in the world, was the first to connect the region to Europe without passing through Russia. That would be the focus of my project. I packed my bag and bought a ticket.


02_08_2011 – Girl shopping in the centre of Baku


27_07_2011 – Water basin near Baku


10_04_2009 – Fish for sale on Naximov Road


12_12_2011 – Man with golden teeth in Balakhani


25_03_2009 – Buzovna oil field


31_03_2009 – Party in the Hyatt Regency Baku


06_05_2013 – A sweet smell

The flight to Baku was full of BP ‘oil men’. When the aeroplane door opened, I inhaled the oil, an almost sweet smell. I initially explored the city on foot and walked 20 kilometres a day. Buildings were going up everywhere, mostly megalomaniac offices and apartment complexes. After two weeks I rented a four-wheel drive. As soon as I could, I left the paved road. A few kilometres on and I was standing in an enormous oil field, a relic of a bygone era, with here and there a creaking pump jack. I parked the Mitsubishi Pajero next to a crooked tree and walked around the area where foreign business dynasties such as the Nobels and Rothschilds had made their fortunes. Just as I was about to leave, a man in bright-red overalls approached me. He looked at me as if I was from another planet and immediately rang someone on his mobile phone. Within minutes I am surrounded by three black Land Cruisers. Men in long black leather jackets emerged, two of them smoking thin cigars. They told me to accompany them to an office. After a three-hour interrogation I was finally allowed to leave. They had not found the films hidden in the hem of my coat.


07_06_2009 – Lada stuck on Mayak Beach


23_05_2010 – Butcher shop in Bibi Heybat


29_05_2010 – Phone call to SOCAR, the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic


15_04_2009 – Street vendors with cooking pans


29_07_2011 – Oil spill on Zigh Beach


27_05_2010 – Billboard on Nobel Prospekti


10_06_2009 – White Mercedes in Suraxani


06_08_2011 – Oilworker SOCAR Refineryy


In 1846 the first oil was extracted in Bibi Heybat, a suburb of Baku on the shores of the Caspian Sea. By the start of the 20th century, more than half of the world’s oil was produced here. In 1942 Hitler tried to capture the oil fields around Baku but was defeated at Stalingrad. Baku would be crucial for supplying fuel to the Russian troops during the course of the Second World War.

06_05_2013 – Oil worker at the SOCAR refinery

Between the end of the war and fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the oil slowly dried up. Money to exploit the vast resources off the coast was unavailable. The fall of the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan’s subsequent independence created a power vacuum. There followed a short power struggle in which the democratically elected president was deposed. The former head of the KGB in Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, seized power in 1993.


02_06_2010 – Panel with lamps on the Caspian Oil & Gas Show showing the BTC pipeline


14-04-2009 – Photo shoot in front of The Carpet Museum in Baku


25_07_2011 – I am from Poland

One sunny afternoon I walked along Baku’s prestigious Neftchilar Avenue, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. There was a sudden commotion and security officers swarmed everywhere. President ­ Ilham Aliyev, successor and son of Heydar Aliyev, walked straight towards me surrounded by a gaggle of photographers. He was accompanied by the Polish president. I recognised Jarosław Kaczyński from the news coverage about the death of his identical twin brother in a plane crash. I saw my chance to photograph Aliyev and joined the other photographers. A burly bodyguard immediately grabbed me by the collar. “What are you doing?” I replied: “I’m from Poland, this is my president!” Startled, he let me go. Gesturing broadly, Ilham Aliyev laid out his plans for the city. Halfway down the avenue golf carts were waiting to take the group to the president’s working palace at the end of the street. Aliyev wanted to drive himself, the president of Poland sitting next to him. Two photographers climbed onto the back of the golf ­ cart and I jumped alongside them.


14_04_2009 – Models on the stairs of The Carpet Museum in Baku


16_04_2009 – Damaged billboard with a view of Baku


12_06_2009 – Government House on Neftchilar Avenue in Baku


08_06_2009 – Boy on the beach near Bibi Heybat


06_08_2011 – Oil worker at the SOCAR refinery


27_05_2010 – Fashion store on Neftchilar Avenue


05_08_2009 – Oil health bath near Hövsan


On one of my trips I rented an apartment just behind President Ilham Aliyev’s working palace. ­ He has been in power since 2003. The apartment belonged to Kamran (26) and his mother Xijran (61). Two years earlier Kamran had lost his job at the Royal Bank, where he traded currencies. He had accused his boss of corruption and nepotism. “When I was fired I received 70% of my final salary, €250. But I had to give half of it each month to a government official. I shouted at him and told him to shove the money up his arse. Since then I’ve received nothing.” Kamran and Xijran now have to survive on her meagre pension ­ of €150 per month. I walked with Kamran along Neftchilar, the avenue on the Caspian Sea where all the major luxury brands have stores. “The government is paying them to be here,” said Kamran. “There are never any customers. It’s a big facade. Our elite prefers to shop in Dubai, Milan and New York and ordinary people can’t afford that stuff. The situation isn’t ­ as beautiful as the arse of a girl.”

25_05_2010 – Kamran

The economy in Azerbaijan is controlled by a handful of families whose interests are tied up ­ in holdings. Critics are brutally silenced. Human rights activities are imprisoned without trial, journalists are harassed and beaten.


10_04_2009 – Packaging of a Samsung television, Tolstoy Street


12_08_2009 – Towels drying in Türkan


20_05_2011 – Oil painting by Sabir Chopuroghlu


10_08_2009 – Girl on her speedboat in front of Aqua Park Hotel


23_05_2010 – Boy on the beach at Bibi Heybat


I saw a poster on the street for the Miss Azerbaijan pageant and decided to register as a photographer for the event. At the bar I was accosted by a young man. He was the editor of Boutique, a lifestyle glossy owned by the Aliyev family.

21_05_2010 – Ecce Homo

The next morning I was interviewed on a terrace on Bulvar avenue. The editor had brought along a copy of the magazine. I would feature in the ‘Ecce Homo’ section, he said. The photographer and make-up artist arrived. I had become a Baku celebrity.


02_08_2011 – Litter near Emin Beach


04_08_2011 – Girl shopping on Fountain Square


03_06_2010 – Open day at a care centre in Samukh


In 1994 President Aliyev and a consortium of investors, which included BP and the World Bank, ­ signed the ‘deal of the century’. The deal involved constructing oil platforms in the Caspian Sea and laying the 1,700km Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. The mastermind behind this plan was the Clinton administration, which saw opportunities to create an ally in a strategically located region: Azerbaijan is bordered in the north by the Russian republics Dagestan and Chechnya and in the south by Iran. Afghanistan and Pakistan are a short flight away.

09_06_2009 – Deal of the century

The pipeline was opened in 2005. It is the only pipeline to the west that does not run through Russia. “This is the Silk Road of the 21st century,” said the then Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer at the opening ceremony. Since then, approximately one million barrels of oil a day have flowed towards the West. The money has flowed in the other direction.


02_12_2012 – Boys at a wrestling school


10_05_2011 – Picture of Ilham Aliyev and his family on Flower Day


14_06_2009 – Wedding shop in the centre of Baku


10_07_2011 – Donkey at oilfield near Buzovna


16_05_2011 – Heydar Aliyev’s grave in the Alley of Honor


03_06_2010 – Open day at a care centre in Samukh


29_03_2009 – Heydar Aliyev Palace, Baku’s music hall


It was the day of the Eurovision Song Contest. Everyone was nervous, including Said. He rang to ­ ask if I wanted to watch the contest in a trendy bar with him and his friends. There was a table free in the jazz club. Said double parked his Mercedes in front of the door. His friends were already inside. They were all around 30 and all ­ came from Yesamal, a notorious suburb of Baku. Dena was a geologist and worked for BP. Ahmed was the quiet one, which was why he worked for a bank, the others said. He had to refill the ATM machines the next morning and was not allowed to drink. Anar was a fixer and could be hired for all sorts of tedious jobs.

30_05_2012 – BMW

He asked if I wanted to meet a nice woman that evening. Sometime later Ali ‘the Indian’ – nick­ named for his long, straight hair – joined us. He was wearing shiny leather trousers and a silk shirt. Women in Azerbaijan are serious, they want men with a good salary and the latest BMW. They are not interested in a one-night stand. Ali had found a solution: he had started internet dating women from the Ukraine. The following week he was flying to Kiev again.


19_05_2011 – Hezz Club restaurant and nightclub


19_05_2011 – Three girls at Hezz Club


20_05_2011 – Four boys on Diana Beach


04_02_2009 – Accident on Rashid Behbudov


26-06-2011 – Armed Forces Day


06_06_2010 – Heydar and Ilham Aliyev on Pirallahi Island


05_08_2009 – Street vendors in the centre of Baku


11_05_2011 – Man in front of the Presidium of the Bar Association


08_08_2009 – Russian monument in Sumqayit


21_03_2013 – Phone call to the Democratic Institute


26_03_2009 – Caspian car show


10_04_2009 – Table 8

I was invited to a party for the elite. No photographs were allowed, but an exception was made for me. Khalil, a fixer, had managed to get my name on the guest list. At the door, however, no one seemed to know who I was. Men wearing black suits and earpieces blocked the entrance. After some phone calls back and forth I was allowed in. Minutes later a large man approached me. He looked at me intently and whispered barely audibly: “Don’t photograph table 8.”


10_06_2009 – Three boys near Shixov Cimerliyi


23_07_2011 – Road to Heydar Aliyev Airport


05_08_2011 – Lunapark near Buzovna


09_04_2009 – Flat in Hövsan


07_08_2009 – Oilfield near Türkan


10_04_2009 – Armani store on Neftchilar Avenue


22_05_2010 – Bibi Heybat, oldest oilfield in the world


16_05_2011 – Russian statue near Balaxani


03_06_2010 – Elite open day at a care centre in Samukh


09_04_2009 – Horse in Bibi Heybat


09_08_2011 – Couple in front of an old oil platform on Shixov Cemerliyi Beach


07_03_2013 – Gucci store on Neftchilar Avenue


10_06_2009 – Oilworker in Bibi Heybat


12_06_2009 – Schoolchildren in the centre of Baku


Ten years ago Baku was a dusty, windy Soviet city. The opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline in 2005 marked the beginning of immense change. “The big cash started coming into the country,” said Chuck, an American accountant at the World Bank. The city centre was designated as the regime’s calling card and nothing was spared in its realisation. Streets and squares were built of marble, glittering high-rises like the Flame Towers and Heydar Aliyev Complex filled the skyline.

23_03_2013 – Big cash

On Dilara Aliyeva I was approached by a woman in her sixties. I took a photo of the last remaining house in the street. The entire block was due to be cleared for the Future Winter Park. Mrs Saparova had lived in the house her whole life. Now she was being forced to leave. She was unhappy with the compensation she had been offered. “How many square metres is your apartment?” the man from the State Committee on Property Issues had asked. He burst out laughing when she told him. “My bathroom is bigger than that,” he had said.


13_06_2009 – Oilworker in Bibi Heybat


23_05_2009 – The Caspean from the airplane


17_07_2009 – Russian statue near Pirsagi


06_08_2011 – Oil worker at the SOCAR refinery


06_08_2011 – Oil worker at the SOCAR refinery


01_08_2011 – Litter in Bibi Heybat


04_08_2011 – Girl shopping on Fountain Square


I regularly had a drink with Peter, a Dutchman in the ‘transport’ industry. He had left the Netherlands more than 25 years ago and never wanted to go back.

18_07_2009 – The Antelope

Nothing was right in Azerbaijan, he said. It was always windy, it was too cold or too hot, the people were corrupt and his cigarette lighter didn’t work. I usually met him next to the pool at the Ramada Hotel, a glass of whisky within easy reach. Peter was well into his sixties, always wore floral shirts and a gold chain around his neck. His tanned body glistened with sun cream. Next to him lay his twenty-something girlfriend. She had been nicknamed ‘The Antelope’, no one knew why. Peter had a problem. The Antelope had given him an ultimatum. She wanted him to marry her and buy her a house. If he didn’t, she would break it off.


25_05_2012 – Guess store in the centre of Baku


03_08_2011 – Girl shopping on Bulvar avenue


07-08-2011 – Taxi rank in Baku


20_05_2011 – Russian statue


30_05_2011 – Elite party at the Landmark Building in Baku


12_08_2009 – Street Vendors


10_06_2009 – Family in Bibi Heybat


20_03_2013 – Phone call with Dr Leyla Yunus, human rights activist


27_07_2011 – Boy covered with oil and mud Emin Beach


31_07_2009 – Camels in Nardaran


When I first arrived in Baku, no walls had yet been built along the road from Heydar Aliyev Airport to the city centre. The impoverished suburbs and polluted industrial landscapes could be seen everywhere. After 2008, walls quickly went up along all the roads to the centre, hiding the real Azerbaijan from the outside world. They were referred to locally as ‘The Walls of Happiness’. On the politi­ cal level, Azerbaijan was constructing facades too. Elections that year had been won by the incumbent president Ilham Aliyev, with nearly 85% of the votes. His victory had been marred by the inadvertent release of the results a day before ­ the elections took place. But he had smart PR agencies to fall back on. One of them was the Podesta Group, a lobbying firm from Washington DC founded by John Podesta, a personal friend of Bill Clinton from the seventies. In the early nineties, Podesta worked at the White House. He smoothed over the scandals that beset the Clinton administration and was involved in ‘the deal of the century’, bringing together the investors for the construction of the BTC oil pipeline which would cement strongman Heydar Aliyev’s political position. ­

10_05_2014 – Facades

Podesta’s role in bolstering Azerbaijan’s foreign image seems evident on three fronts: art (attracting Christie’s auction house), entertainment (organising the Eurovision Song Contest 2012) and sport. Azerbaijan (‘Land of Flames’) is the shirt sponsor of Atlético Madrid, the country will host the first European Games in 2015, the European Grand Prix will take place in the streets of Baku in 2016 and state oil company SOCAR is the official sponsor of the UEFA European Championship 2016. There is nothing new under the sun: in the 1st century, Roman satirist Juvenal had already recognised the significance of ‘panem et circenses’, bread and circuses.


06_06_2010 – Park Bulvar shopping mall


03_06_2010 – Nurses day at a care centre in Samukh


28_05_2012 – Wall of Happiness


In 1994 Heydar Aliyev’s son, Ilham, was appointed vice president of SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state oil company. At the same time, he served as chairman of the Azerbaijani delegation to the Council of Europe. In 2003 Aliyev senior resigned as president ­ for health reasons. The subsequent elections were won by Aliyev junior, with 77% of the votes. Opponents accused him and his party of widespread corruption and intimidation. Since coming to power, he has tightened his grip on the country and silenced the opposition. WikiLeaks revealed that Donald Lu, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, had in September 2009 compared Ilham Aliyev’s regime with that of the Corleone family in the Godfather trilogy. In 2008 Aliyev was re-elected, this time with 87% of the votes. In ­ 2009 the constitution was amended, enabling him to remain in power indefinitely. He easily won the third presidential elections in 2013, with 84.5% of the votes.

18_03_2013 – Godfather

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international organisation for independent investigative journalism, named Ilham Aliyev 2012’s ‘Most corrupt person of the year’.


05_06_2010 – World War II monument


25_05_2012 – Wall of Happiness


12_05_2011 – Street vendor in Balaxani


04_04_2009 – Party in the Hyatt Regency Baku


02_06_2010 – Boy and Girl standing on the BTC pipeline


08_04_2009 – London in the centre of Baku


10_08_2009 – Self-built house in east Baku


09_04_2009 – McDonald’s on Fountain Square


31_07_2009 – Guard on Suraxani oilfield


Since Ilham Aliyev’s re-election in October 2013, the regime has intensified its crackdown on the media and government critics. In a 2014 Freedom House report, which measures press freedom, Azerbaijan was ranked 184 among the 197 countries surveyed. In May 2014, eight young bloggers were sentenced to prison terms of six to eight years. They were accused of illegal drugs and weapons possession. I received a disturbing email from human rights activist Leyla Yunus on 11 May: “Dear Mr Nuis, ­ Arif [her husband, AN] still stay in hospital, procurator do not return our passports, we can be arrested soon.” She was charged with espionage (she is a proponent of reconciliation with neighbouring Armenia).

20_05_2014 – Deeply concerned

Catherine Ashton, representative for foreign affairs and security at the EU, said she is “deeply concerned”, as are representatives of the Obama administration. Everyone is “deeply concerned”, outraged even, but little action has been taken. On 14 May, Azerbaijan even took over the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, an organisation that advocates and monitors the observance of human rights. This is geopolitics at the Champions League level.


20_03_2013 – Demolition of houses for the Future Winter Park


17_05_2011 – Posing at the Fountain in front of the Government House


17_05_2011 – Posing at the Fountain in front of the Government House


17_05_2011 – Posing at the Fountain in front of the Government House


17_05_2011 – Posing at the Fountain in front of the Government House


27_05_2010 – View of Baku from the Landmark Building


20_05_2010 – Staring over The Caspean Sea


06_04_2009 – Mickey on Bulvar avenue


In 2013 a $45-billion deal was signed to build a gas pipeline from Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey to the West. The 2,000km TANNAP pipeline starts at the enormous Shah Deniz field in the Caspian Sea. The TANNAP could have been connected to an existing pipeline through Bulgaria and Romania, but the notable choice was made for the ‘southern corridor’ through Greece. The Greeks are pleased because the pipeline will create jobs from 2015 and will generate revenue for decades from the transportation of gas through its territory. Europe is pleased because it offers a degree of independence from Russia. At the same time, it is a way to help Greece get back on its feet. And Azerbaijan is pleased: it has a buyer for its immense gas reserves and is increasing its influence on European politics. Questions about corruption or human rights abuses will now be asked merely for the sake of form. Legitimacy is for sale. In December 2003 I presented the first version of my audio-visual project in London’s Frontline Club to a group of journalists. Afterwards a neatly dressed young man approached me. He was the undersecretary of the Azerbaijani Embassy, according to his card. He came swiftly to the point: “Can we buy this movie?”

08_05_2014 – Legitimacy for sale

I thought for a moment of again focusing only on the smallness of life but the sequel beckoned: ‘The Greek Connection’.


12_05_2011 – White Horse on the holy mountain Beshbarmaq


Colophon Photography and texts: Ad Nuis Editor: Bas Vroege Design: Alessandro Carosso, Jinyoung Kim, Andrea Vendrik Translation: Cecily Layzell App design: Kummer & Herrman, Utrecht App development: Lots of People, Andreas Stillman, Amsterdam Funding: Mondriaan Fund Publisher: Paradox and YdocFoundation Oil & Paradise – Ten Trips to Azerbaijan is available as YdocBookApp in the iTunes App Store and Google Play. Thanks to: Daria Mnych, Ellen Dosse, Christy Beaujon Also available: Oil & Paradise – Ten Trips to Azerbaijan (audiovisual installation, www.paradox.nl/oilparadise)

© 2014 Ad Nuis for images and texts © 2014 Paradox for this edition

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be ­ reproduced, stored, in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any ­ means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the publisher. ISBN 9789081887625

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