Siberian snapshots

THE moment I saw her face, I knew she would make the perfect subject for a photograph. She wore a bright red skirt and held up her bucket of flowers as the train eased to a stop at the station. We were arriving at Ulan Bator, capital of the People's Republic of Mongolia, and I had nearly an hour to explore. So I hurried off the train and weaved through the crowds to where the girl was still standing. She smiled as I approached, anticipating a sale, but then turned and rushed away at the sight of my camera. I followed her to where her mother and brother were sitting on a low cement wall, sorting flowers and tending to business. When I asked again for a picture, thinking the girl might be less shy with her family nearby, the entire group got up and fled. It was then that I began to sense the challenge that lay ahead.

I had entered a place where cameras are viewed, not as the innocent toys of tourists, but as potential weapons in an international war of images. Every time I stepped forward to take a picture I wondered, will someone yell at me that this is against the rules? Perhaps seize my film? Or even worse, would they simply shun me the way the girl and her family had? Standing on that dusty train platform under the midday sun, I did not even want to think about it.

The first leg of the journey had been a cinch, photographically speaking. We left Peking in the cool of an early August morning, passing the Great Wall on our way toward the open steppe of Mongolia. Northern China seemed populated by people tolerant of Western cameras, of which there were an inordinate number on this train. Baby clothes would be straightened, fathers and mothers would smile proudly -- all for my camera.

Even the Chinese military transports proved no problem, although stern-faced officers stood between the trains to make sure there was no unnecessary contact. At one point, we came alongside boxcars filled with Chinese Army troops who sat in the open doorways and waved to us. The only problem in taking their picture turned out to be the French tourists in the next wagon. We had rushed into their section of the train to take pictures directly from the windows opposite one of the open boxcars. As I leaned out to snap the picture, a Frenchman pulled me back in, shouting, ``No! No! You want trouble with the military? No!''

The problem was the lack of information. Nearly everyone, it seemed, had a different story on what we were allowed to photograph in the countries our train was traveling through.

``You can't take any picture with a train station in it -- state secrets and all that, you know,'' pronounced an English friend over a breakfast of thick-cut bacon and sour yogurt.

A West German who overheard the comment from the next table offered a more liberal guideline: ``You don't have to worry about anything as long as we aren't in one of the industrial or military centers.'' But how would we be able to tell when we were in such a city? The German did not know.

``I heard about a guy who got his camera taken away because he took a picture of a bridge,'' offered still another person.

It was a baffling situation. So I decided to wait and see if official clarification was forthcoming. But it was not, not even from the Russian border guards who seemed to have a policy for everything else. The Soviet inspectors sifted through our news magazines and cassette collections but confiscated only a German-language tour guide to Moscow. The official who took it spoke halting German, which suggested to me that the only reason the book was taken was that nobody there could understand what it was saying about the Soviet Union's capital city.

Most train stations seemed wide open to our lenses. I took pictures of beautifully painted old locomotives and stone station facades. Even officials loading mail into a special wagon did not seem to mind my recording the event. In some larger cities, however, guards followed me to make sure I did not take photographs. They would not say anything until the crucial moment, when I would hoist my camera and begin to focus on forbidden scenery.

In the city of Novosibirsk, I was followed into the train station by one of these vigilant officials. The interiors of many stations in the Soviet Union are spectacular -- with marble columns, cut-glass chandeliers, and intricate mosaic murals. I had raised my camera to focus when, from the corner of my eye, I spotted the guard rushing toward me. He was going to stop me from taking the picture. Just as he got to me, I turned toward the enormous statue of Lenin that dominated the central hall and proceeded to take the picture. Apparently, my observer saw the difficulty in explaining to me why I could not take a picture of one of his land's greatest heroes. He stopped in his tracks.

And yet, there are only so many pictures of Lenin one can use. For variety, it is good to have pictures of people. But photos of everyday Russians proved to be the most difficult of all to get. I had decided back on that platform in Mongolia that I would not take pictures of people who clearly objected. I had no way of knowing then that nearly everyone would.

The women who put water into the train would sometimes talk to us, but they balked at the suggestion of a photo. ``Why do you want a picture of an old woman?'' they would ask. The same thing happened when I tried to take pictures of Russian families waiting for trains. Even parents with babies, the ultimate softies, would refuse to cooperate, covering up their children and walking away.

My only breakthrough came in Zima, a Siberian town, where babushkas lined the side of the train platform selling vegetables and flowers from battered baby carriages. I walked along the row of women, feeling a bit apprehensive. I did not like the idea of being rebuffed by one of these solidly built grandmothers. But then I saw in one face a silent kindness. I bought a tall paper cone filled with cooked potatoes from the woman and, after a time, indicated I wanted to take her picture. She fussed with her apron, just as my own grandmother might do, and then stood ready for the picture. I know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but at that moment, it was worth much more.

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