Chris Herwig is a photographer who got obsessed with bus stops in the former Soviet Union. He's now put them together into the biggest collection of Soviet bus stop photos in the world, according to him. He's just launched a campaign on Kickstarter to put them all together in a book.
VICE: How did you get obsessed with Soviet bus stops?
Chris Herwig: They're just really cool. I expected that they'd have one standard bus stop, a mould. You need a bus stop? Ok we'll build you a standard bus stop.
A friend in Latvia said back in the day you could go from one end of the Soviet Union to the other, and you'd go to a canteen and order a chicken kiev, and it would be the exact same chicken kiev that you'd get in Riga, or freakin Vladivostock. It was like they only had one chicken kiev, you know? Everything was like, you know…
Yeah. If it was going to be crap it was going to be crap for everyone. For some reason this isn't the case for bus stops. It was an opportunity for artists to make money, one of the only options for them. They grabbed as many materials and ideas as they could and put it all into their bus stops.
People don't even use them. Some of them are disgusting, they're dark, they're not inviting. Some of them are just normal bus stops, or they try but they just don't look that cool. Most of the really cool bus stops come in bunches. They're a lot more connected to the desire for local artists or communities to do something with their bus stops, and they're much more useful for their public art presence or to cheer up the town.
On some highways every 500 metres there will be great bus stops, with no houses or villages or anything around. There's these highways and then down in a field with corn growing around it is a bus stop. There's no road there. It's hard to work out why in a time they were watching their pennies and didn't want to be over the top, just functional, they built these.
In the book I'm trying to show the best of the best. If it's just sad it's…. well sad bus stops is another book.
Do you know how this bus stop art project started? Why'd they do it?
I think it was for public art. A way that artists could do something, it's small and insignificant enough that they could be creative. Some of them promote local culture, like in Kyrgyzstan there are some that are shaped like a Kirghiz hat.
But mostly it was like, what the fuck are they doing? Why did they want fancy bus stops? To be honest I have no idea. It seems like the last place you'd see fancy bus stops. You expect them in a fancy place with fancy people.
Were they ever used as bus stops? Like, did buses stop there?
Back in the day probably. They'd drive by. People were working the farms or something, I don't know, maybe they caught buses. I did see people standing near a couple. Not inside. Next to it.
Some people might think it's weird for a guy to just go around taking photos of old bus stops. Did anyone have any problems with you doing it?
In Lithuania a mini-bus pulled up and the bus driver got out, he wasn't really yelling at me but he didn't want me to take pictures of the bus stop. It was a cool bus stop! Like a scoop. Just cool, one line of curved concrete and some poles. There was a lot of garbage in it, around it was grimy.
In Kazakhstan people were yelling at me like I was going to take pictures of the nastiest stuff in their country to go back to the west and tell people how nasty their country is, and I was like, no, this is the coolest thing around here, I'm sorry, this is really cool, you just don't realise it.
In a few countries I hired taxis, so I'd have a local with me, I thought they'd be able to help me find cool bus stops. I didn't think they'd be fanatical or anything, but I thought that if they'd lived there for the last 60 years they might have noticed them, but the drivers were frickin clueless. We'd have to go to the taxi cafe and for hours they'd rack their brains, then we'd fly down the highway straight past one and I'd be like STOP STOP STOP and they'd go, "oh yeahhhh".
In Abkhazia, it's not a country but it seems like one, they've got the border locked up and they've ruled themselves for about 20 years, they're settled in. They're trying to become independent from Georgia. The taxi driver who was taking me around argued about the rate at the end of the day. I wasn't in the country as a photographer so if he'd brought the officials in I'd be caught being there without proper permission. He held his hand up to his head like a gun to say that I should be giving him $20,000 so I don't get put in front of a firing squad. No Abkhaz can go across the border to Georgia and he was driving me to the border so he just assumed I was a Georgian spy.
Yeah they freak out about pictures over there. I had to use two cards, and shoot one photo on one card which I could show the cops, and then put in the real card to take the rest. I'd keep the real card in my underpants and no-one wanted to search there.
Did finding cool bus stops in the Soviet Union change your mind about communism?
That is the worst question ever. It's not fair to equate communism with the Soviet Union. Did it change my opinion of the Soviet Union? Yes. It broke up some of the stereotypes. There were these individuals who were doing fun crazy things, people you could relate to. They weren't Stalin or Lenin, they were just ordinary people having fun and making a buck.
Why don't you take pictures of people like normal photographers do?
I took photos of people before I started hunting bus stops. I lived in Kazakhstan and spent a lot of time with people, they were really hospitable, sometimes too hospitable, like, the number of vodka shots before 8AM was crazy. In one village in the north of Kazakhstan I was shooting something at a school for the UN and before school even started there was this 80-year-old principal with a stick in her hand standing over me saying YOU DRINK! TAKE THE SHOT! Really lovely and genuine people though. You get invited into yurts in the hills, sleep on the floor, they've got a pile of mats on the floor and when sleepytime comes you roll out the mats. It was great, I miss it.