At first glance Gregor Sailer seems to take photos of underwhelming buildings. There’s an image of a run-down shopping strip in New York, a Victorian English town, and an Afghan village, just to name a few.
But there’s a single denominator that links the structures together—they’re all fake. The New York storefronts aren’t in Manhattan, but some 6,000 kilometres away in Sweden, where Volvo built a New York-themed set for testing self-driving cars. Then there’s “Thames Town” which is a pastiche of English architecture found near Shanghai. And the Afghan village? That serves an entirely different purpose altogether, constructed as a simulated battlefield in California’s Mojave Desert.
Gregor took to photographing these buildings two years ago, after being inspired by an 18th century story from Russia. The story, which may or may not have occurred, described how Field Marshal Grigory Potemkin tried hiding the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from his love interest Catherine the Great by constructing a series of fake buildings along the route of her travels, so she’d think the peninsula was still inhabited.
From this story Gregor derived the title of his photographic series: the Potemkin Village. Here, he tells us about the 25 different fake towns he visited around the world, all constructed with some kind of political, military, or economic agenda in mind.
VICE: Hi Gregor. First of all, how exactly did this project come about?
Gregor Sailer: Well it started with the story (as above) and then I tried to find out if there were existing, current examples of Potemkin villages anywhere in the world. The first I found were two examples in Russia. One in Suzdal, where in 2013 some really shabby houses were masked to impress President Putin on a visit. Then in another city, Ufa, I found everything masked for an International Brics Summit in 2015. For me, these classical Potemkin villages were enough to inspire me to go deeper in my research.
Let’s talk about the first place you visited, Suzdal. What did you find there?
Suzdal is a smaller village, there were only 20,000 inhabitants so I mainly focused on the main road. I got my information from the Internet and started walking up and down the roads looking for these huge canvases stretched over the buildings. At first I couldn't really see them, even though it was a very cheap way to hide the buildings. But once I started looking I could recognise what was real and what was fake. Then I realised the actual condition of the city. I saw the shabby houses, the burned buildings—everything was in really bad condition.
In Ufa, it was more difficult. Ufa has about one million inhabitants, and we had just a couple of hours. I didn't know where to start or what to concentrate on. We were talking with a few people, but most people didn't know or didn't want to know what we were looking for. We started in the centre of town. I had some prints with me, so I could recognise the places and buildings that were masked for political purposes. There were about 20 to 30 buildings that I took photos of, which was enough to communicate that they’d been faked.
How had the building there been disguised?
They used canvas to hide the buildings, or just painted them in bright new colours. We saw buildings that had painted facades facing the main street, while their three other sides were falling apart.
It looks like no one bothered to take down the canvasses.
It’s true. I think they’ll just stay up until they rot away. It’s strange. A lot of the buildings have no one living in them. It’s odd how they masked them, rather than just demolishing them.
Let’s talk about some other places. In general, how hard was it to get access to these “Potemkin Villages?”
The only public spaces were in Russia. The rest were restricted areas so I had to try and obtain permits from embassies. For the military structures, I tried contacting the marines, the navy, and the Pentagon. I went through so many different wings within the military that were all operated autonomously. Of course, when you’re dealing with restricted areas, with armies, with the military, and with secret services, it’s very very difficult and takes a very long time. There are always risks because you never know if it makes sense investing time and work.
So these military facilities in the US, these were places they trained troops to fight in the Middle East?
Yeah these mock towns look like Afghanistan, with these Arabian designs and architecture. The training centre is in the Mojave Desert in California, mirroring Middle Eastern and African-type environments.
Then there was another one at Fort Irwin Training Centre, where they employed like 300 actors with a particular ethnic background to imitate a market scenario and to play government officials, street vendors, and even terrorists. They also used Hollywood effects such as smoke and lights, lasers, fake blood, and things like that. Even the tanks weren’t real; they were fibreglass. They made noises, smells, everything as realistic as possible for the soldiers. It was very surreal being there, with the vast desert surrounding you, the empty streets, the strong wind and doors blowing against the walls. Then you see the huge tanks passing by and you hear gunfire and see the aircraft. It’s very weird.
Were there many places that you had tried to obtain access to, but were denied?
Some, but not many. For instance, I tried to go to this demilitarised zone between North and South Korea to shoot Kijong-dong, a village built by North Korea so that the South Koreans could look over the border and see a perfect North Korean town. I was in talks with the North Koreans who gave me permission to enter. But South Korea said the closest I could approach was two kilometres, which was too far away for good photos.
In your book, you described Thames Town (the replica British town in China’s Songjiang District) as a “visualization of capitalism.” What do you mean by that?
The cities were originally constructed for real habitants, but failed due to a lack of infrastructure and planning—they don’t have shops or anything. So most people don’t even bother moving to these artificially created cities, or they move in and then leave immediately. After construction was finished they very quickly became ghost towns. So it’s very surreal to walk through these towns that were constructed for people, but no one is living there.
Some of these cities are lucky, like Thames Town for instance, which gets used as a tourist destination for weekend sightseers. It was very crowded on the weekend. Some of these towns are also used as a backdrops for wedding photography. The idea of an exotic European backdrop appeals to people in China.
Was there a particular site that you thought most successfully distorted reality?
It’s very difficult to say, because all of these sites are very special. In the military zones in America, you see the Afghan architecture and you know that it is all fake, but in the background you hear the noises of war, so it was a kind of lonely, scary feeling.
It was also strange in the restricted area in North-East France, near the front lines of World War One. There are lots of bones and corpses of soldiers there. You are not allowed to walk through alone; I was accompanied by a soldier. These are very huge areas, so we were transported in a vehicle. It’s very dangerous. Even though it’s not a real conflict zone, it’s very alive.
How do you want your photo series to contribute to public debate?
The main idea is showing these very absurd developments in today’s society. These mock towns are an interesting allegory for other cultural facades. My main motivation is to show things that normal people don’t have access to. These things are happening and they’re being hidden in society. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Interview by Laura Woods. Follow her on Instagram