A Pilgrimage

Author: Gulnar Salimova

Edition: Identity

I started taking self-portraits in 2009 as I was navigating the troubled waters of seeking my identity in a society to which I did not feel I belonged.  Tradition defines social norms in my native Azerbaijan. Patriarchy is dominant and women’s dos-and-don’ts follow strict patterns, with daughters under parents’ control until the time they leave the family to get married.

My family was in no way different except for the fact that it is quite religious in a country that prides itself on being largely secular. My parents would control where I could go, for how long I could stay out, whom I was allowed to meet and how I should behave. I strived for independence at home as well as in my romantic relationships, but even there it did not go well. Being a journalist in Azerbaijan also leaves little room for freedom.

The camera awakened my understanding of my inner journey, my pilgrimage into myself. The lens mirrored failures and success, love and abandonment, the constraint of living with my family and the freedom of moving out of that house. When a love affair failed, the camera reflected the heartbreak. In 2015, when I was diagnosed with a myoma, a benign tumor of the reproductive system, the camera was my therapy through the painful confusion over my future, the surgery and the recovery.

“A Pilgrimage” portrays my journey as an Azerbaijani woman who rebelled against unwritten codes of conduct and -- behind a camera and now living abroad -- finds herself.


Documenting my inner journey was the reason why I turned to the camera, but I did not have a clear idea how to develop the project. It was an experiment and each image is a trial in its own right.
When my boyfriend of five years and I broke up, all I felt was pain. I was abandoned and broken, left alone to hear my own screams.
Authoritarian regimes, like Azerbaijan’s, are invasive. They infiltrate personal relationships. In 2013, my boyfriend of five years broke up with me. He wanted me to stop working as a journalist since he could not handle the fact that I was constantly in the public eye.
I started “Maze of Feelings,” a photo story about my former partner and me, in 2015. Less than a year later, I stopped it. My ex-partner didn’t want his image to be displayed anywhere. He did not want to be recognized.
My former boyfriend aspired to enter politics, but feared that appearing in photographs for “Maze of Feelings,” which depicted an intimate relationship, would damage his image and chances for advancement.
Love relationships are not for open display in Azerbaijan. You have to develop a double image -- a public self and a private self.
The surgery to remove the myoma was a moment of real, deep fear. The day after the surgery, I was back home. Four days later, I turned the camera toward a different “me.”
Two years after I moved away from home, I had my first breakfast with my parents. “The further you live from your parents, the better the relations with them get,” some of my friends used to say. I experienced it myself.
An image of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, dominates my old room, which my parents now use for praying; sometimes more than the regular five times a day. The house is still filled with religious references. “I neither belong to this room, nor this house,” I used to think and even now, whenever I visit them, I can’t sleep there.
On the other side of my old room, where there are no religious images, stand Soviet furniture, vases, glasses. I also feel no connection to these remnants of the past.
My parents’ dining room, where the family gathers for meals. The house is usually wrapped in a silence only broken five times a day by the adhan, the Islamic call to pray, which my father performs.
The tattoo on my back represents the Tree of Life. It is like an ongoing project. There are only five leaves for now. They represent my parents (on the right), my sister and my brother (in the center) and me (on the top left). The roots symbolize my Azerbaijani roots.
The camera never lies to me. It honestly reflects the changes in my life. Our relationship is like a friendship. I’ve learned a lot from myself in front of the lens -- not to be afraid of my dreams, feelings, emotions and to set my body and soul free.
This is a new “me,” and it is not only the hair. The photo was taken in the Dutch city of Rotterdam during a vacation in January 2018. I was surprised by the image the camera showed -- that of a more defined person, someone who has come to terms with her decisions and fully understands how she wants to live.
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