There is an old Kazakh legend, which tells a sad tale. The story goes that when birds become old and sick, they find a tall rock to climb one final time before ultimately throwing themselves from it without taking flight, falling to their death. The Polish photographer Sebastian Rogowski was studying photography in Warsaw at the time of learning this tale from a friend.
He recalled a disturbing experience that so poignantly stuck in his memory, when he himself was travelling desolate routes around Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Out of nowhere, dozens of birds crashed directly into his windscreen. “It seemed that the birds were hiding in roadside bushes in the Kazakh steppe just to throw themselves under the wheels of my car when I approached them,” he says. “Sometimes individual birds, sometimes dozens of birds. It looked as if the birds were actually committing mass suicide. I also started to look more closely at the roadside – the sight of huge eagles lying by the road is unforgettable.” On hearing the tale back in Warsaw, he also learned that today, birds have learned that hurling themselves towards moving vehicles is more effective. It was then that Rogowski decided on the title of his newest project, Suicidal Birds.
Enamoured with the history of the silk route and adventure, Robowski set out on a road trip through the remote plains of Central Asia. Interested in exploring new terrain and making personal connections, the photographer sought to avoid main cities. Instead, he stayed at the homes of those he met along the way, learning about the community and culture through a more authentic experience. On one such occasion in the town of Tamchy, at the lake Issyk-Kul, in the Tian Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan, he met Kenje-Eje.
“As we sat on the floor of her living room she reminded me of a sitting Buddha,” he recalls. “Majestic and serious, she sat straight as a string. She never smiled and spoke very little but her incredible strength was visible. Her business trades with wool craft and she offered to show me how to make a woolen pillow. We went to her workshop, where she sat on the concrete floor, grabbed a knife and began cutting out traditional patterns, in felt.” It was moments like these that Rogowski thrived for during his travels, always alone and without a clear idea of where he would go next. “Being alone enables being exposed to people, to connect with more places and more people,” he explains.
It took four trips and nearly three months on the road, and Rogowski very quickly surrendered his journey entirely to chance and surprise. In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, by chance Rogowski met Argul – a young girl who directed him down untrodden paths to hidden natural oases and mountains. Despite the spontaneity, the finished work is presented with a harmonious sense of space and rhythm. “The most important for me are insignificant views and imperfections in the landscape,” he says. “These little things that make the seemingly ordinary landscape become interesting to my eye. There are no guidebooks on this, you just have to go on our way and look yourself. A good indication of a unique view is the amount of kilometers and steps done, to find it.”
After months of delays due to the pandemic lockdown, the book
is finally ready. Suicidal Birds is self-published, with the help of Rafał Milach with the editing and narrative, and Milach’s partner Ania Nalecka with the design. “Rafał turned the project upside down very quickly. He rejected most of the post-Soviet relics,” he says. “They are interesting but also heavily exploited ideas. Instead, he convinced me to focus on the slow history of the road, which continuity is interrupted again and again by some unexpected events. An error in the perfect scheme. He turned a visually interesting but maybe a bit over-done project into something distinctive, for which I am very grateful.”
Inspired by the works of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, Rogowski’s documentary evokes the vastness of the raw and largely untouched mountainscapes, and the sparsely populated, yet culturally-rich villages peppering the territories along the way. But humanity and the heart comes from the portraits of individuals who showed him — a complete stranger — kindness and encouraged him to ruminate on new and unfamiliar perspectives. “When I am not familiar with a culture I encounter, I always have this moment of realising how singular my ways are,” he says. “It is trivial to say that travelling broadens perspectives, but there are no better ways of learning that our truths are not always right. That our culture, although it seems so central to who we are, is peripheral to this world as a whole.”