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War/Conflict, Economics/Industry
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Asia, Europe
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Caucuses, Oil, Natural Resources, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, Soviet Union, Refugees
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The rugged Caucasian mountains is a magnificent treasure box of different faiths, languages and cultures but it is also a tinderbox which exploded into war seven times in the past seven years since the fall of the Soviet Union. I believe I must keep on documenting this strategic, turbulent region because I can help erode cultural misunderstandings by shedding light onto the roots of the conflict buried deep in its tortured history.
Heidi Bradner

1998 — professional winner

The rugged Caucasian mountains is a magnificent treasure box of different faiths, languages and cultures but it is also a tinderbox which has exploded into war seven times in the past seven years since the fall of the Soviet Union. I believe I must keep on documenting this strategic, turbulent region because I can help erode cultural misunderstandings by shedding light onto the roots of the conflict buried deep in its tortured history.

In each of the past seven years, there has been a succession of blazing conflicts spreading the width and length of Caucuses, starting in Georgia spreading through Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ossetia, Abkhazia and lastly, the most horrific of all, the tragic and brutal war in Chechnya. Starting as a blitzkrieg by a cavalier Kremlin, it ended in David versus Goliath defeat for the Russian giant, shocking the world and traumatizing both nations. The war against their former Soviet brothers in this tiny Caucasian republic, which has less than one percent of Russia’s population, reached scales of destruction the world had not seen since WWII.

The Caucasus Mountains, home to hundreds of clans and ethnic minorities, is a land apart from the East or West. I would like to continue my photo documentary project there which portrays the spirit and struggle of these cultures that others constantly battle to defeat, control or subdue, or outwit them. It is important to photograph their experiences now because theirs is a universal story to so many zones of conflict around the world struggling for survival in an increasing shrinking world. The Caucasus is a bridge between two worlds yet it distinctly struggles to resist outside domination in a landscape stretching from the Black Sea of Europe to the Caspian Sea of Central Asian. It demanded all the might of the Russian Czars who only after 300 years managed to subdue local peoples, finally wrenching their blood-stained “Prize of the Caucuses.” Their subjugation of the region through cruel, bloody and senseless onslaughts turned the region into a spiritual and physical battleground.

Today, the power struggle continues but this time it includes the smell of oil, the black gold of the modern age. A new scramble for power to control royalties from the oil which will gush forth from huge Caspian Sea oil reserves is happening. The Caspian Basin is expected to be more productive than the Gulf states in the next century. Traveling through Caucasian pipelines, the battle for royalties and pipeline routes across this ancient land makes the Caucasus more attractive to the power-hungry and more unstable then ever before. This is a critical time and I believe it is important to photograph the human dimension of this conflict.

My project is to document this tightrope of a conflict and coexistence in the Caucasus. I intend to show the human face of this diverse and ancient land coming to terms with modern times. The Caucasus is a crucible in which brews Muslim versus Western ways, ancient versus modern beliefs, and a warrior people’s pride versus a conqueror's abandon. All of which is currently seeped in the economic and political intrigue of modern oil wars. It is a unique place during a unique time and I want to photograph the human dimensions behind this clash of cultures to increase cultural understanding between peoples which can and must exist.

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A Chechen on horseback rides past fighters on a tank in Central Grozny. He wears a papakha, the traditional sheepskin hat worn by respected men or elders and a bourka, the black cloak made from shaggy hair of mountain goats. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
An Azeri child stands near his home, an empty train wagon in Barda, Azerbaijan, just a few kilometers from the border with Armenia. He and his three brothers, parents and grandparents live packed inside the metal compartments with no heat or electricity after finding these abandoned wagons and taking them as shelter. The family fled here in 1992 from the war in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh ("Mountainous Black Garden"), a disputed area which both Armenia and Azerbaijan have claimed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The conflict resulted in a brutal war between Karabakhi Armenians (Christians) and Azeris (Muslims). Mistrust and bitter sentiments between the two neighbors have been blocking efforts to agree upon a peace plan to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
An elderly woman collapses in grief and exhaustion in the hands of friends and relatives after escaping paramilitary groups who burned her home in May 1998, following an outbreak of hostilities between Georgian and Abkhaz groups in the region of Galsky in Abkhazia. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
Alim (left) and Sadik (right) are Kurdish refugees from Lachin and Kelbajar, areas of the former Soviet Azerbaijan republic, which used to be called "Red Kurdistan." They stand after lessons in their rundown school on a day when only three students came, due to the cold - the school has no windows. The Kurdish population fled their villages when Armenian forces conquered the area. The majority of Kurds now live in Lachin Winter Grounds, an area of Azerbaijan with little water and difficult soil. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
A mother, made homeless for the second time after an outbreak of hostilities between Abkhazia and Georgia, holds a candle near the portrait of her son, killed in the same conflict five years earlier. She keeps his picture near her bed in a school building where she now lives with other refugees. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
When Shelala Rustamova was nine years old, she collapsed, shaking and unconscious, after a shell hit near her village home in Agdam region in Nagorno-Karabakh. A normal, happy child, her condition has deteriorated steadily every year since the shell, say her parents. Now, at 15, she lives immobile on her crib-bed in the one room mud-brick hut with her family, in a refugee camp near Barda, Azerbaijan. She cannot speak, hear or walk, according to her parents. During wartime, they were unable to find any care for her or even to bring her to doctors for a diagnosis. Her parents receive a monthly pension of $15. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
Children run past a shrapnel-pocked wall in downtown Grozny. In 1998, Chechnya was locked in a struggle for power and instability in its first year after expelling Russian troops. A surge of criminal activity, in particular kidnappings, rocked the small republic, which has become a "no-go" zone for foreigners, humanitarian groups and journalists. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
A bride in a mountainous region of Azerbaijan receives good wishes from female relatives and friends at her wedding ceremony. She does not see the groom at her wedding rituals, as each has separate services and celebrations. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
An employee of Azerbaijan's state-owned oil company works fields of the Absheron peninsula. The Nobel brothers, whose refinery operations revolutionized the oil industry in the 1870s-80s, first developed the area. A century later, oil remains abundant on the peninsula, but workers still lack adequate protective clothing, gloves, masks or appropriate washing facilities. A crew of four will split $2 for each well repaired. The job can take up to a whole day for the problematic older "donkey" land wells, pictured here.  Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation
A Georgian pilgrim on a journey to a holy Christian site in Svanetia, near the Russian border, pauses in the midst of Caucasian foothills rising in the background. Heidi Bradner/Alexia Foundation