CNN Photos

The illusion of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan may rarely make headlines in America, but in 2012, the country’s visibility popped in Europe thanks to “Eurovision,” the annual live-song contest show.

With all eyes on the small country that borders the Caspian Sea in the Caucasus region, Danish photojournalist Andreas Bro was able to enter Azerbaijan and document another side of the country.

Bro said he struggled at first, arriving with the idea of covering the recent economic boom and who benefited from it.

“I quickly realized that there was quite a big cover-up from the Azeri government to show them as a nation with good intentions, a democracy on the way but not quite there yet when in fact it seemed like it was in reality an autocracy or dictatorship,” Bro said.

He felt it was a large issue that required a range of subjects, which was different for him since he said he typically focuses on a small group of people to tell a story.

Though democratic in appearance, Bro said Azerbaijan has a dark side that limits basic rights and creates “a toxic environment of paranoia and fear of the leaders.”

In 2011, authorities in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, demolished the privately owned office of human rights organization the Institute of Peace and Democracy despite a court injunction that prohibited it. The U.S. Embassy in Baku officially expressed its concern over the August 11, 2011, incident.

Bro says he saw the paranoia firsthand when trying to climb a small apartment building to get an overall shot of the city. A tenant kindly asked him and his local contact to leave, not because they were being a nuisance but because “she also had to take care of herself and be careful with her life.”

Bro came back with the feeling that in a country where the government is almost always watching, anything out of the ordinary could lead to problems.

The issues became even more real for Bro when he said his contact was arrested at a protest despite not even participating in it.

He said his contact and 10 protesters were driven by police outside the city and left there, forcing them to find their own way back into town.

Bro’s initial story of the effect of the economic boom played a role in showing how divided the country is.

“Widespread corruption is a massive problem in the country’s administration,” Bro said in his story’s introduction. “This makes it very hard for ordinary people to make a decent living without bribing someone or work directly for the government.”

“The economy is tied up in natural gas and oil and is dependent on that,” he said.

Despite the wealth to be gained from the abundant oil fields, workers on the ground with whom Bro spoke were only earning $450 (in U.S. dollars) a month working 12-hour days up to six days a week.

Everything that Bro said he learned on the ground in Azerbaijan became a haunting photo story showing both the outward beauty and oppressive shadow of a country so new to freedom.

- Clint Alwahab, CNN