The big picture: waiting on a road to nowhere in 1990s Czech Republic

Ekn 1993, the photographer Robin Graubard fell into conversation with a group of women in a park outside the UN building in New York. The women were talking about how no American paper was properly covering the war in Sarajevo. Graubard, who was best known for her pictures of youth culture in the States, organised some press credentials from Newsweek and got a flight to Prague, which she guessed would be a safe place from which to travel alone to the former Yugoslavia. She ended up staying there for three years, working not only in the Czech Republic and Sarajevo but also in Albania, Bulgaria, Pole, Romania and Hungary as they emerged from decades of Soviet rule.

Graubard’s mostly unpublished pictures from that time are collected in a new book, Road to Nowhere. Her focus is often on children and teenagers, some clinging to life in orphanages or disfigured by the fallout of war, others trying on western styles or losing themselves at rock concerts. The backdrop to their lives is frequently bare rooms or burnt-out buildings. The bright eyes of many of these young people look out on startling bleakness, as if they have wandered into school productions of apocalypse. This picture, taken at a tram stop beside a Soviet-era petrochemical plant near Prague, is one of the least disturbing of Graubard’s images. Selfs so, the three generations waiting for a ride look as if they might have been cast, unwittingly, in some bleak theatre of the absurd.

In recent weeks the horrific images from Oekraïne of women and children in transit have been juxtaposed with pictures of the refugee crisis after the second world war. Graubard’s photographs are a telling reminder that the east of the continent has known the deprivations of conflict and occupation much more recently than that. As she says in a diary entry in this book: “Things seem to go full circle.”

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