Social Media

East of Nowhere: Reviewed by Brian Arnold

Book Review East of Nowhere Photographs by Fabio Ponzio Reviewed by Brian Arnold A poetic and empathetic vision of human perseverance, East of Nowhere captures, in stunning photographs, the reality of everyday life in central and Eastern Europe before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

East of Nowhere. By Fabio Ponzio.
East of Nowhere
Photographs by Fabio Ponzio

Thames & Hudson, London, UK, 2020. 156 pp., 80 black-and-white illustrations, 8¾x11¼x1".

“From the start, my notion of photography was inseparable from travel. To spend the night on the roadside, to wake in an unknown place at the first streaks of dawn, are experiences that magically lend themselves to encounters and apparitions.” 

— Fabio Ponzio

The period between 1989 and 1991 was cataclysmic across Central and Eastern Europe. In 1989, in part due to the Soviet-Afghan War, the Soviet Bloc started to dissolve, with revolutions taking place across the region. In 1991, the Berlin Wall was dismantled, uniting the East and West; the Yugoslav Wars simultaneously broke out in the Balkans. The result of all this was an incredible recreation of the region – Communism was coming to an end, new borders were drawn, and new nation-states defined.

I was in my late teens when all this went down. Thinking back on it now, I recognize the Cold War as a defining cultural element of my childhood. Eastern Europe was characterized as a threat to our way of life, and yet, throughout my education, very little was shared about this region. Today I understand this all as self-serving political rhetoric that has little to do with day-to-day life.

East of Nowhere. By Fabio Ponzio.
East of Nowhere. By Fabio Ponzio.

East of Nowhere, the new book by Italian documentary photographer Fabio Ponzio, chronicles 20 years of his wandering and photographing throughout Eastern and Central Europe between 1987-2007. During his travels, Ponzio witnessed incredible poverty and despair, the rise of despots like Slobodan Milošević, and the glimmers of hope found in the eyes of those searching for a new life to come.

Ponzio has had an interesting and unique career as a photographer, which he describes in his introduction. After working as a press photographer in Italy between 1980-1987, he left to follow his own pursuits. Unlike most photographers, he never sought a career exhibiting or publishing his pictures (a quick look at WorldCat reveals a couple of small publications in the early 1980s). He also managed to balance the personal and financial complexities of producing work with raising his two children. To prioritize his resources for making pictures, Ponzio often slept in a tent by the side of the road, or, when he was lucky, in the homes of those he met during his wanderings. Doing so helped contribute to the incredible levels of humility and necessity expressed through his photographs.

The book begins with an introduction by Nobel Laureate Herta Müller. She describes the incredible despair, poverty, and corruption that defined decades of life in Eastern Europe during the authoritarian regimes. She uses Ponzio’s photographs to reflect on the emotional and geographic landscapes of her own life in Romania and Germany. She describes a life so different from what he knew in the States or Western Europe; a life without possibilities or hope, clouded by corruption and economic hardships.

East of Nowhere is divided into 5 chapters or sections. A number of themes repeat throughout the book – religion, poverty, family and the military. The range of subjects and experiences documented in Ponzio’s photographs show a richly layered, nuanced look at the people and cultures of the region – political rallies, a table set for tea, weddings and funerals, buildings riddled with bullet holes, a circumcision, and simple afternoons in the park.

East of Nowhere. By Fabio Ponzio.

Ponzio distills a tremendous amount of history and experience into each picture; every moment is characterized by incredible consequence and necessity. The rich tonal qualities of his black-and-white photographs add a sort of poetry to the pictures, all beautifully reproduced in the book. If, as Ponzio suggests in his introduction, what ultimately drove him to make these pictures was the strength and humanity of the people he photographed and met during his travels, much of this is held in the rich, carefully crafted tonalities of the pictures, full of darkness, warmth, beauty and affection.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

East of Nowhere. By Fabio Ponzio.
East of Nowhere. By Fabio Ponzio.

Brian Arnold
is a photographer and writer based in Ithaca, NY, where he works as an Indonesian language translator for the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University. He has published two books on photography, Alternate Processes in Photography: Technique, History, and Creative Potential (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Identity Crisis: Reflections on Public and Private and Life in Contemporary Javanese Photography (Afterhours Books/Johnson Museum of Art, 2017). Brian has two more books due for release in 2021, A History of Photography in Indonesia: Essays on Photography from the Colonial Era to the Digital Age (Afterhours Books) and From Out of Darkness (Catfish Books).