Exploring Uzbekistan Through the Lens of Photojournalist Matilde Gattoni

Eighteen years ago, French‑Italian photojournalist Matilde Gattoni traveled to Uzbekistan for the first time and felt deeply touched by its places and people. When Uzbekistan allowed foreigners from 45 nations visit the country visa‑free in February 2019, Gattoni picked up her camera and traveled back to see how it changed.

enRoute How did you get into photography?

Matilde Gattoni I started shooting when I was 19, on a trip to Morocco. I had my dad’s old Canon Reflex, and I began to develop an interest in photography as the trip went along. When I got back from Morocco, I bought a bunch of photography books and pored over them to learn the techniques. Before long, I had a passion and a need for it.

October 31, 2019
Sitorai Makhi Khosa, outskirts of Bukhara
Popularly known as the Emir’s summer Palace, Sitorai Makhi Khosa was built by the Russians in 1911 for the last Emir Alim Khan.

ER What drew you to Uzbekistan for the first time 18 years ago?

MG It was a film that was set near the Aral Sea. I fell in love with the landscape, and I thought one day I would like to go there, without really knowing where it was. A few months later I bought a ticket to Tashkent, with no idea of what to expect. I really miss this instinctive approach to travel – it’s never been the same since I became a photojournalist.

ER Why did you want to go back? What were some of the biggest changes that you noticed?

MG I don’t choose the countries where I work, I choose stories. So I returned to Uzbekistan to cover a report on the opening up of the country following the death of the former president and dictator, Islam Karimov.

Colourful baskets for sale in the Chorsu bazaar
The Chorsu bazaar is one of the most lively and vibrant markets I’ve had the privilege to visit. I love markets that haven’t yet become touristic but are actually part of the everyday life of the local communities. They tell so much about the local culture. One can roam around Chorsu for hours, exploring the rich and colorful fruit and vegetable corner, the honey and fresh cheese and the fascinating meat corner. Sellers are eager to attract you to their stalls and have you sample a taste of their product.

ER What do you love about photographing the country’s people and places?

MG I’m a photojournalist, so most of the time I meet the subjects of my stories at rather dramatic times in their lives. What touches me the most is definitely the encounter with the other. Photography lets me tear down language and cultural barriers and create a deep link with my subjects.

The architecture of Old Town, Bukhara
Bukhara is a gem. It’s probably my favorite city in Uzbekistan. 18 years ago when I first visited it hadn’t been renovated yet and I remember seeing 16th century old mosaic lying on the ground. Nowadays some of the most grandiose madrassah have been renovated but walking around the Old town you can still bump into an ancient jewel, dusty and abandoned, which will give you a real sense of what this city must have been centuries ago.

ER Bukhara is one of your favourite cities in Uzbekistan. What do you love about it? What makes it special?

MG I love walking the narrow streets of old Bukhara. There’s a hidden gem on every street corner – an old ruined mosque off the beaten path, a stall that sells manti (the local ravioli), an old man who invites you to have tea with his family. I try to imagine life as it slowly unfolds behind the walls of the sand-coloured homes – you still feel the incredibly rich history of the place.

Women enjoy tea at a Tashkent food court
One of my greatest pleasures when I travel around the world is spending time at the local markets. With its vibrant colors and bustling paths, Chorsu is no exception. Next to one of the entrances is a little food corner where you can order food at any stall and sit at a table with locals who are proud and happy to show you how to eat local food and drink delicious Tashkent tea made with a special lemon that tastes like a mandarin.

ER Your work takes you all around the world. What is the one item you can’t travel without?

MG As the years go by, my baggage keeps getting heavier. I’m usually away for long periods of time, so I like to bring along some of the comforts of home. But if I had to name one object, it would be a good-luck charm that was given to me by a village chief in Togo.

ER What is the one place in the world that you would like to visit again (besides Uzbekistan)?

MG Patagonia. I was lucky enough to explore it by boat and by car several years ago, and it is one of the places in the world where I’ve had an incredible feeling of freedom and a deep connection to nature.

Khoja Zayniddin Jome Mosque
Khoja Zayniddin Jome Mosque is my all-time favorite spot in Bukhara. An ancient mosque from the 16th century not yet restored. I love spending time sitting under its porch and looking at this courtyard once filled with water. From time to time a local stops by for a short prayer.

ER What are some your favourite Instagram accounts?

MG @markosian is an American photographer, originally from Armenia, who has a really unique eye and delicate style. @delphinediallo is a Franco-Senegalese photographer based in New York. Through her, I’m discovering the African-American community, which she covers with so much love, respect and energy. @denisdailleux_ is a French photographer whose distinctive sensibility transports me to faraway worlds. @gardaf is a Moroccan photographer who is exceptionally talented and also mature despite her young age.

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