20 years ago, photographer Christopher Herwig took a picture that would change his life. The subject? A bus stop. His new film, Soviet Bus Stops, documents his passion for these unique structures and their fascinating artistic, political, and historical significance in the former Soviet Union.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay caught up with Christopher at VIFF 2022 to discuss his roots shooting Soviet bus stops, his epic journeys across the region, and how a hobby evolved into a feature documentary.
Nicholas Lay: You’ve been a photographer for many years. How did your journey begin and what led you to the world of Soviet bus stops?
Christopher Herwig: I actually came across my first bus stop 20 years ago this week. I had finished photography school five or six years before and thought I was going to capture all these amazing photos as I cycled around the world, but it never really happened. Eventually I decided to stop looking for the National Geographic shot and made a game for myself where I would photograph something every hour while cycling long distances. It started with clothes on a clothesline, the graphic nature of a powerline, or rotting fruit on the ground. It was a great exercise that taught me to enjoy the exploration and discovery in photography, because I wasn’t hunting down things that I knew already existed. I wanted to make the ordinary into the extraordinary.
NL: Do you remember your first bus stop? How did that first shot develop into a lifelong passion?
CH: I was cycling from London to St. Petersburg when I reached the country roads of Lithuania and started to come across these bus stops. My eyes were suddenly wide open as these humble gems started popping up all over the place. It was perfect, and for the next few weeks the bus stops dominated my time as I rode through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. That was the spark for the whole project, but it was not full speed ahead at first.
I had an exhibition the following year in Stockholm, which made me happy, but I thought that was it and it was now time to move on. My wife and I then moved to Kazakhstan. We were there for three years and as I started to travel the region I came across more and more bus stops, so my collection started to grow. It got some traction online and there was some buzz in a few editorials, then when I had some time to myself and was looking for a new project, I couldn’t think of anything that inspired me more than, so I decided to go for it and started to focus solely on bus stops. There was just such joy when you round a corner and see a structure like that. You feel like an explorer who has discovered something way outside of the Lonely Planet guide.
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NL: How did the project evolve after your first book? Was the film part of the plan?
CH: The first book came from my initial trips and was quite a success when it was first released. At that time I had two friends, Nic[holas Zajicek] and Kris[toffer Hegnsvad], who had joined me towards the end of those first trips, just to tag along for the road trip. When I decided to try for a second book, they both came along for the ride with Kris directing and Nick acting as cameraman. It was a chance to have some fun with some friends on what was set to be a very long journey that I doubt I would have taken on if I was alone, as part of it involved driving 17,000 kilometers across Russia to the Pacific. Once the second trip was complete I did a different project photographing on metro stations, and Nick came along for that so we were able to shoot more for the film, mainly in Armenia. After that we made several trips over the last few years to track down the designers and interview them as we could find them.
NL: How difficult is it to track down a designer for a random bus stop?
CH: The designers were difficult to find, especially at first. It got easier as the project became more popular and folks were more willing to help us track them down. The most famous designer we managed to interview was Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian artist who has had a hugely successful career and whose art continues to sell well to this day. He had paintings of Richard Gere and De Niro in his studio, and still actively designs large city monuments, some of which are controversial.
The others we tracked down were super welcoming and sweet and really opened up as we spent more time with them, especially Armen [Sardarov] in Belarus. I saw him three times in Minsk and we formed a real friendship during several nights of drinking. He told me that the bus stops were not just an opportunity to draw a sketch, but also had philosophy and poetry behind them, which aligned with his concept of how a road should be built and how a bus stop fits into its environment. He put so much thought into something so small and liked to compare a road to music, which fascinated and inspired me.
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NL: What challenges did you face taking on such a long journey across such a vast region?
CH: The main challenge is that many of the highways have been redone in recent years, making it harder to find certain bus stops. Some are gone altogether. I would do hours of research on Google Maps across tens of thousands of kilometers, then I would get there and there would be a new road with nothing there. That was my biggest worry. Finding the worst road or a more rural road was usually the best strategy as there was a good chance the bus stop would still be there. Before the trips I would be anxious about the usual issues in the region, like running into the police or the military, but when we were stopped I would just say I was interested in architecture, and we weren’t doing anything that sinister, so it was fine. No-one was aggressive, and even if they didn’t get it, they were friendly. My Russian is fairly rough but it’s good enough to get by I felt comfortable in several of those countries. It’s heartbreaking to see what’s going on there now.
NL: Which bus stop was the most surprising?
CH: The most surprising bus stops were the ones I came across by chance, because I didn’t have any expectations. There’s a disputed region in Georgia called Abkhazia, where there was a high concentration of bus stops that really blew my mind. Their size, creativity, and the amount of work that went into them was incredible. Many were unique animal structures. There was an elephant, a cat, a whale, an octopus, and each one was a full-on art installation. Others were more raw concrete and brutal, but equally as mind blowing. That area’s hard to get into but it really was the cream of the crop, and the designer’s work was inspirational to other designers across the region, including Armen Sardarov.
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NL: What’s next for you…do you have any projects coming up?
CH: I would love to find other people’s projects to collaborate on and work on bigger projects. This one brought together many friends, including Ian Toews, who runs 291 Film Company out of Victoria and came on board during post-production. It was a no budget shoot from minute one so we’re hoping to recoup some of that in the future. We also have a Kickstarter campaign for the soundtrack, which was composed by Janis Lusens of the experimental Latvian band Zodiac and his son, Janis Jr., so I hope people will check that out. I don’t have any new projects in the pipeline right now, but would love to jump on my bike for a few weeks, open my eyes and rediscover the joy of photographing something new, free from the constraints of thinking what could be successful or what other people want to see. I think people appreciate a labour of love that comes from within and don’t just want to see trends repeated over and over.
NL: Cheers Chris.
CH: Thanks Nick.
Soviet Bus Stops will screen at several future film festivals. Keep an eye out for European and North American release dates.