Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong: Poppy

Photographs and text by Robert Knoth and Antoinette de Jong

Published by Hatje Cantz / YDoc

Reviewed by Jess Scully

The ambition to capture the totality of any one story can be crippling.  You have to take many steps back to cram the big picture into the frame: choices must be made between context and detail. There are just too many rabbits to follow down too many holes.

The tricky business of time comes in to it, too: there are few straightforward narratives that can be told start to finish. Every story is a web, and our click-happy minds can get lost following the hyperlinks between smaller stories and moments, flipping back and forth between thens and nows. Every story reveals a network of actions and reactions, dominos toppling with a push from 10,000 kilometres away.

For over twenty years, photographer Robert Knoth and journalist Antoinette de Jong have traced along the scars of conflict, worked their ways into wounded places, and charted the human and political fault lines at the heart of these ruptures. Poppy is the result; a grand arc which ties together the strands of many tragedies, connecting drugs, arms, corruption, money laundering, human trafficking and many shades of abuse in a compelling, if disheartening, narrative. One word recurs: smuta, a Russian word meaning chaos and confusion. The opium trade thrives on it, and generates it. The destabilization of war begets more instability. Desperation begets devastation.

Originally presented as an exhibition at Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, in this incarnation Poppy is a dense, intense object of a book that weighs in at almost 500 pages. Images and text ricochet back and forth in time and space.  Knoth’s photographs, overlaid with short, brutal captions, saturate the uncoated stock with dream-like blurs of colour, sacrificing detail and clarity for texture and depth. Antoinette de Jong’s unglossy, darkly humorous narrative provides a pause and context to the image chain.

The backstory (to pick just one) is the shift from Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’ to the ‘Golden Crescent’ – Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – during the 1980s. Poppy opens in Afghanistan, 1993, at the end of a decade of Soviet occupation. 100,000 Russian soldiers make a slow withdrawal from the country, many taking a new taste for heroin back with them: today, Russia represents 21 percent of global heroin consumption.

As de Jong notes, “For the Afghans, happily ever after lasted about a month”.  The embers of civil war, always smouldering, reignite. Knoth’s images capture the ruins of civilizations collapsing under the rough tread of history, flattened and then run over, again and again. There is violence, blood pooled along ancient stone walls, against the monumental landscapes of Central Asia. There are soldiers in bunkers, fear in their eyes glowing out of the gloom. But Poppy is not just about conflict. Journeys by speedboat, donkey, cargo plane and pulley raft suggest the silk route, the legacy of another trade this region was famous for. Portraits of addicts and smugglers, victims, crusaders and accomplices put a human face to the issues. Knoth and de Jong delve into the conditions that spark addiction, and the lack of alternatives pushing people into the trade across the region. There are pages full of ghosts.

Poppy follows both the drugs and the money across borders and into lives.  It’s a schizophrenic journey. The trade touches on the idyllic image of children swimming in a river, at a summer camp for HIV infected families in the Ukraine. It funds guerillas and buys arms in Kosovo, 1998. In Somalia, 1994, Mogadishu has been bombed into history. A once-grand hotel on the water is hollowed out like the coliseum. Heroin from the east and cocaine from the west meet in the Sahara: the professionalism and scale of the trade only uncovered with the discovery of the wreckage of a Boeing 727, used for smuggling, found in Mali in 2009. There are parties on Albania’s Durres Coast, images of nightclubs and apartment blocks built with drug money. There are Youtube screenshots of the enormous wall along the Iranian border, another futile attempt to slow the trade. Iran, with Afghanistan’s unfettered opium bounty just next door, is suffering through an epidemic of addiction: there are 930 000 addicts in country of 70 million, with an estimated 130 000 new addicts each year. This region is clearly on the front line, but the big cash comes from distribution to the west, particularly to the UK: Poppy extends the story to London’s troubled Tower Hamlets estate, where the same stories of addiction, desperation and violence play out against a first-world backdrop.

Knoth and de Jong follow the trade to their home country of The Netherlands, a key shipping and financial node in the transnational crime network, and to Dubai, where the informal hawala money-transfer networks are part of a process of turning drug money into the liquid capital underpinning major development. Even less informal systems, like Pakistan’s stock market, are clearly conduits for the trade: in 2006, $120 billion was pumped through the Karachi Stock Exchange, when country’s total economy only amounted to $130 billion. In Afghanistan, more declared cash flies out of Kabul annually than the Afghan government collects in tax and customs nationwide.

I read Poppy shortly after finishing Gary Shteyngart’s novel Absurdistan.  There were echoes of the same grim humour and absurdity in Poppy, dancing, as they are, around the same sad truth: there are some places and problems our (Western) media cannot be made to care about.  Poppy and Absurdistan both present the “-Stans” and Central Asia as the new Wild West: semi-lawless states with unpronounceable capitals, sectarian conflict too semantic to explain in a TV news sound bite, refugees of confusing loyalties in weary, battle-scarred landscapes.

In Poppy, a grand ambition has been realized. It has been the epic undertaking of two lifetimes, the result of countless close calls and a relentless, uncompromising dedication to uncovering this web of stories. Storytelling of this depth and scope is precisely why we need photojournalists and journalists as free agents, finding their own sources, framing the issue from the broadest perspective, and drawing the links between seemingly unconnected conflicts. It’s not an easy story to tell, or to read, but it is revealing and unforgettable.


JESS SCULLY has been sharing stories about creativity in Australia and the Asia Pacific for over 10 years. In 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald named Jess as one of Sydney’s 100 most influential people.

Jess began her career as editor of publications including SummerWinter, Yen and EMPTY. Jess developed and edited Creative Cities East Asia for the British Council, an online journal documenting innovative urban models for creativity across the Asia Pacific region. In 2010 and 2011 Jess served as policy advisor to the New South Wales Minister for the Arts. She directed the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards (SOYA) for five years, a national grant and mentorship program for outstanding artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers and designers.

Jess is the founding festival director of Creative Sydney and Vivid Ideas, a key part of Vivid Sydney, and has directed the event since 2009. She is currently on the curatorial committee for the International Symposium on Electronic Arts 2013, and sits on advisory boards for Object (The Australian Centre for Design), The Girls & Boys Brigade, and This Place Is Yours.

Jess is writing a book about creativity and cities: developing strategies to help stimulate an inclusive, sustainable, creative economy. Strategies for Creative Economies is due for release in late 2012.—-