Iceland Review’s Photographer Arrested in Azerbaijan Skip to content

Iceland Review’s Photographer Arrested in Azerbaijan

Iceland Review’s photographer and deputy editor Páll Stefánsson was arrested twice in Azerbaijan while shooting photos for a book on the world’s most polluted places. Sumqayit, Azerbaijan’s third largest city, is among these places.

Stefánsson arrived in Azerbaijan on Thursday last week. “I noticed that I caught attention in the industrial district. In the end I was taken to a police station and questioned for three hours,” he told mbl.is.

“They generally don’t speak the same languages I do. Finally they found an elderly German teacher to interpret. I tried to explain in my high school German that I was only photographing man against nature,” Stefánsson continued.

“All of my papers were in order so they didn’t have anything on me. In the end they let me go,” Stefánsson said. “After that it felt uncomfortable photographing. […] They were following what I was doing.”

On Tuesday Stefánsson decided to photograph some trees outside the hotel where he was staying before departing for London in the afternoon. “Then suddenly nine armed men in three cars arrived […] and arrested me.”

He was allowed to call the civil service of the Icelandic Foreign Ministry. The Icelandic Embassy in Moscow immediately called back and asked to speak with the police officers. But they wouldn’t take the call and took Stefánsson back to the police station.

Another interpreter, an elderly English-speaking woman, came and said: “You are in serious trouble,” Stefánsson described. She explained that the police would confiscate his equipment and films. His passport was also removed.

“They questioned me and constantly asked what I was doing. I replied that I was taking pictures.” Apparently they thought his visit to the city was suspicious.

Then one of the men in the room received a phone call, which Stefánsson believes came from the Foreign Ministry in Azerbaijan. He assumes that either the Icelandic Foreign Ministry or the Icelandic Embassy in Moscow had contacted the police.

Suddenly the questioning was over. Stefánsson’s passport was returned along with all of his equipment and films and he was driven back to the hotel without an explanation.

Sumqayit is polluted because of the local chemical industry which was built up around the oil wells in Azerbaijan. Stefánsson describes the pollution as a grayish cloud that covers everything.

Last year he photographed the lead mines in La Oroya in Peru. His book, which is intended for the international market, focuses on the daily life in these polluted places, not the ugliness.

Click here to read the list of the world’s ten most polluted places and Stefánsson’s future destinations.

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