Take a closer look at these ‘Potemkin villages' – there’s less than meets the eye. To understand what the hell we’re looking at, we caught up with Gregor Sailer, photographer of the world’s fake towns and cities.
What is a Potemkin village? The term dates back to the 18th century, when the Russian Prince Grigory Potemkin was said to have built fake villages throughout newly annexed Crimea so that his lover, Tsarina Katharina II, wouldn’t have to gaze out on shabby surroundings during her travels through the region. Historians contest the truth of this story, but the term retains currency.
What prompted you to shoot this series? I wanted to expand the notion of Potemkin villages to encompass any architecture that was motivated by a political, military or economic agenda: to show the different iterations of these faux cities in the 21st century. There are all kinds of places that qualify as Potemkin villages. I visited tourist replica towns in China, vehicle test sites in Sweden and combat training centres in Europe and the U.S. Over the course of two years, the project took me to 25 sites across seven countries.
Were these places hard to get into? Not a whole lot of information exists about some of these ‘fake places’, so I had to spend a lot of time investigating rumours and comparing sources and claims – many of which turned out to be bogus. Once I established a certain place actually did exist, I still had to figure out exactly where it was. This was the case with the Military Operations in Urban Terrain, or MOUTs, in France and the U.S. As areas of restricted access, they were hard to pin down. The next step was to acquire the permits to get access to them, which often took months.
What was it like being in these places? Fascinating, if sometimes scary. The amount of energy it takes to create these illusions can be staggering. The American MOUT I visited was especially haunting: it’s this vast sprawl of fake towns set up in the middle of the Mojave Desert for training in urban warfare. While I knew everything in these mock towns was phoney, they still seemed to contain a reality. You’re surrounded by all these noises of war – explosions, live artillery, aircraft you never see – yet you’re wandering through empty architecture in the middle of this huge, empty desert. Your senses are telling you you’re amid chaos, but at the same time you’re feeling incredibly alone.
Did you have a favourite location? There is a car-testing site in Sweden where the buildings are just boards plastered with photos of delis and beauty salons from Harlem, New York. No one could tell me why they chose Harlem. Aside from that, the MOUT in north-eastern France made for a surprisingly moving visit. It’s situated in the middle of the fronts of World War I, near Verdun and Chemin des Dames. There’s still live ammunition lying around, and local farmers are still turning up the skeletons of soldiers. There was a very eerie atmosphere to the place.
Any memorable encounters? I unwittingly became part of a Potemkin village while visiting one of the European replica towns in China. Local tourists started taking photos of me in ‘Thames Town’, which portrays a typically British town. Pretty funny, given that I’m Austrian. In the U.S. military zone I was asked by workers whether the mosques they were painting looked like the real ones I’d seen in the Middle East. They wanted assurance they were doing a good job.
Were there any places you weren’t able to get into? I wasn’t able to enter the fake Korean village of Kijŏng-dong, which was erected for propaganda purposes inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone. South Korea would have allowed me to get within two kilometres, but that would have been too far away for me to shoot. North Korea gave me permission to enter the country but not the village. Appropriately enough, many of the fake places I tried to visit for this project led me up dead ends.