While photographer Anoek Steketee and writer Eefje Blankevoort traveled through Northern Iraq in 2006, researching a story on the Kurds and their efforts to create a united Kurdistan, they stumbled across a surreal scene amidst the daily reports of kidnappings and sectarian violence—an amusement park called Dream City, located on what was formerly a military base for Saddam Hussein. While outside the gates they may have been at war, inside the Disney-like park the pair saw Arabs and Americans, Christians and Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis peacefully rubbing shoulders while strolling around eating ice cream and popcorn, or waiting patiently in line for the bumper cars.
That visit spurred a four-year journey, documented in their series Dream City, through the world of carnies and Ferris wheels from Rwanda to Turkmenistan. The parks’ surreal fairy-tale settings, with perfectly manicured gardens in areas torn by genocide and ethnic clashes, showed the duo that the desire to escape from reality is a universal human need. Which was something America’s great creator of amusement parks, Walt Disney, based his empire on. “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in,” said Disney describing his parks, “I want them to feel they’re in another world.”
TIME‘s Alexander Ho spoke to Steketee about the project:
Did you ever encounter any sort of trouble from park security or local police?
Most of the time, the management of the parks welcomed us. But there were some incidents. In Turkmenistan, the authorities are not so happy with western journalists. We went on a tourist visa to avoid any restrictions in our movements. After a few days working in the park we had to go with the security and hand over the material. Fortunately I was able to avoid giving it to them, but we were forced to stop photographing and were refused further access to the park. In Israel, it took me a few hours to convince the security that I was coming with all the equipment just to photograph amusement parks.
Are there plans to continue the project? Are there shows slated this year for Dream City to be exhibited—perhaps in America?
At the moment we are looking for the possibilities to bring it to the USA, and after that, to Colombia and the other places we visited for the project, like Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, China and Indonesia. Also, in cooperation with FOTODOK, an educational program is being developed which we would like to bring with along with the exhibition.
What projects do you have coming up?
Our next project is, among others, about a popular radio soap opera in Rwanda, which is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story situated in two villages in the countryside.