Junction City has all the trappings of an Iraqi town: a brightly painted mosque; shops adorned with Arabic script; the occasional humvee or tank rumbling by. But you won’t find it anywhere near Mosul. It’s a stage set at Fort Irwin, in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, where US troops simulate fighting insurgents.
“It’s a lonely place, full of buildings no one will ever live in,” says photographer Gregor Sailer. “It’s like a ghost city—the wind smashing the doors, blowing through the streets.”
Sailer captured Junction City and 21 other fake urban landscapes for his fascinating new book The Potemkin Village. They include a New York-themed town in Sweden built to test cars for road safety; a Russian city with elaborate facades disguising forlorn buildings; and a Dutch hamlet in China that tourists visit for a taste of Europe. “Sometimes they’re more real and other times they’re more an illusion,” Sailer says. “I’m jumping between these two worlds, and that’s what makes it exciting for me.”
The book borrows its name from a Russian legend: In the late 18th century, the story goes, Russian governor-general Grigory Potemkin erected cardboard villages in the Crimea to spiff the place up ahead of a royal visit. After hearing the tale in early 2015, Sailer began researching modern-day equivalents. He discovered examples like the Russian town of Suzdal, where local officials had recently draped banners over dilapidated buildings to hide them for a Vladimir Putin visit. He also found whole villages and towns completely faked for other reasons—whether for testing, tourism, or war.
He spent the next two years traveling through seven countries to photograph them. Some were incredibly elaborate. Tiefort City—another of the 12 fake towns the US government has built at Fort Irwin—contained more than 500 buildings constructed from brick, concrete, and wood and spread over 130 acres. “It’s fascinating that such enormous efforts are invested into constructing such sites, for millions and billions of dollars or euros, just to prepare people for war,” Sailer says.
Other places were more DIY, like AstaZero, a Volvo testing site near Gothenburg, Sweden: The buildings lining the four blocks of its “city area” were nothing more than boards propped up by two-by-fours and plastered with full-scale photos of beauty salons, delis, and other shops in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “Nobody could tell me why they chose Harlem, or what the relationship to Sweden was,” Sailer says.
Getting access to these sites sometimes took months. Once there, Sailer wandered the streets photographing the buildings from the front, sides and back to expose their artifice. His old-fashioned large format camera, with its black cloth and accordion pleats, was as much an attraction to tourists at China’s Europe-themed towns as the Dutch windmills and British pubs. “They would take pictures of me and my camera, like I was part of the installation,” he says.
You don’t often see people in Sailer’s quiet images, though. They’re deserted, mesmerizing dreamscapes, little more than canvases for fantasies—whether those fantasies involve war, travel abroad, or simply a safer, more attractive place to call home.
Potemkin Village is out from Kehrer Verlag.