Arrivals and Departures with Jacob Aue Sobol: Episode 3 – The Train

The Train

The first shock comes as I enter the train. It’s completely empty. The whole idea of the project is to meet people on the train and make intimate stories from their  compartments. But riding this ghost-train, I have to change the concept: The intimate work has to come from my encounters with people in the cities I pass and the train will be the red thread connecting Moscow, Ulaanbaartar and Beijing.


Once the journey begins this “ghost train” atmosphere becomes very interesting and I begin focusing on the landscapes. I wake up around 6 am the first morning and I don’t remember where I am. I look out the window and see the most amazing twilight as the train takes us through a Russian forest. The rhythm of the train and the smell of coal completes this moment.

Even though I am a photographer, I try to avoid being a voyeur. It has always been my ambition not only to look, but also take part in life, which can be quite frustrating, especially if you have a tight deadline. If I meet someone playing soccer in the street, I immediately feel like playing with them instead of just watching. I never found it interesting to look at someone from the other side of the street, or to be “invisible” as a photographer. I hope this is the reason why people never feel like a voyeur looking at my images– because you feel that you are taking part.

But on this train my face is glued to the window and there’s nothing I can do about it. For every house I pass, for every person I spot, I wonder who they are and what their lives are like. And since I can’t ask them, I start making up stories. The train attendants all seem grumpy and homesick– and besides a lonely mother traveling with her child, there’s no one to meet.

After four days of traveling through Russia, the train compartment reminds me more and more of a prison cell. A place from where I can only watch and not take part. It is with a certain relief that I wake up on the fourth day to the sight of the frozen Lake-Baikal. I wish I had time to jump off and go ice-fishing with the locals, but soon we will reach Ulan-Ude and I will change from the Trans Siberian to the Trans Mongolian Railway. I can’t wait to reach Ulaanbaatar. I can’t wait to be among people again. The Mongolians.


-Jacob Aue Sobol

To learn more about Jacob and view his work, visit his website at To follow the series, please visit “Arrivals and Departures”.

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  • I can only assume an orange or red filter was used to produce the beautifully exposed prints. Truly extraordinary. Your compositions are some of the best I’ve ever seen in my many years as a photographer. I;m truly impressed.

  • Hi Jacob!
    I’m following your project with great interest. I’v been traveling a lot by train in Russia and Ukraine myself and as a photographer I really enjoy it. It was a pity that your train was almost empty of people as your intention was to make stories from the compartments. But why don’t you just show us some pictures of the environment on this ghost train…? And the conductor and how he performs his daily job on the train…? And that single mother with her child…? Jacob, I’m still looking forward to see your train story. I wish you good luck further on your adventure:) Morten K, Norway

  • Greetings from India! I am also following your project with great interest. I hope you will come to India someday to do a project like this. We have insanely long routes too. I can assure you the trains will NOT be empty and you WILL be able to jump out and interact with people 🙂

  • Probably the most influential piece of work I have seen since, well, forever. Wonderful, mysterious.

    Stunning. Such a personal style that resonates through the series.

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