Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Italian photographer Fabio Ponzio would look at a map of Europe and find his eyes always drawn to the east, to its “mysterious names, inscrutable frontiers and roads that ran on into unknown, prohibited lands”. It seemed to him that the iron curtain was “the division between the conscious and the unconscious mind of Europe”.

He first travelled across that dreamlike frontier in 1987, two years before revolutions reunited the continent. After the wall came down, over the course of a couple of decades, he drove determinedly through all the remote territories from which he had been excluded, with a tent and a stove and a sleeping bag in the back of his car, along with three Nikon cameras and 100 rolls of film. He slept in woods or in the homes of people he met. Once, in the mountains of Albania, the villagers told him that he was the first foreigner they had seen since two Italian soldiers fleeing the armistice of 1943.

His pictures from those years – of weddings and funerals, of drunks and pilgrims, the homeless of the cities and the rural poor – caught cultures in the hinterland after communism and before consumerism. That period, as the hope of liberation gave way to endemic uncertainty, is the subject of his book East of Nowhere. Ponzio’s camera was drawn to incongruity. He took this picture in Romania in 1997, eight years on from the fall of Ceaucescu. The international licence plates and the open road stretching out beyond the mountains might promise new freedoms, but the sheep in the back of the car root this image in a stranger, older more unstable kind of reality. The car is going nowhere.

  • East of Nowhere by Fabio Ponzio is published on 2 April (Thames and Hudson, £38). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15



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