In the land of wine and mountains

A Year of Portraiture in the South Caucasus

Les Lieux de Mémoire: Portraiture from the South Caucasus

"The Artist and the Colonel", 2009

"Laleh, Future English Teacher", 2010

"Azat, Radio Technician", 2009

"Sabina, Schoolteacher", 2010

"Anaida, Administrator", 2009

I’ve been back in the States for four months. Only now am I able to look back on my Fulbright experience as a whole with any kind of perspective. It was an incredible year.

I ended the project with 15 images that I consider worthy of exhibition. This is almost exactly the number I planned for when I started. They are all intended to be displayed in large format (100 x 125 cm).

Here’s the exhibition text that accompanies the images:

Les Lieux de Mémoire
Portraiture from the South Caucasus

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have shared in a common
struggle to reinvent themselves in the wake of the Soviet
Union’s collapse. At the heart of this rebirth lies the dimming
legacy of their shared Soviet experience, viewed most often by
Western audiences through familiar iconographies of decline:
faded statues, rusted infrastructure and war.

Such treatments of the region are at best inadequate. The
present portraits are an attempt to move beyond this sensational
paradigm and explore the underlying issue of memory in a more
intimate context. As a collection they eschew the romantic and
the picturesque, focusing instead on average citizens from the
anonymous ranks of the lower and middle classes. Their goal is
to present the region not from a narrative perspective, but rather
an emotional one, as they invite the viewer to study the quiet
state so often masked by the flow of our daily lives. Portraiture,
whose function has always been infused with a sense of time
and loss, offers a specific kind of access to this state.

These photographs pay homage to a long tradition
of portraiture in the South Caucasus. They seek to
create an environment—simple, silent and unhurried—designed
to offer viewers a reprieve, an opportunity to explore the region
though the tranquil study of human form.

Predictably, returning home has been the most difficult aspect of the project. It’s nigh impossible to sustain that level of adventure in America. But on the other hand, nothing compares to being close to friends and family. And, of course, ole Char.

What’s next?

Tbilisi: why don’t I live here always?

At work, on location. I've returned to using a tripod after discovering a large number of otherwise satisfying shots had been ruined by focus problems. The sticks take more time, but the result is worth it.

Char, Tiko, and Thomas, on location in Akhaltsikhe, Georgia.

Tbilisi: one day in a series of impressive cloud formations

Rain: my favorite climate in Tbilisi

The Beaches of Sarpi

Candice and I traveled to Batumi, Georgia, to line up some photo shoots. The local news channel got wind of my plans and helped line up a shoot with a boatmaker in Sarpi, right on the border with Turkey.

The crew was a talented bunch, and the trip was short but rewarding.

Kazbegi and environs

The Caucasian Shepherd: a large mammal. The shepherd who owns these dogs told me that the large one's name is "Come here!" The puppy's name? Also "Come here!" Their owner saw no problem with this, and I have to admit that it does make some sense.

A short trip up to the village of Kazbegi, Georgia, for some photo shoots. The village is a fifteen minute drive from Chechnya and is nestled in a lush valley at the base of the mountain by the same name. I tried to climb it in 2000, but both summit accents were scuttled by weather. Time to try again?

We stayed the night with a Georgian family and a few Ukrainian climbers who had just come down the mountain. A great trip.

The view from Tbilisi: the month in pictures

It’s been a busy month since moving from Azerbaijan to Tbilisi, Georgia:

Train travel in the former Soviet Union hasn't changed in 50 years: same coupes, same surly train attendants. The Azeri customs agents went mental when they saw my 25-year-old Pentax. My strategy never fails: I ask them to check me out in their computer, knowing full well that they don't have one and that they're too embarrassed to admit that.

Candice arrived and we immediately began the search for apartments. This was the gem of the bunch: an apartment in a building designed by Soviet arch-murderer Beria for use by his KGB officers.

Same apartment. No amount of light could have made this place any less dark.

And to think I was concerned that for all Tbilisi's progress it might have lost its surreal, post-Soviet edge. What is the nature of this establishment? Undetermined.

The Black Sea, as seen from Batumi, Georgia. Candice and I visited so I could photograph a fisherman and ended up the subject of an Oprah-like television piece, complete with skipping stones together on the beach.

Stalin's bath towel, as seen as the Stalin museum in Batumi.

Sarpi: Georgia's border crossing into Turkey. I came to photograph a boat-maker.

After two weeks in Georgia I returned to Azerbaijan to speak at a conference on journalism education (I had taught a photojournalism course at the Baku Slavic University while living there). After the conference I spent a week in western Azerbaijan shooting a documentary about landmines. Above: Emma the sound recordist (left) and Maria the director.

This is a picture of a natural water spring in rural Azerbaijan that can be set on fire.

Bears are popular attractions at rest stops in the Caucasus. This one was much more clever than he let on. After a week of interviewing countless landmine victims and romping around fields of unexploded ordnance (with safety escort), I almost lose my hand to this cute little bear. I am safe.

Derek Owen visited us in Tbilisi for five days.

Char and I at a restaurant in Kutaisi, Georgia, where we worked as official election monitors for the British Embassy.

Candice on the job, protecting the good citizens of Georgia from election fraud.

Nino "Prometheus" Sukhitashvili. The best part of getting older is that your friendships do too.

Nino's husband Zura (left) and Dato. Summer evening on our balcony in Tbilisi.

A trip with Candice, Maggie and Hans into the mountains. We helped Hans with his paragliding equipment.

Hans, preparing for flight.

Ole Char. So nice to have her here after all these months apart. I don't want to ever leave without her again.

Прощай, южный город!

My friend, the Caspian.

Downtown Baku.

The view from my balcony.

Idris, my Azerbaijani language teacher. Ten hours a week for twelve weeks.

After three months in Azerbaijan, I’m leaving to begin the final phase of my photography project in the South Caucasus. Baku surprised me with its charms: I expected neither the city’s strong personality, nor the depth of the friendships I have made here. Teaching at both the Slavic University and the film school has been intensely rewarding.

I have trouble saying goodbye. It’s a process that’s difficult for me to comprehend, and it inevitably leads me to dwell on the unstoppable passage of time. And the painful truth that we can never really return.

I feel older, and farther away. And perhaps a bit wiser.

Next stop: Tbilisi, Georgia.

Pumping Iron in Baku

My man Javid, lifter of weights.

It might be possible to live in the former Soviet Union without regular exercise, but I’ve never figured out a way to do it. The trick to not paying through the nose for a gym membership in Baku is to visit the neighborhood gyms that most foreigners are scared to enter.

My gym costs me two Manat (about 2.50 USD) per visit. It’s a large basement room with 30-year-old Soviet exercise equipment and juiced-up Azeri bodybuilders. The music is incredible: old-school rap, R&B, and the house favorite: a 20-minute Michael Jackson medley that is truly epic. Last month they discovered Eye of the Tiger and it played for weeks on endless repeat. Proof positive that there is something in the DNA of that song, irrespective of lyrics, that amps us up.

State of the Caspian: calm, silver waters.

Movie-making, Azeri style

I was fortunate to have Elmir working for me as the camera operator. Certainly one of Azerbaijan's best.

First shot of the day. Three months of endless overcast, and on the day of the shoot we have clear skies. How did I not see this coming?

I recently shot a few scenes for an Azeri director who I have gotten to know quite well here over the past few months. The shoot was a great opportunity for me to meet local crew, develop a working relationship with Pyunhan (the director), and generally get a feel for how film production works in Azerbaijan.

What surprised me most about the experience was how similar it was to shooting a short film in the States. From the perspective of the cinematographer, the biggest challenges were identical: insufficient leadership on set (e.g., the lack of an experienced assistant director), inadequate prep (lack of storyboards), and an overambitious schedule. These have been the biggest challenges on every I short film I have ever worked on.

All in all the shoot was a very positive experience for me and I learned a ton. As the “big-time Hollywood cinematographer” (they all think I shot Titanic), expectations were very high among the crew members, and I hope that I was able to show them that, regardless of experience, we are all human. Some interesting notes on Azeri film production:

  1. The words for roll camera, camera speed, and action are all the same in the Soviet system of film production. So when you shoot, you hear the word motor repeated three times.
  2. We shot dialogue scenes all day without a slate or any other means of marking the footage so that sound can later be synchronized. There was nothing to tell the editor what scene or take he was working with, much less what the name of the movie is. Everyone said this was normal. Yikes.
  3. As is common in the States, Azeri DPs and lighting technicians love fill light. The idea of having a face modeled with shadow is out of the question. As someone who tries to embrace darkness and shadow in my photography, I found myself continually asking them to turn off lights. They were respectful, but I could tell there was a lot of head shaking happening behind the scenes.

Side note: two weeks ago my Azerbaijani language teacher taught be the phrase “beh beh beh,” which is something you say under your breath when you’re sitting at the table and the food is delicious. It’s analogous to the English “mmmmm.” At one point during the production we were shooting a close-up of an actress as she walked around the room. On one of the takes she traveled beyond the edge of the set and behind a forest of light stands. This was immediately apparent to all of us watching the monitor, and at that moment I heard Elchin, the gaffer, mutter under his breath, beh beh beh. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing.

State of the Caspian: cloudy, with high wind.

Piracy 101

The front side: your standard pirate copy, with requisite Chinese translation.

The reverse side. Not exactly the quote I would have chosen to market the film, but you've got to give the pirates points for trying.

It is difficult to fully grasp the scope of piracy in the entertainment industry until you have lived in the developing world. Entire chains of retail stores operate freely in downtown Baku with the express purpose of selling pirated movies, TV shows, CDs, and designer handbags, perfume and accessories. These are not dingy kiosks or some guy with DVDs spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk, but clean, shiny stores that could give any Beverley Hills retail outlet a run for its money.

As tempting as it is, I can’t bring myself to buy pirated DVDs anymore. I’ve seen firsthand how severely it effects the industry. Much of the work slowdown in Hollywood over the past three years has been the result of labor disputes, which have themselves been fueled by studios tightening the purse-strings. No one can argue that DVD piracy hasn’t been a tremendous loss for the studios.

It’s not surprising that there is no understanding of piracy among locals here, but it is a bit jarring to see how many Western foreigners shop at these places. Embassy workers, Peace Corps volunteers, legal reform experts . . . have we no shame?

State of the Caspian: murky, with a rising tide.

Day of the Cosmonauts

Yuri Gagarin: the man, the legend.


You can’t beat April 12th, the Soviet Union’s Day of the Cosmonauts, for its nostalgia value. Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first man in space, remains the center of what is probably the most enchanting narrative of the Soviet Union: on this day in 1961 he spent 108 minutes in orbit, thereby scoring one of the USSR’s most enduring Cold War victories and sending NASA into sheer panic.

I spent the day with a group of my best film students at a beautiful dacha outside Baku, on the Absheron peninsula. We dined, I photographed, we explored black rocky shores on the Caspian Sea, and spent many inspiring hours working on the rough cut for their film. Manzar read a poem at dinner in Azerbaijani. I understood nothing, but still felt the sting of tears.

State of the Caspian: waters calm and clear. A rare day with no wind.