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.