Two women converse, overlooking an open mountain gorge. A horseman heads into the mountains, enveloped by fog. Bride and groom, elegantly dressed, arrive on horseback. In the evening twilight, only the warm orange glow from the windows of wooden huts illuminates the village road. Time seems at a standstill in Natela Grigalashvili’s photographs of mountainous Adjara, a region in western Georgia. Here, the locals traditionally move their herds to pasture grounds in the mountains in summer before returning in winter. Yet things are changing rapidly for them. Many have to seek seasonal work in Turkey for additional income, as more and more families leave their villages for cities. The mountain huts are emptying out.
Natela Grigalashvili, the first female photojournalist in post-soviet Georgia, has been photographing the The Final Days of Georgian Nomads for several years now. Her images bring a delicate balance of tenderness and grit to her documentation of life in the mountains. Inevitably, the way of life in mountainous Adjara will change. In Grigalashvili’s photographs, the foggy, highland landscape will always feel like home.
In this interview, Grigalashvili spoke with Misho Antadze for LensCulture about learning from her memories and experiences, connecting with her subjects and the photography clubs she has opened in the places where she works. We first discovered her remarkable work when reviewing the “New Visions” Open Call submissions for this year’s Cortona on the Move festival in Italy.
Misho Antadze: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to photography?
Natela Grigalashvili : I was born in rural Georgia, I grew up there, and I used to draw since I was a child. I fell in love with cinema early on, specifically with documentary films. I wanted to become a documentary cinematographer, and I heard that you need to know photography to do so. My friend gave me the cheapest camera on the market, a Soviet ‘Smena’, and that’s how I started to photograph. I did not end up studying anywhere, because at that time educational institutions were shut due to the situation in the country. I did, however, receive the certification of a studio photographer. So, I did not end up going into movies, but I became a photographer. And I’m very happy about how it turned out.
MA: As a photographer, you started your career working as a photojournalist. How would you describe the experience, and how did you start working on personal projects?
NG: I became a photojournalist quite quickly. There were no women photographers at that time in Georgia, so that was unusual. Working in the press gave me some important experience, like communicating with people, and learning to be more self-reliant and independent. But after some time, I understood that I wasn’t born to be a photojournalist. For years, it has been just a source of income. It took up a lot of my time because it was a very hard period in Georgian history. I had my family and my child to support, so I didn’t have a choice, but the entire time I was thinking about what I want to do with photography. The kind of work that I was given was tedious and boring for me. One day, I left it all behind and started working on my own projects. That was made possible for me by a grant from the Open Society Foundation, and it gave me some time to work independently.
MA: How did you first arrive in Mountainous Adjara? Could you tell our readers about the place, and the people that live there?
NG: All my projects are very personal, and I’ve thought about them for a long time. I also spend a long time wherever I go to photograph. The projects that I take on, both consciously and subconsciously are connected with me, my life, my past. That’s why they mostly deal with rural areas, and with the people to whom I feel a spiritual connection. I think that even in a very remote area, I can find my childhood memories. I choose topics that are close to me, and Mountainous Adjara felt that way.
More than other places in Georgia, it preserves a way of life that has almost disappeared elsewhere. This expresses itself in many things, like in everyday life, in customs and traditions. But even in these places, changes happen very fast. I can see it happening in front of my eyes, between my visits. It affects me a lot. It’s very sad to see villages emptying out. Almost all of the families now also have a home in a city. Most of them leave to give their children a better education. Those brought up in a city rarely return to a village. It is no longer a home environment for them.
This is what mountainous Adjara means to me, the people, the relationships. I spend a lot of time there even without a camera. I want to meet these people. When I arrive in a new village, sometimes the locals are surprised by how much I, an outsider, know them. They ask me: “How do you know our customs?” and I tell them that they’re very important to me. When I go back home, I think 50% of what I bring back are the photos, and the rest are the relationships that I’ve established with people along the way.
MA: I am thinking about an image that I especially like. A woman is working on the side of the mountain. Light is changing in the background, and the work is quite hard. Nevertheless, she is smiling. How do you establish a relationship with your subjects?
NG: Often, people that I photograph don’t know who I am, and tell me “you don’t seem like you are from a city, you’re like one of us.” And I think that’s important for them, so they know that you’re not there just to take a photo and lose all interest afterwards. I am not playing to win their hearts. I want to understand their lives fully. For the women, for example,it’s interesting to know how they get married. Some of them meet the bridegroom only at the engagement. It’s interesting to listen to them, to hear how their life goes after that.
It brings you closer to people when they see that you’re not playing, that their environment is familiar to you. If I started working in another environment, I think it would have been very different. These women start working very early on in their lives. Around age 10, a girl already knows how to perform all of the household tasks. Boys start early too. They’re very hard-working. It’s also a kind of a tradition. They can’t even imagine it otherwise. They’re tidy and fastidious. Unlike other places in Georgia. So sometimes what looks like hard labor for us is everyday life for them.
MA: The tradition of pastoral images is quite central to Georgian arts, whether in painting, cinema and even in photography. In your images, you strike a delicate balance between the landscape and portraiture. The landscape becomes personal. What does the landscape mean for you?
NG: Maybe the pastoral theme used to be important in Georgian arts, but not anymore. It would be nice if it were again. I think urban life is a more dominant theme in Georgian arts today, and even that is divided into different parts. But life in rural areas is frozen, and so is the interest for it from city artists. But the landscape is very important to me. I think it is the environment that makes these people, and maybe all of us, the way they are.
MA: In your previous series, you’ve photographed the Doukhobors, a tiny, Russian-speaking religious minority. Now, you are introducing us to the inhabitants of Mountainous Adjara, who are mostly Muslim. Both of these societies exist on the periphery socially as much as geographically and are diminishing in numbers. Why are you drawn to explore this subject through photography? What place does the idea of faith hold in your work?
NG: Faith was not my main interest in choosing the topics. But faith makes these places unique. I’m repeating myself, but unfortunately, the unique lifestyles of these people are disappearing, and it affects me a lot. There’s a lot of causes for it. For example, Gorelovka is the largest village of the Doukhobors. There are around 55 families left. Years will pass, and generations after us will say that we’ve lost a big part of our country’s culture. Their houses are being destroyed. Before I went there, I’d only seen a Russian stove in movies and heard about it in fairytales, and it’s the only place where you can find it in Georgia. Or the Russian-type Khata hut, and many other things, are unfortunately disappearing. Ethnic minorities are the riches of our country. We need to take care of this diversity, but we don’t.
MA: When looking at this series, I think about the fog. It is as if your figures appear out of it, and disappear into it. But you also show moments of sunshine, a rainbow, harvest, and snow. We see people at work and at play…
NG: I love the fog very much. I spent a month in a village last year, and it was foggy every day. The locals would joke that it’s my fault. It’s so mysterious, and I like to think that it’s like my character. Some people like the fog, but others don’t. But it has so many great qualities to it, it really sets the mood.
MA: Photographers often show rural Georgia as either romantic or desolate. You avoid this tendency, and your images are much more balanced. How do you manage this?
NG: I think it’s only because these places are so familiar to me, I can’t look at them differently. This is my environment, my world. I can’t look at it as either romantic, neither do I see only the impoverishment. Many people, including photographers, just don’t want to see that it’s simply a different way of life. A lot of people look at my photos and say: “These people are so poor.” But Mountainous Adjara is not poor at all! These people are very hardworking who live quite well. But people don’t understand that their different way of dressing, their house interiors are just their way of life. To see reality, it is important to be one of them, to understand their joys and their sadness, not to remain an outsider.
MA: I know you’ve played an active role in the communities that you photograph. Could you tell me more about the photography clubs that you’ve established in the places where you work?
NG: I myself grew up in a village where nothing really happened, where nothing happens now. As time went by, I thought how nice it would be if someone taught me photography when I was younger. I was already older when I first held a camera because no-one around me had one when I was growing up. So I wanted to start teaching and did it first in Gorelovka. It was very interesting, because Gorelovka is ethnically and religiously diverse, but not necessarily harmonious. I opened the first photo club here.
The oldest member was 62, the youngest was 15. We went everywhere together and took photos. My main intention was to bring them closer to the arts so that their normal experiences would become extraordinary through photography. They saw that they could hang the landscape they see every day on a wall, and people would come to see it and be amazed by it. I have opened these clubs in several places where I’ve worked. They’ve become very popular, and I’m asked to do it again. Now I’m going to do it with young people, in the pastures of Mountainous Adjara. It’s very good that people are interested in art.
MA: This current project is still a work in progress. What are your plans for the future?
NG: I was there last this winter, and then everything that happened with Covid-19 interrupted my work. Mountainous Adjara is so quite large and so diverse, and as a project, is inexhaustible. Sometimes, I meet people who tell me to go to their village, because it’s different from the others. And I like to spend a long time in these places. Unfortunately, it’s not completely dependent on me, but on financing the project. So I don’t know when I’ll finish.
MA: Your photography is now recognized abroad as much as it is in Georgia. How does the reception of your work differ at home and abroad? Do you think that photography is a universal language? Do you feel something is lost in translation between contexts?
NG: Sometimes, non-Georgians show even more interest than at home. They can be more interested in individual people, and ask very interesting questions. How do these people live? What makes them happy? What pains them? I am even surprised by how they pay attention to very small details. They don’t see it as only romantic. No matter where we live, we like in the same way, we love in the same way, we hate in the same way, and we all have similar emotions. So I don’t think much is lost.