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Georgian portraits


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I started singing the traditional folk and liturgical music of the Republic of Georgia more than 40 years ago, as part of a college choral ensemble that specialized in Russian music. I have neither Georgian nor Russian heritage; I was simply drawn to the music. In those days (the late 1970s and early 1980s) Georgia was an integral part of the Soviet Union—and there was no reason to think that would ever change—so when my American college ensemble traveled to the Soviet Union (twice during my undergraduate years) we spent a few days each time in Georgia as well as several weeks in Russia proper.


But the late Brezhnev-era Cold War years behind the Iron Curtain were not a good time for taking pictures of people, for several reasons:
(1) Any group of foreign tourists was managed, herded, corralled, with precisely the aim of avoiding or at least minimizing any unscripted contact with locals, in fact with anyone besides our approved handlers and tour guides. We were taken to sanitized well-controlled places (museums, concert halls, all-reserved restaurants), and our every waking minute was filled with safely scripted encounters. If we met anyone outside our own bubble something had gone wrong.
(2) Any locals who—somehow, in spite of all that handling—interacted with a foreigner long enough to sit for a posed or casual photo portrait would lay themselves open later to suspicious questioning—What did he say to you? Why were you talking to him?—and as a rule ordinary people got through the Soviet time by keeping their heads down and avoiding being noticed for any reason. In other words, to ask to take someone's picture was to ask them to take a risk.

In short, I have no portraits of people from that time and place which feel to me in any way personal or honest.

The portraits in this gallery therefore begin with pictures I took when I returned in the 1990s to independent post-Soviet Georgia. The contrast to the earlier time could not have been greater: I found the new Georgians fearless, open, curious, ready both to embrace the wider world and to stand up as distinct individual persons in it.


A few of the images here were caught on the fly, of people whose attention was elsewhere. But the majority—and all of the portraits of individuals facing the camera—were people I was struck by and engaged in conversation (or in some cases the reverse, friendly strangers who initiated the contact), and whom I eventually asked for permission to photograph. I have repeatedly noticed that Georgians sitting for an off-the-cuff portrait—choosing for themselves how they want to be seen—naturally take on a dignity and effortless confidence in self-presentation that I associate with American portraits from the Civil War, a time when being photographed was still a big deal.

As a specialist in Georgian folk music, I have necessarily spent almost all my time in Georgia around singers. Lots of them—since village singers are the authentic source of this music—are to be found in small towns and villages all over Georgia. The results are what you discover in this gallery: a portrait of Georgia seen over the shoulder of its people.


To learn more about my experiences living and traveling in Georgia, go to Trio Kavkasia and follow the links there, under the "Background | What was it like?" tab, to read several published excerpts from my book-length travel memoir, Six Reasons to Travel.

STUART GELZER photography

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