“Georgia is home for me. Most of my friends live in Georgia too. When I leave for Iran, I will miss it; but, on the other hand, every time I come back I never feel estranged and, therefore, I am not afraid to leave,” said Thomas Dworzak, a German-born photographer who has lived in Georgia for years now. The presentation of his new book Beyond Sochi was held one day before the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. It was organized by the Tbilisi Photo Festival at the Writers’ House of Georgia in Tbilisi. Tabula interviewed the award-winning Magnum photographer before his departure to Iran.
How was Beyond Sochi produced?
Some two years ago, I received an assignment from National Geographic to work in the North Caucasus. The aim of the project was to photograph the region which would be hosting the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. I wanted to produce something different, and I hoped I would be able to do that – though I was not 100-percent sure about that because I had traveled to the North Caucasus many years ago. I worked in Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia in the 1990s and got to Abkhazia via Sochi too. I took a series of black and white photos back then, which were published as a book – Caucasus. After so many years, I was not sure what the result of the new assignment would be. In fact, National Geographic needed some 12 or 14 photos in total and the topics for those photos were determined in advance – mountains, Circassia, the Olympics, post-Soviet achievements, et cetera. During the past two years I traveled there about six or eight times.
First, I went for several weeks, then for several days, I once even stayed there for three weeks. Cooperation with National Geographic is the best possibility for work; it is like an educational grant because you are well paid and everything is ensured. The only thing left to do is work. It was, therefore, not difficult to fulfill the assignment. Then I thought that publishing what I had photographed would be most well-timed. I took 300 photos as a diary reflecting my travel and left them in Magnum’s Paris office. They would be unable to sell any of them as they belonged to National Geographic. At the end of the day, it came to pass that a publishing house was willing to publish them, the copyright related issues were settled and the book Beyond Sochi was released. In the book the photos are arranged on maps of the North Caucasus region with accompanying texts written by British writer and journalist William Dunbar. It is, I think, a sort of guide for those who would like to travel to the North Caucasus.
What did you take those photos with?
One-third of the photos that are included in the book were taken with an iPhone. I decided to put the rest in Polaroid format. Unfortunately, I failed to publish and sell the book in a timely fashion. I wanted it to be ready earlier. A version for kindle has also been released…
In other words, it does not matter what you take photos with.
Yes, it does not. I did not even use a Polaroid filter. However, those photos that were included in the earlier book, I took over a period of 20 years and spent much time choosing the 80 best photos, seeking a masterpiece… Today, I think differently. The book Beyond Sochi contains some good photos that I took for National Geographic and also some photos which are not bad in terms of photography, but are certainly interesting. I do not want photography to prompt me about what and how to shoot any longer.
During the talk you mentioned Abkhazia and meeting with Abkhazs several times. How do they live?
I have always traveled to Abkhazia… I came to Georgia from Abkhazia in 1993… These are two absolutely different worlds… They [the Abkhazs] got stuck in the Soviet past! I felt the difference between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia most acutely three years ago, when I walked in Sokhumi one evening and then in Batumi. I was struck dumb as I found myself in two starkly different worlds.
Do they speak Georgian?
When they drink and get drunk they do not speak in Russian or any other foreign language. They speak in Georgian, of course, poor Georgian but still Georgian… Georgia has developed whereas Abkhazia has remained in the past and is too distant. They are not content with Russians at all. Once I arrived in Sochi, I saw injustice. The Abkhazs live a few kilometers away from the place where the largest construction in the world was underway, i.e. the preparations for the Olympics, and the Abkhazs were not offered employment there, they were given nothing. All this is very sad…
Has Georgia changed?
For me personally, Georgia has always been the most un-Soviet country. When I take photos of, for example, a railway station in Azerbaijan or in the North Caucasus, the police always rush up to prevent me from doing that, whereas in Georgia no one cares about that. Save for one recent incident, when I was prohibited from taking photos of tents erected on Rustaveli Avenue, no one has ever told me anything throughout 20 years in Georgia. Your country was not a Soviet-type country even in those terrible 1990s, let alone nowadays; but this does not hold true for Abkhazia. For me, Abkhazia is the Soviet Union’s zoo where one can arrange tours for people to show them the monkeys, what Soviet remnants look like. You are always required to present documents, have to collect some papers, permits… It will not please such people at all to arrive in Batumi, which is so rich, so Western… They may be happier sitting somewhere in a sanatorium eating buckwheat and drinking stewed fruit juice… Frankly speaking, I cannot understand why people go to Sochi or to Abkhazia… Why should one go to Sochi from Siberia, taking a five-day trip in a train just to find yourself in a place where you are offended and made to pay astronomical prices for everything? It is a very expensive joke indeed! Especially when for one-fourth of that amount you could buy a ticket, board a plane and fly to, for example, Antalia where everyone speaks Russian, is full of Russians… This is something beyond my understanding!
Why did you stay in Georgia?
This is such an old story that I do not even remember my reasons. When I first arrived here, 20 years ago, I though I would stay for six months; this was followed by one year, then a year and a half and finally it turns out that I have spent half of my life in Georgia. Now, no matter where I go – even to America – I go from Georgia. I have developed such a link to the country that I always come back.
I see that you are making preparations for departure. Where are you heading?
I am going to Iran; moving to live there. My wife is Iranian and I got permission to live there. I used to say that I must leave Georgia after five years… I actually had to force myself to leave Georgia… Such an attachment is not good, otherwise you might stay forever. That’s why I am leaving! I have to continue my path.
Iran is different…
Not at all, it is a large Georgia. It really looks very much like Georgia. Islam in Iran is floating on the top, in other ways, people are more religious here, I think, than there…
Will you take photos there too?
No, I will not be a photo reporter. I will study Persian at a university there. You must always change something in your life; you must go forward and never stop. Tehran is twice as close to Tbilisi than, for example, Moscow. Thus, I am not going too far. Georgians are very much liked in Tehran. They speak such good Georgian, the likes of which one cannot hear anywhere else. They are proud, for example, of having a Georgian great-grandmother and so on and so forth.
Which country made the strongest impression on you as a photo reporter?
To tell the truth, I was always fond of the North Caucasus. It was always close to me. I often traveled there and got acquainted with many people… Now, a sort of a wall has emerged, mainly between the West and Russia, which has complicated everything. They always look at you with suspicion, observe you, perceive you as an opponent, speaking as if we are spitting at and ridiculing them… I used to travel to the Near East, but we can no longer see and reflect a large part of the story happening there now … Many things are no longer available for us.
You mean that taking photos has also become complicated?
Yes, especially in the North Caucasus. Arriving there and having contacts with people did not require as much organization before as it does now. One can conduct some work there, but that requires much effort. I worked freely earlier, but today the conditions have changed. That’s why I liked, and continue to like, Georgia. I have never felt that I was photographing. In Georgia you live, do your work, interact with people and this is more natural than taking photos according to a strict schedule determined in advance. The last time I traveled to the Near East it was to Libya. After Chechnya, however, everywhere was difficult for me. I went to Kosovo and Africa, but I felt like a stranger there as I did not understand the language, et cetera. Today, I do not feel any closeness with Chechnya, they look at everyone with suspicion.
You have delivered lectures on photography. How do you like doing that?
Not very much. I do not know how much my experience can be useful to people… I think it is better to stay silent, take photos, keep walking onwards and live… I always try to avoid being photographic. I understand that awards and prizes are important, but they are not key. I was in Kiev in December; it was snowing there and I took pictures. Initially, they were ordinary photos, but as the snow melted, they became masterpieces. More interesting than that is to see something unexpected and to try to take something which does not contain a photographic idea….
Which of your photos are “unexpected”?
A photo whose photography, so to say, “captured” me, was one that I took in Abkhazia that was published by National Geographic featuring a women in a gas mask walking during a mass burial. I had never seen such an absurd scene before. Back then I felt that it made sense to work only if taking such photos.
The level of photography has significantly advanced. Nevertheless, people are no longer left with sufficient time to deeply perceive and explore something. However, many can already shoot well. Even in a remote city one can find people who can take photos correctly, prettily and rather normally. Some 10 or 15 years ago I thought differently; now I am interested in the stories which people release on Instagram. Last year I even stole some such photos as I deemed it necessary to keep them. I do not know how I may use them – they cannot be printed – but I like them. They might not be masterpieces at all, but they are sufficient for telling a story. For example, during the election of the Pope of Rome, people were taking pictures of their pets dressed up like the Pope. Where and how would I be able to take such photos?! This provides a common history. I am hunting for such photos. There is such naivety and ignorance in them, which is something we no longer have. We know exactly what we are aspiring for and what we want to get when taking photos.