Tbilisi, hillbound city of stone bridges and medieval churches, has also become in recent years a city of photography, a place that some of the best photographers in the world call home. This is partially a fault of geography: it is nestled between the ever-wars of the north Caucasus and the intrigues of Iran, not far from Iraq or Afghanistan. There are additional benefits for photojournalists: low rents, a strong local grappa called chacha, and the ability to smoke almost anywhere at anytime.
But any conversation about why Tbilisi is known for photography should start with Nestan Nijaradze and the Tbilisi Photo Festival that she helps run. Nestan is one of the last true muses of this earth: descendant of Imeretian aristocracy, educated in Paris, ardent defender of humanist Georgia. She has been Artistic Co-Director of the festival from the beginning, and it has always been beautiful, always a crossroad of east and west and north and south. This year it features the kind of brave work it always has—not least the North Caucasus projects shown below. But the 2013 festival, which starts May 28, is more than exposition this year, more than education. This year it’s a referendum on the soul of Georgia.
Here’s why: On May 17, a small silent protest in support of anti-homophobia groups took place as planned in the center of Tbilisi. It was met by a mob of thousands, egged on by Orthodox Christian priests baying for violence. The crowd overwhelmed police lines, attacked the peaceful protesters and, when they were being evacuated, savaged the buses with stones and bricks and bottles. It was a minor miracle that no one died. But the notion that some of us have, that Tbilisi can be a city of both tradition and tolerance, suffered a terrible blow.
I reached Nestan at home in Tbilisi over the weekend.
Roads & Kingdoms: What the hell happened on May 17?
Nestan Nijaradze: We were expecting that one day there would be something like this, that the church would take control of the crowd. We saw terrible scenes—people beating each other, and priests encouraging it. There were priests running in the streets, battling, with chairs in their hands.
Yesterday there was another protest, and again this violence. We were a thousand people, not more. But of course we have to continue. It’s very possible that this would become a radical orthodox country.