A Disputed Territory

by James Kerwin July 01 2018

The first five days of the trip were over, and our biggest challenge in Georgia so far had been the weather - it just wasn’t playing ball during the times we wanted to shoot - we had, however, taken some amazing images in the former Sanatoriums that for the last 25 years had housed the refugees that had escaped a war in our next destination, Abkhazia.

A disputed territory on the black sea sandwiched between Georgia and Russia and over-looked by the Greater Caucasus mountains with a population of only around 340,000, Abkhazia is a former war-torn land that although might not appeal to some – for me it sounded like a paradise, away from the usual tourist hustle and bustle and promising not only stunning raw landscapes but also thousands of decaying and abandoned buildings.

The region fought and won a war of secession with Georgia in 1993 and formally declared independence in late 1999, furthermore after the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, Moscow recognised the Abkhazian region as an independent state only for Georgia to respond by declaring Abkhazia as "occupied" by Russia.

I’ve always had a fascination with war-torn countries especially as an abandoned architecture photographer, the images always shout “interesting” or “drama” and always seem to touch hearts – think about all those images that have rolled out of Syria in recent times they touch hearts and minds, right?

Until the late eighties – our local guide told us that Abkhazia was a thriving nation, packed full of Soviet history as well as grand buildings with well-regarded schools and neighbourhoods however, during the war some 300,000 people escaped (or at worse were killed) into Georgia or Russia to seek refuge and have since set up home in former sanatoriums and abandoned buildings, 25 odd years later we met some of these people whilst in neighbouring Georgia – to say they have since been forgotten about is an understatement.

In recent years, Abkhazia has drifted closer and closer to Russia for support and in 2009 Moscow signed a five-year agreement with Abkhazia to take formal control of its frontiers and borders with Georgia, another move that angered ministers in Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital).

This war is still very much in the forefront of people’s minds and it has created a fragile, somewhat corrupt and lawless land, although technically Abkhazia has laws – there is simply nobody to enforce them, meaning crime in some areas is rife and bribes are common practice, as we were later to see first-hand.

So after spending those first 5 days in Georgia, witnessing natural beauty & abandonment as well as the capital for a brief while - I jumped into a taxi which was border bound with my girlfriend Jade and friends Dan and Simon. Three of our visas had not yet been authorised by the consulate in Sokhumi due to the failed application notices ending up in 2 of the groups spam or Gmail junk folders, however we crossed our fingers during the journey and waited for the promised “3pm” email containing the authorisation letters for myself, Jade and my good friend Dan.

The constant scrolling and refreshing of my email inbox on my mobile phone, which was running off a forth friends, Simons hotspot was common practice during the first hour of the ride, it was a nervous wait… 3pm, nothing, 4pm, nothing. We were now only 20 minutes from the border town of Zugdidi, which was our last hope of printing these letters (an essential part of gaining access to Abkhazia). 4.20pm, Dan receives an email timed at 3.20pm, it turns out Abkhazia is one hour behind Georgian time, they lose 20 minutes, well that is now known by the group as “Abkhazian time”.

The next task was a simple formality, as we went to get the letters printed selecting an electrical superstore in Zugdidi, carefully selecting a young lady as the person which we were to request this from, usually the language is a barrier however you to have a chance with some of the younger folk as usually they have some form of English lessons or education at school – letters in hand we left the store – fist pumping the air as we danced back towards the taxi.

We arrived at the land border at around 4.45pm, a lot later than planned as it was due to close at 7pm, we passed the first two checkpoints hassle free and arrived at the third at about 5pm (4pm Abkhazian time), handing over our passports to the Russian guards before taking our seat in what can only be described as a second-rate bus stop. Then some 20 minutes later a miracle happened, Simon was called forwards and asked to move through the small cabin, exiting its rear and make his way up to the final checkpoint for some further checks. This was going to be a formality, right? Despite the fact, Simon had just walked off with the mobile phone signal in his pocket.

An hour passed, then two. Very little communication came from the only Russian speaking guards. Us three remaining were questioning each other, was Simon in? Why were we still waiting, what was the issue?

A guard popped his head out of the booth, shrugging his shoulders in our direction. Then just as this happened the telephone in the booth rang. Lots of Russian went back and forth between the five guards, the phone was placed back down – then silence broke. A couple of minutes later I was called into the booth by hand gesture only to be handed 3 passports back, looking up to see the guard doing an “X” with his arms and a cut throat sign. What had happened?

I grabbed my translator app, punching in some words. The guard did the same in return… “You are not on the LIST, you cannot come through before the border closes in 20 minutes”. Damn. Replying with more “challenging translations” I asked if we could return tomorrow, and asked if our letters were ok? The guard replied, “return tomorrow, but not before 10am” – I read his note, looked up at him to see him displaying the number 9 on his fingers… great!

The walk back across the long bridge that we had come across to this 3rd checkpoint was the most depressing part of the entire trip, especially when it dawned on us all we only had 20 Lari (Georgian currency) between us. However, we struck lucky when a taxi agreed to take us back to Zugdidi for 10 Lari – but it didn’t lift our moods, the taxi ride back to town was silent.

9am we departed our apartment, jumping in another cab towards the border via the supermarket. We were in higher spirits though – last night ate, contacted Simon (who had made it into Abkhazia and had linked up with our guide there and proceeded to make a plan for our arrival) and also drank, lots of wine – which had given us the feeling of a clean slate.

10am, we approached the same Georgian border house, passing with flying colours the same questions as the evening prior despite the very weird comment of “Welcome to Georgia” - Strolling past checkpoint two with our heavy rucksacks we made it back to the “bus stop” – where we received a cheer from the guards sitting in the booth. Here we go again… Our passports were never taken, we presumed this was going to be a long day but then, just 15 minutes later they asked us to move through the booth and onto the third and final checkpoint – we felt relieved, was this the moment?

Arriving at the fourth part of the checkpoint, we were asked to empty our bags on a table and have them checked by a hench guard who was not someone to be messed with, so we all did this as quickly as possible, except me – I was trying to slowly move my drone into the centre of my rucksack I didn’t know how they would react to a drone here in Abkhazia and the risk of having it taken off me was too great.

Finally, we were asked to nominate one person from our group by an English-speaking guard to join him in one of the cabins for a chat. I nominated myself and proceeded to follow him across the road and into the cabin. I had heard of Simons interrogation the night previous and how badly the whole experience had gone for him, however, this was different – I was the tour organiser and knew the answer to each question including why myself and Daniel had stamps in our passports to Kiev on different dates. Easy, Chernobyl twice each on separate trips – the guard didn’t find it as interesting, as he moved on quickly to ask me about Daniel's job role back in the UK and the reason for my bag full of photography equipment…. However, he was happy, and we left the booth.

“5 minutes,” the guard said, wait here just “five more minutes”. 20 minutes later, I asked him what was going on – he went into the cabin, which contained mirrored glass and a single hole for passing the passport through and returned with our passports….

“Welcome to Abkhazia” announced the guard, as we grabbed our bags and breathed a sigh of relief, walking past him to enter the war-torn territory. We were greeted by a beaming Simon and our guide, who welcomed us with open arms as we exchanged stories of the night prior.

On that initial drive to our first series of locations I was silent, sat staring out of the window as I took in the surroundings, travelling in Abkhazia is surreal, every day we passed by shells of former grand homes, factories, warehouses and cars which were mixed in with beautiful rolling mountains and vegetation. Later that day we also met both locals and stray dogs, it was a great experience despite the ever-changing March weather. The opening afternoon had begun under a blanket of cloud, not great for photography but we did manage to visit a stunning former monastery and old rail bridge in the valley.

We used my pre-prepared map over the course of the next four days, even teaching our guide some hidden spots that he was unaware of, which was a good feeling as it meant that all of our initial hard work was paying off as we cruised around in our hosts battered 1999 Ford Galaxy, a vehicle that squealed at each and every turn as the timing belt held on against all odds.

The locations were amazing although some were becoming worn out, but I was constantly reminding myself of what had happened here and stood to picture the locations in their prime. However, I am used to visiting both stunning and grand abandoned buildings and architecture, so I had to remind myself on a few occasions, that this journey was about the overall series and a body of work and not just the singular shots, not that Abkhazia didn’t offer any portfolio shots of course it did but in my mind the buildings complimented each other this time around, and it would be the overall story that these images would marry up with.

The indifferent weather that I mentioned earlier was brought to a head in Gagra (where money is being poured in to repair this former Russian holiday resort) during our third day in Abkhazia and typically this was the day we had to walk from location to location without our guides car. We got soaked as it tipped down from 7am through until 6pm.

Despite shooting architecture indoors a lot of the time the weather still played its part in creating difficult photography situations, especially for me. When planning this trip, I had researched the locations and many of the spots we were to visit were on the internet, basking in the glorious light, beams streaming through the window and open-door frames. Architecture shooting can really be assisted when you have nice light, just like in any other form of photography – so it was a challenge I had to overcome.

Another difficult situation for the rest of the group was that many of the ceilings were extremely high, and although beautiful this creates a problem when photographing them when you are only armed with a 12mm or 16mm wide angle lens, you end up having to point your camera, or angle it up (not great when shooting architecture) or shoot really wide and crop later in post to get the detail in frame. Luckily for me, I had made the decision to throw my Canon 17mm t/s in my Tenba rucksack prior to leaving for Georgia. It got me out of trouble time out of time and I made the decision a lot to shoot in portrait mode and create a panoramic of three shots which I would later stitch together in photoshop and slightly crop into traditional 3x2 landscape images.

The wet weather I mentioned also left me with some other challenges that I had to overcome, wet gear - whilst shooting in a side room inside a former hotel I had water dripping onto the front of my tilt-shift lens, I never noticed it and shot an amazing staircase soon after, luckily for me - I rescued this in post-processing with some gentle skill in both content aware fill and dodging and burning. In addition, I always have a habit of using lens cloths on my gear to get rid of dust, so luckily had wiped the lens prior to the next round of photographs being taken in the former theatre, our next location for the day.

However, despite the wet weather our spirits were still high as the buildings on this day were stunning, some of the best examples we had seen in this former war-zone, including a Sanatorium, Cinema and an electrical substation. Our long walks were also aided by a local stray dog (a theme during our trip) that we had subsequently named Jimmy.

And the day was not void of laughter either, in fact, it provided one of the trip highlights. Jimmy our dog for the day, as I just mentioned had got the backs up of nearly every other dog in the neighbourhood upon our walk up a steep hill to reach a former School at the top of it. Which included that of a huge Alsatian – which thankfully for us was chained up and behind the fence in the grounds of a nice Abkhazian home.

Upon reaching the school, Jimmy decided to chase another dog away in what turned out to be the loudest moment of his very reserved day. Once back from his chase he then proceeded to step into the ballroom of the former site to “check it out”, like he had in many buildings prior for us. The dog that Jimmy chased off was less than impressed though, maybe angered that he was mid-squat at the time of Jimmy’s intervention and had proceeded to return barking and growling loudly but in tow had his much larger and funnier looking, brother.

Both dogs sat just outside a broken door barking, only seconds later to be joined by their owner, which gave both dogs the OK to march on into the ballroom and bully our pet for the day – we had been busted, and Jimmy had been totally embarrassed.

But worse, and funnier was yet to come. As we proceeded to walk back down the steep hill in the rain, we were faced with making every single dog, in every single garden bark once more, and inch by inch got closer to the larger dogs that seemed to reside in the middle houses including that same Alsatian we had seen on the way up to the school. It went crazy, barking, tugging at its chains, before poking its head through a hole in the fence…. and ripping its chain in two. It charged full pelt at Dan and myself, I hopped out of the way whilst Dan, legged it down the hill. The dog proceeded to stop mid-attack, realising it was free at last, one could only assume. Jimmy nonchalantly walked on – not noticing a thing.

On our final day in Abkhazia, we went in search of some of the more hidden landscape spots during a much more chilled day, including a beautiful (if slightly worrying) bridge that our tour guide knew nothing about, which meant it took some convincing to make him undertake the 3-hour journey from our guesthouse. We then finished our photographic journey at a stunning former train station situated on the edge of a bright blue lake in a coastal town. However, upon arrival the sun was casting onto the treescape behind the derelict train station building and looked awful (see BTS below), I knew that once I had my composition that I would have to wait it out - so I took my time to find a spot on a bridge opposite, positioned my tripod up against the railing. Shooting at regular intervals (and with 5 brackets each time), I waited for the sun to drop in the sky, behind the mountains to my left - and an hour later, we had no light casting on the backdrop.

There was flowing water going from behind my camera position and running to a very static lake at the back of the scene in my camera, and as I had no filters with me I decided to shoot each set of bracketed exposures with two or three additions at the end, placing my f-stop on 22 and then capturing the shots for the water with exposures now at 1, 1.6 and 2 seconds - giving myself a choice so that I could decide later in the Adobe suite.

The decision to wait for the sun to go down a little left me with quite a flat image, but that was a better decision than to go with the high contrast scene with light in the background in my mind and I knew that in post-processing that I could pull some of the colour and detail out - something that my style suits, as I adore colour. However, the next battle I had was with the water as it didn’t look right across many of my compositions, despite me taking various shots back at the bridge and it took a lot of work in post to gentle blend a combination of the images into one main photograph as a composite prior to working on the final result.

The photograph was the first I worked on upon arriving home and once processed came out really nice which was a really nice surprise and the perfect way to end one of the most interesting of trips.

You see, the thing about Abkhazia and about the journey into the territory is that it surprises you at each and every turn. It is very raw, it is also very beautiful and the residents very charming but most of all the de-facto state screams photogenic.

Please feel free to jump on my website (link below) if you wish to check out my portfolio and if you are interested in joining me on a photographic tour or workshop to unusual lands such as Abkhazia in late 2018 or 2019, please show your interest (pre-release) and sign up for more details of over on my “photographers page” - www.jameskerwin.uk/for-photographers/

Thanks for reading, James.


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