Take a glimpse into the lives of women in Georgia’s wild Pankisi Gorge

8 March 2019

For International Women’s Day, I wanted to choose a photo that channeled empowerment, confidence, and sisterhood — then I stumbled upon this image by Georgian photographer Natela Grigalashvili. It captures a young girl taking respite in the sun, as her friends climb into the river in their dresses. The isn’t your typical #IWD post. In fact, the photo is fraught with danger. At first glance, I found myself unsettled, wondering whether its main protagonist was deep in slumber or if this was a body washed up on a riverbank.

“I love photographing villages, far away from the big cities. Maybe because I myself was born and raised in a mountainous village,” Grigalashvili says. “I think villages and rural areas offer something different and unique — something lost in the urban environment. I find the people who live there to be more open and free.”

The photo was taken in the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia. The valley region is home to ethnic Kists, who first migrated here around two centuries ago. It was the unofficial base for Chechen separatists in their war with Russia in the early 2000s, and the region is still struggling to shake off negative stereotypes from that time.

Grigalashvili originally travelled to Pankisi to teach photography to the local youth. Once there, she says she spent more time in the company of women. “The girls showed more of an interest than the boys,” she notes. So she decided to turn her lens onto the young female population. “Pankisian women had always fascinated me with their mix of traditional modesty and cheerfulness. Despite the fact that we had different cultural backgrounds, I think we had perfectly understood each other,” she recalls of the sense of “overwhelming empathy” she experienced shooting the project with these young women.

Looking at the photo, I can’t help but think of a drowned Ophelia floating in Millais’s 19th-century painting. I’m glad to have a contemporary version. Here, our heroine warms herself under the sun after coming out of the water. Her face is expressionless yet content. This is not a moment of passivity but relaxation, which is exactly what is needed this International Women’s Day.

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