Svaneti: “Paradise found”
30 October, 2014
Svaneti: “Paradise found”
Aaron Huey, a National Geographic photographer, who recently made headlines with his rediscovery of Tata; whose eyes he famousely photographed - shares with us his impressions and unforgettable memories about Svaneti, a remote region of Georgia. In an interview with Georgian Journal, he reveals how he discovered this place in 1998, as he puts it, “cut off from the rest of the world” and its fascinating inhabitants.

– How did you find out about Georgia and what made you decide
to visit this small and, at that time, not so well known country?


– I was really just a young backpacker and heard about Svaneti from a German linguist that I met in Damascus, Syria. I was traveling like a common tourist when he told me about a place that was surrounded by huge peaks and filled with ancient defensive towers, and where they spoke a language that had not been written and that there was not yet a well-known guidebook for the country. I traveled there with just a map drawn on a napkin.

– Can you compare Georgia in 1998 and today’s Georgia? What are the differences that you notice?

– It’s almost unrecognizable. In 1998 the Hotel Iveria (Now Radison Blu) was filled with refugees and covered with tarps and plywood, as were many hotels in Batumi and other cities. Mestia was in ruins, the police station burned down. There were no real businesses in Mestia, no stores, no restaurants, only kiosks. I loved the quiet tourist free Georgia of 1998 but am happy for the positive development that has happened here. People’s lives are clearly better now.

– In your video and notes about Svaneti you say: “I returned three years in a row – with money I made painting houses in the suburbs of Denver on breaks from college – to make my first photo story.” What was unique about this place that made you return?

– I had never seen a place like Svaneti. It was very cut off from the world – a one-lane dirt road and no guidebooks. And I arrived during the changing of the seasons in October. There were beautiful colors, beautiful women, great food, dancing, singing, and mountains like I have seen nowhere else in the world. Its different now, lots of tourists and new buildings, but the music is still there. The soul is still there.

– We have seen how you sing Georgian songs, also how you dance traditional dances and it’s really amazing. Was not it difficult for you to learn?

– I don’t know any of the dances. I was just making it up on the spot. The songs I did study with the Pilpani family, which hosted me when I first arrived. I sang them nearly every day when I was with them. It was one of the things that brought me back again and again.

– What was the reaction of those people who saw you again after fourteen years? Did they recognize you?

– Nunu, my Svanish mother was who I was happiest to see. I don’t think I realized how much I’d missed her, and how special my time was in her home until I hugged her that day. It was great to be together with them again. I didn’t have nearly as much time with them all as I would have liked, but I did spend my last night in the country at the youngest daughter’s wedding (Anna Pilpani), and it was a perfect way to end my journey.

– In one of your notes describing Svaneti you have put such an interesting title: “Paradise Lost.” How did this idea come to you and what did you mean with these words?

– I meant that it was so cut off from the rest of the world, that it was lost to the travelers, to the masses of people looking for places to ski and hike and photograph. For me it was Paradise FOUND. I fell in love with it. In Milton’s Paradise Lost he says (and I wrote in my journal that day in October 1998):
“A wilderness of sweets; for nature here Wantoned as in her prime, and played at will
Her virgin fancies, pouring forth more sweet, Wild above rule or art, enormous bliss.”

– What are your future plans? Are you going to visit Georgia in the near future?

– I hope very much to return. I thought that I would return to share the work in slideshows or an exhibition this fall, but was unable to find a sponsor for the journey. I’m sure that I will return again in the coming years, and when I do I would love to share more of my images and stories with the people of Georgia.

Author: Lika Chigladze

Related stories:

National Geographic photographer dancing with a Georgian girl in Svaneti

The amazing story of Tata – A girl rediscovered in Svaneti 14 years later

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