Georgian photographer depicts the creeping borders in her country
09 January, 2018
Photographer Daro Sulakauri has recently published a photo project on the villages bordering the breakaway regions of South Ossetia (Tskhinvali Region) and Abkhazia. The Georgian photojournalist has been working on this project in the course of the Joop Swart Masterclass, a renowned program organized by World Press Photo.

Your current project focusses on people who live right at the occupied border lines to the breakaway regions. Why did you start this project?

In 2008, when the Russian-Georgian war broke out, I
was in the US doing an assignment and I couldn’t make it back home. I was devastated. As a photographer, I wanted to do something for my country through documenting what happened there. After the war, I started documenting the post-war effects, I wanted to show the lives of the survivors. I visited settlements for internally displaced people and villages along the occupied border lines. This year, I got chosen for the Joop Swart Masterclass. Cynically, the theme was “borders”. For me, it was a great opportunity to dig in deeper into this theme through the assignment. At some point, I became aware of a phenomenon we call “creeping borders”. Since the conflicts about Abkhazia and so called South Ossetia (Tskhinvali Region)occurred, occupying Russian forces continue to play psychological games with nearby residents. Without notice they change the occupied border line, encroaching into Georgian controlled territory. This is going on right in front of our eyes and nobody is doing anything about it. But the people in these villages live in constant insecurity and fear. I want to tell their story with my project.
Khurcha-Nabakevi checkpoint. The Enguri River separates Georgian and Russian controlled territory. While swimming, children sometimes cross the border. (Photograph: Daro Sulakauri)

How did you experience their situation?

I have visited about a dozen Georgian villages along the occupied border lines to the de facto regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Sometimes, the “border” is marked by barbed wire fence or – as is the case with Abkhazia – by natural barriers such as a river. But in some places, the line is not marked at all. Russian and Georgian militants are guarding the occupied border line but the checkpoints are sometimes standing quite far apart from each other. Moving around those places, Georgian villagers just have to know where the Georgian controlled territory ends. But since the border is shifting, it is sometimes impossible to know. When out for a walk, people might find themselves in Russian-occupied territory without even realizing it.

What happens to these people?

Often, the Russian border guards arrest them and demand a fine from their family members to get them released. The families have to pay around 1000 or 1200 Rubel which is a big amount of money for them.
Georgia, Khurcha village. Nana, 9, is one of seven siblings in the family. They live right at the border to the de facto region of Abkhazia. (Photograph: Daro Sulakauri)

Did you ever feel in danger yourself during the course of this project?

In one or two situations, I was not at ease. Once, me and my fixer accompanied a man to the occupied border line to the de facto region of Abkhazia. The man had told me, he had been kidnapped by Russian soldiers. He claimed it happened while he was fishing, standing on Georgian controlled territory. The Russian soldier apparently just came over and took him to the other side of the river to the Russian occupied territory. I wanted to photograph the man and he took me to the place where the “kidnapping” had happened. It was the middle of the night and pitch-dark. While I photographed him, we heard sounds from the river and saw someone pointing flashlights at us from the other shore. We packed up in a great hurry, ran to the car and drove away.
Georgia, Tkhaia Village. This man claims he was kidnapped by Russian soldiers: “I was fishing, they quietly crept behind my back and pointed the gun at my feet telling me to move.”  (Photograph: Daro Sulakauri)

How do the villagers cope with the uncertainty the live in?

Regarding everything, they remain amazingly positive. One time, I visited a house, very close to the border to Tskhinvali Region, the so-called South Ossetia. There is a barbed wire fence marking the occupied border line in the backyard of the house. As I departed, the owner of the house said to me jokingly: “Maybe next time the border will have moved and I will welcome you to Georgia in my living room – and to South Ossetia in my kitchen.” I cannot imagine what it must feel like to live with the possibility of waking up one morning to find that your house is divided within your own country and enemy-occupied territory… But these people tell me all of those scary experiences and end up laughing and joking about it. Coming home after a day like this, I feel like all of my own problems become minor. It makes me appreciate my own life more.
Georgia, on the road to Dvani Village. The cross was erected after the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 when up to 50 houses in Dvani were bombed and burnt down. (Photograph: Daro Sulakauri)

Is this project politically motivated?

I don’t have a political message. I consider myself more of an observer. And in this case, the project is ongoing, I am not well enough informed yet. The more I dig into the research, the more questions arise. Why is there no pushback from our government or the international community? Why is the occupied border line sometimes unmarked? Why are the Georgian militants standing so far away from it, leaving the population of the villages unprotected?

Is the Georgian government not doing enough for the people in these villages?

That is one of the questions I currently ask myself.

What needs to change?

I wish the people in those villages would not have to live in permanent fear. And I hope my work will create some awareness. We need to talk about this. In some places, the occupied border line is less than one hour away from Tbilisi. These things happen in front of our eyes, but most people have no idea about it. I hope I can create a bigger understanding of what is happening with my work.

geotv.geDaro Sulakauri was born in 1985 in Tbilisi. After graduating in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism in New York, she has worked as a freelance photographer. Daro Sulakauri has received various prizes for her work, including the EU Prize for Journalism and the Best Photo from Human Right House in London. She was named as PDN's 30 emerging Photographers to watch and featured in the American Photography 25.

Her work can be seen in international publications such as Forbes, New York Times, The Economist and many more. Daro Sulakauri has documented social issues in different regions of Georgia. In “Terror Incognita” she depicted the life of Chechen refugees in Pankisi Gorge, “Deprived of Adolescence” documents early marriage in Kakheti and Adjara and in “The Black Gold” she shows the working and living conditions of miners in Chiatura. This year, Daro Sulakauri has been chosen for the Joop Swart Masterclass, a renowned program organized by World Press Photo that brings together young promising photographers with some of the most experienced photojournalists every year. Daro Sulakauri lives in Tbilisi.

Interview: Simone Herrmann