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Notes from Svanetia: Fourteen Years Later, a Story Comes Full Circle

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Tata and friends climb up onto the roof of a 600 year old Svanish tower in the village of Lengeri, Svanetia.

The hardest part of photographing on top of a 13th century defensive tower in the mountains of the Georgian Republic, is getting everything in the frame without falling off.

So, last summer, while I was photographing a group of teenagers hanging out on this ancient structure, I was paying more attention to where my feet were than the faces in my viewfinder. But three minutes into the shoot one of them looked straight at me and said: “I know you.”

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Tata and friends climb up onto the roof of a 600 year old Svanish tower in the village of Lengeri, Svanetia.

This place, Svanetia, was the first place I made a photo story. I’d fallen in love with the people and the landscape and the songs of this remote region of the Georgian Republic on a journey I took there with my first camera in 1998. Fourteen years later National Geographic magazine sent me back on assignment, and I knew that I wanted to find some of the same people I had photographed back then. In my bag I carried an envelope of portraits, and I wandered the villages looking for old friends.

Many faces stand out in my memory from those first trips exploring with my camera, and one that I never forgot was Tata’s. Hers was one of the portraits I returned to the mountains with—a young girl with bangs and bright green eyes standing in front of a blue wall. But while searching for Tata and a few other favorite portrait subjects from the late 90s, I was told that they had all moved to the capital Tbilisi. By my last trip to the region I had stopped looking for them.

I had seen the young people climbing the tower and helping each other onto the roof, where they sometimes watch the sunset. Seeing a great photo opportunity, I raced to the base, climbed six interior ladders, and came out a small hatch onto the fragile roof. The girls were nervous about the height of the tower and couldn’t stop laughing in their excitement for the first few minutes. I started shooting, trying to get as far back with my wide-angle lens as I could without plummeting to my death. Then her voice pierced through the blinders of my photo brain.

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Tata Pilpani photographed as a young girl, and as an adult.

“I know you. You photographed me when I was little. You liked my eyes.” I pulled the camera away and knew immediately it was Tata. “Tata! I’ve been looking for you!!!!”

We were able to spend some time together and talk about her life as we wandered the village we both loved.

And I found other old photo subjects as well, like Rusiko Japaridze, who I remember being the most confident young girl in all of Svanetia, one of those people who looked perfect in EVERY photo I took:

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Rusiko Japaridze photographed as a girl, and as an adult.

Others were easier to find. In my own host family’s back yard I saw the same chess matches played out between Garantee Pilpani and his friends and family that I’d seen in 1998:

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Garantee Pilpani plays chess with family and friends in his back yard in Lengeri, Svanetia.

Even when I did not find the same people, I did find the same scenes that I remembered from those first journeys, like the youth ensemble practicing folk dances in Mestia:

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Traditional Svanish dancers in Mestia, Georgia.

And the same tables piled high with discs of bread and cheese and jugs of wine, where stories are told in a language that has never been written:

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A feast in Svanetia.

And young boys with their horse on the same hill in the mountain village of Ushguli:

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Above the Village of Chaajash, part of Ushguli, Svanetia.

And so it goes; the people change, and grow old, and have children of their own. Children who will hopefully ride their horses on the same hills, and sing the same songs, dance the same dances, and speak the same words in that unwritten language that makes them who they are. The Svans.

Sights and sounds from Huey’s recent visit are shared in the video below.

See more pictures in the National Geographic story “Medieval Mountain Hideaway.”

And for more fun with Aaron Huey and his son Hawkeye, contribute to their Your Shot assignment: “The World Next Door.” The challenge is open to Your Shot members with children interested in photography. It runs through Oct. 28.

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