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  • August 11, 2014

Justyna Mielnikiewicz’s Woman With a Monkey

“In the far corner of the club I saw a woman with a monkey. She was strikingly beautiful … deep in her thoughts … holding the monkey as if it were her child. Was she a performer from a long-closed circus, a desperate mother trying to feed her family or someone displaced by war?”—Justyna Mielnikiewicz, excerpted from Woman With a Monkey

While rummaging through a flea market in California in the late 1990’s, Polish photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz found a copy of Sebastiao Salgado’s book Other Americas, “somewhere between a mirror, a pair of old shoes, and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” she reminisced over lunch in a quiet garden in Tbilisi, Georgia earlier this summer. His book, a seven year visual exploration through Central and South America, served as inspiration for Mielnikiewicz to begin a decade-long project which has culminated in Woman with a Monkey, a collection of stories and photographs from the southern Caucasus.

Picture of a book open to a spread of a photograph of the place where Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan meet
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Not long after finding Salgado’s book, Mielnikiewicz left her native Poland and her job at a daily newspaper, planning to pursue her own projects. Living in Tbilisi since then, she feels connected to the story she is photographing. This was especially true during Georgia’s war with Russia in the summer of 2008. It was the first time she covered conflict, and from that experience she learned about human nature and how easy it is to divide people. “The war doesn’t disappear—it reflects back on life many years after. “There is a part of society living in the past. Any country that cannot address its own civil war cannot move on,” which is why conflicts recur in the Caucasus, surmises Mielnikiewicz. “Civil war is not only what strangers do—it is also when neighbors start to fight each other. We pick up the guns. We make history with our own hands.”

Picture of people on the first day of the Rose Revolution
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“Life here for me is a voyage to extremes, where even a simple taxi ride can turn out to be a trip down Alice’s rabbit hole.”

Picture of people jumping off of the waterfall in the botanical garden in Tbilisi
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The southern Caucasus is known for its vibrant ethnic culture and dramatic history, and it is where Mielnikiewicz now lives with her American husband Paul Rimple, a writer, and their daughter Nestan. Self-taught, it was through books, like Salgados’s, that Mielnikiewicz developed a vision for how she sees and photographs the world.

Picture of a man smoking a cigarette at The Dry Bridge flea market
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“The Caucasus is all about history. Traveling through the region I have recognized how strongly politics are part of daily life and of how history often seems more important than the future.”

Picture of refugees from Chechnya
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When asked why photographers are drawn to the southern Caucasus, Mielnikiewicz responds, “It’s because the people are more emotional, and life has greater intensity.” With a wry smile she adds, “It’s because of the altitude. In every country the craziest people come from the mountains, and here it is all mountains. There is a tendency to do first and think after.”

Picture of a father and son standing in front of a Russian tank blocking the highway in Igoeti
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“Each party to the conflict distorts the historical narrative to justify their claims to land. … I have seen major historic events completely vanish from the chronology when they don’t fit into the current national agenda of defining the good guys from the bad guys.”

Picture of Gori residents surveying bombed apartment buildings from inside of a car
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“My interest in trying to understand war and its long term effects on people has guided most of my work. I’m more curious about what motivated people to fight than in what they actually did. Civil war poisoned society completely, making lawlessness, self-destruction and brutality a part of daily life.”

Picture of people riding a bus in Tbilisi during the Christmas carnival, one person sitting in the back of the bus wears a Spiderman costume
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Picture of two people relaxing in a river while on an artist retreat in Garikula
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Much like the theatrical rhythm of life that Mielnikiewicz describes, the images in her beautifully crafted book follow a similar emotional pacing. Pictures of lovers and celebrations flow into scenes of loss and war, black and white moves seamlessly to color. Pages of thick paper stock unfold to reveal handwritten captions, and small texts written by Mielnikiewicz are scattered throughout. Longer stories written by her husband Paul appear as type-written entries—like a letter from an old friend.

Mielnikiewicz says she was looking for a structure and design that would make the viewer engage. She believes people spend time with it and move the parts around building their own narratives.

“Good photography is both dark and complex, but at the same time simple,” she asserts. “The first feeling is that you could jump in the hole and it could take you in.”

Picture of the cover of Mielnikiewicz's book, Woman With a Monkey

Mielnikiewicz is currently working on a project in the Ukraine examining how conflicting pro-Russian and pro-Western identities are shaping modern-day Ukrainian identity. See more of Mielnikiewicz’s work here.

There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jare Ade
    August 27, 2014

    This is a very thoughtful piece of work.
    We will continue to have wars as long as majority of us believe that our ancestors were once apes. If you watch the National Geographic videos on apes and how they fight for territories you will not be surprised that wars arise in different parts of the world; and no rational humans will be able to make any sense out of these wars.
    Anyway, I will like to get a copy of this book.

  2. Paul
    August 23, 2014

    People who live at higher altitudes..”hillbillies”…are more independent, don’t like outsiders telling them what to do,tend to be clannish. The comments inspired by the photography reveal so much about the viewers !

  3. Ken
    August 21, 2014

    Misprint. Not ‘Its the latitude’. Should read ‘its the altitude’, surely?

  4. DEBASREE BANERJEE
    August 20, 2014

    Wars are fought for reasons those really are beyond the control of the subjects who are compelled to get entangled and suffer the consequences. Europe has already experienced the results of the two great wars. As long as there’s mankind, there shall be conflicting ideologies, and as long as there is the thirst for power, such people shall be manipulative and provocative. No one actually wins a war, everyone loses. People lose their lives, their youth, their ambitions, their near and dear ones. The ones who think that they have gained something are also losers. They spend all their positive energy thinking about negativity. Any ideology becomes obscure during the course of the war that is being fought to preserve it. Examples would be unnecessary. No war has yet filled the gorge of disparity till now, and history is the witness that the chasms of differences have always increased with each war. Unless powerful people really want to work towards the betterment of the world, oppression and repression shall always be there, and the privileged people will always opt to turn a blind eye towards the evil.

  5. Kate Linden
    August 18, 2014

    How do i buy the Woman with a Monkey book?

  6. gary
    August 18, 2014

    Sorry but i think the monkey lok’s better

  7. David Tenenbaum
    August 18, 2014

    Wonderful photos, and a beautiful tribute to Sebastio Salgado, one of the greatest photographers of ordinary people.

  8. Kelsie Crossman
    August 18, 2014

    The level of emotion captured by Justyna in her photography takes my breath away. This is difficult for any artist to capture and I thank her for the spectacular examples she has created for us all to appreciate.

  9. Mark Darren
    August 18, 2014

    Wow !!! absolutely amazing images & work,especially the B+W work….

  10. JR Alvaro González
    August 18, 2014

    Great job.

  11. Regula
    August 18, 2014

    Gorgeous photographs. Stoic and – depressed, and intense. Rarely is there a glimmer of hope in the faces she photographs. But whose depression and stasis is she photographing: those of the Georgian people or hers? Poverty in Georgia appears to be extreme. As a consequence, prostitution to make ends meet, homosexuality, and escape into religion by the elderly are rampant, as is dilapidation. None of these persons appears to have ever experienced happiness. The images look a bit the way it looked in Europe after WW2 and the way it looked in the US during the depression in the thirties. Yes, in comparison to the west, these people are stuck in history. But it is their history, their life, their truth. And comparisons are moot. There isn’t any choice where a person is born.

    After looking at her site and her pictures from Kiev to Donetsk and the images on Crimea – what a difference in Crimea: people have hope. In Ukraine and Georgia, hope has died. But who wouldn’t have wanted to join Russia in Crimea? Russia means hope.

    Thank you, Ms. Mielnikiewicz, for the intense experience of your photographs.

  12. Gauri Gandhi
    August 18, 2014

    I am curious. Photographs are intriguing And the comments are hit on nail.

  13. Gina Velez LCDC, BA, CPS, IDAC, Dallas, Texas
    August 17, 2014

    Observing the stunning pics I could feel the emotions through the eyes of the people.

  14. justin sayin
    August 17, 2014

    Penetrating black and white photos depicting the hard lives of ordinary people trying to make sense of what it’s about one day at a time .

  15. Merrie Henderson
    August 17, 2014

    the contrast between the calm almost stoic faces and the war torn scenery is thought provoking.

  16. nestor
    August 17, 2014

    me duele mucho que personas trabajen en esas condiciones con el cuero. seguramente el dueño se llenara los bolsillos gracias a la pobreza de sus operarios

  17. Edward Karnafel
    August 17, 2014

    Subject matter in each of the photographs are hypnotic to the eyes and you can almost feel what the photographer must have felt when she snapped the shutter.

  18. Sandra Mills
    August 17, 2014

    Thoughtful and thought provoking. Beautiful.

  19. Dave Carlson
    August 17, 2014

    Does this photographer think that “Latitude” is the same as “Altitude”, where the mountains are high? Wrong, but very strange descriptions of interesting subjects.

    • Becky Harlan
      August 18, 2014

      Thanks for your sharp eye, Dave. Your observation is correct. Justyna is a native Polish speaker, in the above quote, she meant “altitude,” not “latitude.” We have updated the post and apologize for any confusion.

  20. Lisbeth Jardine
    August 17, 2014

    Emotional people and intense life doesn’t really seem to make for a cure to the nightmare of history.

  21. Stephen Aske
    August 17, 2014

    I also must get a copy. It will remind me of how far we have not come.

  22. Tomas Mieles
    August 17, 2014

    From time to time, it is beautiful to witness a human being, a photographer, a woman, commited and engaged to denounce the aftermath of war using her delicate and talented vision to create photos that talk by themselves.

  23. Marie-Claire Lander
    August 17, 2014

    Dark, intense, hauntingly beautiful book, it’s a book you can’t ignore. It captures the essence of these people.

  24. jtAlex
    August 17, 2014

    Wonderful! Mielnikiewicz has a gift for capturing people in a very natural and personal way.

  25. franco ricotti
    August 17, 2014

    I feel these words by Mielnikiewicz are tragically wise and surely valid for any country in the world, Europe and everywhere else: “Each party to the conflict distorts the historical narrative to justify their claims to land. … I have seen major historic events completely vanish from the chronology when they don’t fit into the current national agenda of defining the good guys from the bad guys.”

  26. Kathy
    August 17, 2014

    I’m from New Zealand and I truly appreciate nature, people amongst it all and I love such profound art, photography….. which truly reflects an inner childhood puppy dog , wanting to get off it’s leash and run free, and explore… Life. Thank you.

  27. MrsB
    August 17, 2014

    There is no mystery to war-it is all about power, greed and avarice.

  28. Kathy Floyd
    August 17, 2014

    Beautiful and thought provoking.

  29. Steve Topping
    August 17, 2014

    An area of geography and people not written nor appreciated as they should be. Fascinating perspective and imagery. Enjoyed it and look forward to future work.

  30. Val R.
    August 17, 2014

    In my last post I said there is more to the problem than (not that) meets the eye. There is also a rogue ‘a’ in there. Please excuse those mistakes.

  31. Val R.
    August 17, 2014

    These photos are just as the photographer described. Simple in the sense there is seemingly nothing going on, but if you dig deeper you could understand the complexities of their life. For instance, the photo of the people in the bus, you would think it’s just people sitting in a bus with some man in a mask, maybe to shield himself from the cold, sitting in back. However, the masked man is sitting in a dominant way, almost as if he is keeping an eye on everything from the back. He could be a symbol for Russia and a the mask a symbol of corruption that plagues this beautiful region of the world, especially when he is sitting under a photo of what appears to be a government official. Russia is essentially watching and controlling everything, creating the corruption or making it worse. Fairness, diplomacy, and transparency are never words used to describe Russia’s involvement in anything. Corruption and creating friction by using a heavy-handed approach is Russia’s way. The masked person could also be one of the enforcers for those in control considering his dominant location (to see everyone) and his body language.
    It is not a matter of ‘oh, how sad, these people just can’t seem to get along.’ Those attitudes make it appear that nothing could help these people, as if their problems are innate, which the photographer offers as an interpretation because these ‘mountain people are crazy.’ However, that’s an ignorant, patronizing, and ethnocentric view of the situation. I doubt the photographer wants her work to be interpreted in that way. She is trying to say through her photos that there is more than meets the eye. Situations such as these usually involve a small group of those in power who worsen and perpetuate problems in order to maintain power and control and justify their means, which involves kidnapping and murdering journalists who attempt to expose the situation to others. It’s a very sad and difficult situation for the people in this region.

  32. Sece
    August 17, 2014

    Me encanta la forma en que el conflicto es abordado. Nos hace reflexionar en torno a la violencia y su sentido.

  33. Margaret
    August 17, 2014

    Beautiful consistent story, seems like the photographer is mature and contemplates a lot before taking any decision. It makes the picture look profound and making the viewer reflect a lot. Nice!

  34. jacques darimont
    August 17, 2014

    Désolé, mais ces gens sont très ” Primaires ” heureusement ce n’est pas le cas partout en ce qui concerne les gens de montagnes !!!

  35. BARBARA NECKER
    August 17, 2014

    How very tragic that people the world over seem to have such difficulty getting along with each other. We have a beautiful planet; why can’t we let each other enjoy it in peace?

  36. Don Seiple
    August 17, 2014

    Thoughtful, stirring, and beautiful

  37. Jonathan Reiter
    August 17, 2014

    This book looks interesting… gotta get a copy…

  38. katie gregory
    August 17, 2014

    just amazing imagery

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