• October 8, 2014

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

Aaron Huey

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.”

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

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:

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 11.43.28 AM
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:

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:

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:

A feast in Svanetia.

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

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.

Related Story: Notes from Svanetia: A Chance Encounter Leads to a Life-Long Love

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.

There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. როლანდ ჩატუინ
    November 19, 2014

    @ Mary Hofmann: sorry, I hadn’t seen you’d alredy answered the dope-a… comment… ;-]

  2. როლანდ ჩატუინ
    November 19, 2014

    @ Thimonthomy: “those dope a** hats” used to line their helmets, but now are worn as part of the traditional svan dress (men’s…) They’re made of felt so densely compressed they can use them to drink from their millions of crystal-laden springs/streams… btw, if you make it to Svaneti one day, I wouldn’t recommend you tell them they look dope-a**ey, Svans are not famous for their benign tempers…

  3. Lili
    November 7, 2014

    great country … I love svaneti.thank you for your stories.

  4. F. Santos
    October 23, 2014

    There’s always a bittersweet taste when we return to a place where we hope that time has stopped even us knowing this can’t happen. Then we found a changing world, where children no longer are kids again, where some houses are no longer there or not distinguished amongst other houses. But we always try to find old custumes that remain and people who resist to changing times. If we had another life to live, we were looking at a world that was no longer the same.

  5. mafia munda
    October 22, 2014

    wow…. amazing. a smile in my lips. loved this cover. proud to be a photographer, our camera can save memories as well as time !!

    October 19, 2014

    Confieso que no sabía de este lugar tan especial y he quedado encantada con los relatos. Tengo la esperanza de que estas personas puedan seguir viviendo simplemente, con alegría y paz por siempre! Gracias por compartir este relato tan interesante!

  7. Greg
    October 16, 2014

    Thank you Aaron for fantastic photos and words about one of the most special places on this planet. I am fortunate that I have visited Mestia and Ushguli on several occasions in the past few years along with many other parts of Georgia. I truly love the landscape, people, culture, mentality food ……. it is a truly unique place. I only hope that it remains so as more and more people visit. To walk among the mountains, to meander through the paths in the villages and admire the wonderful old architecture, eat at a homely and super friendly inexpensive restaurant, drinking local wine and listening to some local music, take a zillion photos in this picturesque place …….. it is a privilege to visit there. I am lucky to have travelled extensively and have to write that Georgia is my favourite destination. In the 16+ years I have been regularly visiting, I have not had any bad experiences. Hopefully many other like minded travellers will get to experience this amazing country and it’s people in the near future.

  8. Jerry Aschermann
    October 15, 2014

    Excellent visual presentation. Took me a while to find its location on a Georgian map. Noted that it is directly north of Dzevri where I’ve spent two summers. Next journey will require a side trip directly north of Dzevri and deeper into or up the Caucasus. Photos and additional readings remind me of a mountain village in North Central Guatemala. Even on a planet with several billion people, it is still possible to find a village that almost remains as it was 500 years ago. Cheers

  9. Mary Hofmann
    October 15, 2014

    Timonthomy’s comment on Svanetian hats was funny–it looks strange at first but they are heavy felt to protect (in old time) against the iron helmets for war, and also can be used to let horses drink.

  10. linda
    October 14, 2014

    beautiful pictures,my heart feel warm when i see these pictures,thank you

  11. 1010
    October 14, 2014

    time travelers 🙂

  12. machteld de bruijn
    October 14, 2014

    beautiful !!!!!!

  13. Lois McDade
    October 13, 2014

    Thank-you sir. Today I traveled to a place I will never see where I met wonderful people I will never know. I am blessed by your tremendous talent.

  14. Cristie
    October 13, 2014

    What a beautiful place! I wish I could afford to travel….anywhere. Thank you for sharing this wonderful place!

  15. betül
    October 13, 2014

    Awesome pictures and story. Hope that you’ll visit similar places again, maybe Black Sea Region, maybe Caucasia again, because there exist so many beautiful scenes untold stories.

  16. Samuel
    October 13, 2014

    Photography very good. You are a very lucky photographer to do this work

  17. Thimonthomy
    October 12, 2014

    What are those dope a** hats that those chess players were wearing?

  18. Koen
    October 11, 2014

    Love it! Happy to see this life-style still exists!

  19. Celeste Bleeker
    October 11, 2014

    Incredible. Thank you Nat Geo!

  20. Bachia
    October 11, 2014

    Great photos. 🙂

  21. naniko
    October 11, 2014

    I’m Geprgian and I’m proud of it!!! <3

  22. Trdz
    October 11, 2014

    Incredible work. Thanks for taking us to place, some of us will never see.

  23. Maya Khutsishvili
    October 11, 2014

    Great Country…Great people!

  24. Dariusz
    October 10, 2014

    Amazing story. Beautiful country and people.

  25. awesome
    October 10, 2014


  26. Eamonn Lawless
    October 10, 2014

    Beautiful People, unspoiled by our plastic society long may it remain so!

  27. Anna F.
    October 10, 2014

    I agree with Bonita’s comment, an extremely interesting piece. Now I’d like to travel to see this far away place – such lovely looking people, such lovely mountains. Not sure I ever will, so thank you for your travels – and wonderful eye.

  28. some kid in juvenile hall
    October 10, 2014

    makes me wanna travel

  29. Paul Goebert
    October 10, 2014

    beautiful pictures, beautiful country, beautiful story !

  30. ocean
    October 10, 2014

    I have been touched by your story , I have also been astonished by your shot ! really amazing !

  31. roop kumar
    October 10, 2014

    i am very found of national geography channel as well as Magazine too from long time.

  32. natia
    October 10, 2014

    thank you for your stories

  33. Sarah Cobham
    October 10, 2014

    I travelled through Georgia last summer and have written a series of poems and reflections as a result. This poem, Severed Exhaust pretty much captures one single moment on the way to Svaneti. The remaining poems can be found on my blog, this piece has recently been accepted for publication by the Indephttp://sarahcobham1.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/cinnamon-swirl.htmlendent.

    Severed Exhaust
    Unstable, hot metal sheets
    Swaddle Chanistskali bridge.
    Rivets tear at river’s bend as we,
    All sat up and keen to arrive
    Push forward over sheer drop cracks of space beneath.

    Broken water rumples and cocoons tumble stones from
    Distant cousin mountain- tops.

    Egg pebbles skittle as boys who,
    Brown from acres of sky, haunch, squint, push hard against echoing white light,
    Pluck up stones,
    Lob them.

    Our car, already lacking suspension
    Passes, at some speed toward the far side when the
    Rear-end arches to meet the vicious scalpel cut that
    Slices, just under me, the exhaust

  34. steve wilson
    October 9, 2014

    I really like the idea of the Svans allowing you to partake of their culture and permitting you to photograph them.What an exciting time for you!!!

  35. Frau Holle
    October 9, 2014

    … no words to discribe how much i love this country …

  36. Ioseb
    October 9, 2014

    Wow ! I am from Georgia ! I Love your post !

  37. Paula
    October 9, 2014

    Powerful keepsake, that you have shared, Mr Huey. I enjoyed the emotions released, as I wandered through your story.

    October 9, 2014

    Beautiful capture of a lovely story!

  39. Mariam
    October 9, 2014

    She is actually Tata Philphani, not Pilpani. Nice story! Very special place on earth…

  40. Vato
    October 9, 2014

    One of the beautiful part of Georgia

  41. Kathy
    October 9, 2014

    I have been moved by your story and pictures.I feel it has a tender soul inside.

  42. Marjorie
    October 9, 2014

    I love this photoseries and makes me want to go back to Svanetia and spend more time there.

  43. Alexia Ferranti
    October 8, 2014

    Wonderful story! I really, really enjoyed it!! Thank you for your contributions!

  44. Bonita Nevins
    October 8, 2014

    This was most interesting photo journalism I’ve seen in a long time.

  45. Mariel
    October 8, 2014

    love the story!!!!

  46. Iosif
    October 8, 2014

    Hell, I met a girl in hotel in Turkey. She was from Tbilisi and her name was Tata. I don’t remember her face perfectly, but I think it is she on the photos. Wow

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