Born in Khashuri (Georgia), Natela Grigalashvili is the first female photojournalist of post-Soviet Georgia. Having dreamt of becoming a cinematographer from an early age, she ended up as a photographer and has documented the raw and simple life around her. She was introduced to photography by working in various studios and later established herself as a professional photojournalist by bringing personal projects to life. Natela’s interest revolves around the lives of people, everyday struggles and the environment they exist in.
Her genuine portrayal of reality is very well expressed in her documentation of the villages of Georgia, where one can clearly see the hardships their inhabitants go through and their living conditions – you can get a wider picture of the country’s current situation as well. Having started with her own village, Natela travelled to multiple regions of Georgia and shot life as it is. Initially, she was using black and white film and later switched to a digital camera. Film or colour, Grigalasgvili’s photography is characterized by honesty, reality, compassion, and simplicity.

Several years ago, Natela also started photo clubs in three different regions of Georgia to introduce the people living in villages to the medium of photography. After winning various local and international prizes, in 2013, her photograph The Son of a Fisherman was chosen for the Your Shot category by National Geographic. But whether she’s portraying rural life in Georgia or a road trip to visit Husayn’s grave (Muhammad’s grandson), her pictures are powerful in their nature and speak for themselves. But we wanted to know more, so we got a chance to speak with her about her hometown country, photography as a means of survival in hard times, Doukhobors prophecies, and hope.
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How did you start photographing?
I started photographing when I was 21 years old, and at the age of 23, I was already working as a photo reporter at a newspaper named Dvrita. Initially, the reason why I started photographing was connected to my wish of becoming a cinematographer – in order to become one, I needed to understand photography as well. In the end, it turned out that my dream didn’t come true but photography has remained.
After deciding you wanted to remain a photographer, what did you do?
Later on, I worked as a photo reporter in different places. It was a time when female photographers did not really exist in Georgia, maybe only those helping their husbands at photo ateliers. While out at work, people always expected some guy with a moustache to appear with the camera and were very surprised to see me instead – although this has never been an obstacle to me. After some time, I realized that being a photo reporter was not something I really wanted to pursue even though it was one of the means of survival in turbulent times through which my country was going in the ‘90s. It was a very hard period and I don’t really want to look back at it or remember it.
What was your first photo project about and what has sparked your interest in it?
When I realized what I was looking for in a photograph, I started taking pictures of my village. My first photo project is its documentation and I am continuing to photograph it to this day. The project is called Village of the Mice and is the portrayal of my own village, its history, and the people who live or have lived there. The images show how it’s changed, how it diminished and, in a way, I can say that its history is somehow similar to Georgia’s fate.
From today's perspective, when looking at the people in my photographs, I realize how hard those years were for them – the country was going through several hardships. Some of the villagers I photographed have passed away, some others have left… you will now see many empty houses, ruined buildings and very few people who still live there. What I’m trying to say is that emigration is not just a single village’s problem but a general issue of the country. There even exist statistics of two hundred villages being abandoned, nobody lives there anymore. I think this is caused by the prevailing harsh environment as it is very hard for the villagers to survive.
“To avoid or at least reduce the tendency of leaving the villages, people need reasons to stay. I think they should have the opportunity to get familiarized with different art forms. In my case, it’s photography.”
When going through your photo series, I especially liked The Doukhobors' Land. How did you appear in Gorelovka and how did you befriend the Doukhobors?
I would like to first tell the history of Doukhobors briefly. More than 170 years ago, Doukhobors were exiled from Russia and resettled to Georgia by the Russian Tsar. They founded eight villages in Javakheti (the region of Georgia.) Unfortunately, starting from the ‘80s, the inhabitants of those villages began to leave. There are different socio-economic reasons to why they decided to leave but nowadays, there are very few families left – approximately one hundred and fifty people, the majority of whom are elderly.
Doukhobors were very active in the past, but all of a sudden, things changed for them and the current situation in those villages is very disappointing. My interest mainly revolved around Doukhobors’ culture, which is slowly disappearing. I guess if things continue this way, soon nothing will remain from their culture, including their everyday life, which is very different from everybody else’s. Even before the Soviet regime, these people created a community which was considered as one of the wealthiest in the Caucasus. During the Soviet rule, they were the second richest in whole USSR.
Why is that?
They didn’t experience any difficulties in getting accustomed to the Soviet way of life because of their strong community, hard work and discipline. They owned large herds of cattle and were doing very well in farming and other agricultural fields. Actually, Lev Tolstoy was their great supporter, he financially assisted the Doukhobors in times of migration to Canada. With half of the royalties from his novel Ressurection, he contributed to the emigration fund while with the other half, he built a school that still exists – and is the only functioning school in Gorelovka now. 
And what about your project with them?
With this project, I wanted to showcase Doukhobors’ remaining culture. But as time passes by, there is less and less of it. I guess this is going to be even more frustrating for the generations to come. The aim of the project was to preserve what’s still there through the medium of photography. Some of the Russian-Ukrainian homes I have photographed that were built almost a hundred and fifty years ago were collapsed and ruined. They don’t exist anymore, which is very sad. As for working with the Doukhobors and trying to befriend them, it was pretty hard. They went through a very hard life, especially in the last period, when most of them had to leave their homes; the distrust was noticeable. I needed some time to gain their trust.
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I have read about the Doukhobor female prophet in one of your interviews. What was she like?
Her surname was Kalmakova and was a leader of the Doukhobor community. Generally, women have always been equal to men in their community. Doukhobors say that she could foresee the future and most of her prophecies were related to the fate of their homeland. As Doukhobors tell, life did not really go as planned after leaving their homeland but there is a prophecy that says that Doukhobors will return to Javakheti (which they consider to be a holy land) and that the ‘Doukhoboria’ will revive. On religious feasts, Doukhobors go to Kalmakova’s grave to pray. Thanks to her efforts, in the past, Doukhobors established an orphanage and created a fund where all the members of the community contributed in helping orphans, widows and the elderly. Kalmakova’s home currently functions as a museum and nearby, there is a chapel where Doukhobors go to pray every Sunday.
Your photographs fill the viewers with compassion and bring positive feelings even though what you expose are harsh socio-economic conditions people live in and hardships they have to go through. How did you achieve this?
I like the life I document. At least, I photograph only what interests me and where I feel good. Looking at my photos, people often ask how those I photograph endure such poverty or survive in those remote villages. But I don’t see it that way. I don’t think these people live in particularly poor conditions if we judge that in terms of the conditions of the country. I really appreciate the way they live.
You mentioned once that your project Book of my Mother is a very personal project. Also, that after some time, you have encountered that it’s not only about her but also about you and your mother. What have you discovered exactly?
I took photos of my mother for a very long time, and what I can say is that this book is about the relationship between us. In general, I think a parent-child relationship is an eternal topic. Ours wasn’t any different from others. I guess that depending on the age, on the stage of life you’re in, it changes and differs.
When you are young, you are more rebellious, you think everyone’s trying to block up the way you want to live, that no one’s helping you, etc. There was a time when I felt disappointed too, but as time passed, I understood that not everything is as I thought it was. What I am feeling now is very different from what I've felt in the past, and that's pretty natural. As we grow up, we start looking at our lives from a different perspective – the same goes for the relationships with the people surrounding us.
“Photography has this magical quality of being able to preserve time. As more time passes by, the photographs become even more magical.”
Your photograph the Son of a Fisherman was chosen by the National Geographic’s For Your Shot category in 2013. Tell us more about that image.
This photo was taken in the lake Paravani in the Javakheti region, which is surrounded by small villages. In one of those villages, named Foka, my friend and I accidentally ran into an Armenian family. The mother and the son were the only ones at home. Unfortunately, we couldn’t communicate with each other as we didn’t speak Armenian and they spoke only in Armenian. It was a fisherman’s family and they had some fish at home, I guess for selling later. In order to make an impression on us, the kid was kissing and caressing the fish and I just took the photo.
You’ve been to Iraq recently. The photos are amazing. How did you appear there?
I have been with the Azerbaijani pilgrims in Iraq. The Shia Muslims go there every year to mourn and pray on Muhammad’s grandson’s (Ḥusayn) grave. We started from the city of Najaf and walked a hundred kilometres till the city of Karbala, which is where Husayn is buried. It was a very interesting and exciting journey for me as for a photographer.
About thirty million people from around the world gathered there, and many fascinating things were happening along the road as well as beyond it. I couldn’t capture all of the things I wished to because we had to walk fast, but everything I saw was highly impressive: the people, the villages, the traditions, the culture… and the food, which we were actually given for free during our entire three-day pilgrimage. There were things I could not get to photograph but I am planning to go back next year and observe the villages I passed even closer.
You have started photo clubs in several regions of Georgia. How did you come up with this idea and what can you tell us about your students?
Based on my experience, I know regions of Georgia pretty well and to avoid or at least reduce the tendency of leaving the villages, people need reasons to stay. I think they should have the opportunity to get familiarized with different art forms. In my case, it’s photography. I had been thinking about how great it would have been if someone had come to my village when I was a kid and taught me about photography and taking pictures. I would have been extremely happy about it!
The first one was actually Gorelovka. There were several people in the group, the youngest was fifteen and the oldest was sixty-two years old. Gorelovka is religiously and ethnically diverse, and we had several different nationalities. In Pankisi Gorge, I had three different projects. I was teaching young people to take photos and, at the same time, was taking photos by myself. The members of the club were very intelligent and I could tell only positive things about them. They are now successful students in different universities.
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Was there something beyond photography that you wanted to teach them?
During the course, I wanted them to find something unusual in the usual. Something strange in their everyday life that would make the process of photographing even more interesting. In 2017, I started another club in Upper Adjara. We did some very nice exhibitions as well. I remember the excitement of the Gorelovka group over the fact that it’s actually possible that some other people might be interested in hanging their photographs on the wall. There was also this boy from Upper Adjara who came to an exhibition we organized in Batumi and told me that it was the first time he attended an exhibition and that it was his own. Unfortunately, not much is going on in the villages they come from.
What are you looking for in a photograph?
To me, the most interesting are people and time. Photography has this magical quality of being able to preserve time. As more time passes by, the photographs become even more magical. Shots can preserve history and present it to the viewers objectively. For example, if we take a look at a photograph taken ten years ago, we will evaluate it very differently than if we saw it when it was taken. We can’t really perceive the time we live in in a clear way.
How important is experimentation in your photography?
I can’t say that there are any special experiments in my photography but I constantly dream about it. I think I will change everything one day and start photographing in an entirely new way.
What are you working on now and what do you plan for the future?
Currently, I am documenting life in Upper Adjara and continue to shoot my village. I am planning to photograph the Silk Road that was passing through Georgia and hope to start some new projects as well.
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