South Caucasus: “Woman with a Monkey” Documents a Region’s Search for Hope

In a bus during Christmas carnival, weeks before the presidential elections. Tbilisi. 2008.

When you hold Justyna Mielnikiewicz’s book in your hands, you know you are about to enter onto a mysterious and complex journey with the author.

A small window cut into the front cover shows a glimpse of an almost colorless landscape. As you open the book, the little grayish snippet turns out to be a small part of a large, powerful photograph of a green and lush landscape, rich with water, trees and a distant village.

That contrast in viewpoint – and expectations – echoes throughout the pages that follow.

“Woman with a Monkey” is a photography book by Mielnikiewicz, a prize-winning, Polish-born freelance photojournalist (who works for EurasiaNet.org among other publications), that chronicles her personal experiences and encounters with the South Caucasus’ history, politics and culture for over a decade.

This is not a history book, nor is this a comprehensive account of the wars and political turmoil that the South Caucasus, one of the world’s most complex regions, has seen. It is a book that tells the little stories of mostly ordinary people struggling through the changes and challenges of their daily existence.

These glimpses into people’s lives come in the form of sharply composed black-and-white and color photographs accompanied by short pieces of writing by Mielnikiewicz. The notes complement the book’s charged photographs, though they do not attempt to explain or dictate the content of the images.

The photographs stand on their own thanks to Mielnikiewicz’s artistic sensitivity and ability to tell her story of living and photographing in the South Caucasus for 12 years. She does not try to re-write or illustrate history with her photographs. She already knows how malleable and manipulated history and the public narrative could be. Rather, she lets her own stories and those of her subjects do the talking.

A photograph of a young soldier opens the section devoted to Nagorno Karabakh, the isolated, mountainous region over which Azerbaijan has been fighting for more than 20 years with ethnic Armenian separatists and neighboring Armenia. He is there by himself, in the vast, empty and flat landscape near the frontline with Azerbaijani forces. He seems puzzled, a bit tense, looking suspiciously to the right of the camera and closely clasping his Russian-made gun.  He embodies Mielnikiewicz’s observation that “Never in my life could I have imagined how scary silence could be in a war zone.”
The majority of the photographs in the book concern people and street scenes. Usually, the photographs are dark in their mood and occasionally a bit blurry. Hardly ever does the reader witness a smiling face or a joyful situation, yet these visual qualities and editing decisions are successful and enhance the feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and the search for hope.

Sometimes, Mielnikiewicz will photograph a wall, a mural or a backdrop, but it is clear that what attracts her in these scenes were what the objects say about their makers or users’ intentions and states of mind.

Her pictures also showcase structures that no longer exist – a testimony to the dreamlike quality of this visual journey.

Tbilisi’s Andropov's Ears (p.18), a cosmic, concrete building built under Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, was eventually demolished in 2005 as part of Georgia’s reinvention of itself.  Here, it reappears as a surreal background for grimy festival workers unloading a cart with a grisly pig’s head stuck to one side.

But the book is not only concerned with subjective narratives and personal stories. A separate booklet of 16 pages lays out the historical timelines of the region’s three major countries: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Three short stories done by the photographer’s American partner, freelance journalist Paul Rimple – an accomplished writer who also works for EurasiaNet.org – about his travel experiences with marshrutka passengers, railway conductors and de-facto border guards complement the photographs on several levels of content and design, and enhance the sense of movement.

Rimple’s three stories are printed on thin pieces of paper that fold out of the book to make the viewer read them like a scroll. They seem to be glued almost carelessly at an angle into the book as if they were ripped straight out of a typewriter and pasted in hastily.

The decision to use this presentation to oppose the clean, rectangular photographs again enhances the book’s narrative tension and the relationship between the personal and the public, the camera and the words, the historical narrative and the individual experience.      

Overall, Justyna Mielnikiewicz’s book is a carefully designed object that successfully weaves together historical facts, personal notes, compelling photographs and slices of life in the South Caucasus.     

Yoav Horesh is a photographer and educator who has photographed and taught photography in the United States, Europe and Asia. Currently, he is based in Tel Aviv.

South Caucasus: “Woman with a Monkey” Documents a Region’s Search for Hope

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