One of the projects I’ve been working on pretty steadily since last summer is coming to fruition, and has even produced a side project – I’m excited about it! The project is CHCA’s Annual Report. The organization has not had the resources to do an annual report since 2010-11. Annual Reports are so important for an organization’s credibility, outreach and accountability, and good ones can be used so many different ways – for fundraising, publicity, education, and even a little humble bragging, yeah! So I was really happy to take the lead on putting together an AR for 2013-14. I began work on this back in August, and after a lot of work and delays, and the addition of CHCA’s awesome Communications person, Sophiko, we’re about to put together a complete first draft in the next week or so, with the full AR slated for release in April.
This AR will focus on personal stories of CHCA’s beneficiaries, explaining programs through their experiences. For this purpose, compelling photos were key. However, as I began to gather what was available, I saw that some help was needed. At first, I thought of training our staff. Given that I’m hardly an accomplished photographer, I turned to a fellow PCV who IS an accomplished photographer, Alan Luan. Eventually that project morphed into a training for Gori NGO’s – I mentioned this in my last post. It was very successful – well-attended, loads of great information, and good participation. Folks went out in the afternoon and took photographs using the skills they had acquired. One cool thing is that Alan set up a Facebook page for attendees where they can post their photos and get feedback, as well as access resources.
In the process of putting together this training workshop, I sent one of Alan’s photographs to Eka with the comment that I wished we had this level of photography for our AR:
Lo and behold, thanks to Alan’s extremely generous donation of his time and talent, I have been spending the last few weekends traveling throughout Georgia visiting numerous beneficiaries of various CHCA programs. If I explained each one in detail, this post would be too long. However, it was an extraordinary set of experiences in many ways, and I’d like to share some of the most compelling stories with you. All photography by Alan Luan unless otherwise noted.
First was a visit to Berbuki, an IDP settlement about 15 or 20 minutes outside of Gori. I’ve written about Berbuki before, most recently in an article published in WorldView Magazine. You can see it on Peace Corps Georgia’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Peace-Corps-Georgia/1468061153474309) in a post dated January 30, 2015. And btw, for an entirely unrelated but nonetheless really great short video featuring PCV Eric singing a traditional Georgian folksong so well it almost made me (and apparently all the men at the table) cry, look at the post dated January 7, 2015. Actually there’s a lot on this FB page that’s interesting … but I digress.
At Berbuki, we visited two IDP families: Lali and Dato. Both of these families have participated in CHCA’s micro-lending program. Lali’s son had been married the day before, meaning food was … abundant. Extremely abundant! After saying we would be happy to have some coffee and a snack, we all sat down to a meal that nearly caused the table to break under its own weight. And it was good, too. 🙂
Alan’s photos of Lali and Dato were superb. We also took photos of a young boy in his village who is part of one of the clubs that Marta’s program supports – in this case, the Environmental Club. This kid won a photography contest with a very similar photograph. This was taken on a hill just below a village right outside of Gori. Such scenes are, sadly, extremely common. While we were shooting, a an older gentleman came up and started speaking with us. He expressed embarrassment about how the hill of garbage looked, saying he was trying to improve the area by digging a well and trying to get the villagers to stop dumping trash there. Usually littering and trash are met with shrugs and “what can you do?” type comments, so this was very impressive. I wish I knew a way to help, but just raising awareness is a start, I guess. That, and a new law raising littering fees!
In a separate trip on his own, Alan took photos in Kutaisi, and then last weekend we teamed up for an intense two days in Tbilisi and points well beyond – Lagodekhi, in the east, to visit a small group home, and then the village of Tsintskaro in the south, and then back to Gori. Each had a story to tell. In Tbilisi, among other beneficiaries, we visited a young goldsmith, Constantine, and explored the jewelry mart of Tbilisi:
Lagodekhi was a long drive through a mountain pass, with an stop to buy some mixed nuts sold by a talkative and friendly old lady. Of course she asked Alan if he was from China, which he took in good grace and told her no, he’s American – she accepted that with some equanimity. Such encounters, which are very common, further Peace Corps’ 2nd goal, which is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” I don’t know how much comfort that brings after being asked that question for the 950th time, though.
When we arrived at our destination, a small group home that fosters children whose parents are unable to care for them, or who are orphaned, we set about taking photos of a particular beneficiary whose story is being featured in the AR. It was really challenging because we cannot show the faces of these underage beneficiaries. We spent a few hours there and got to interact with the house-mom, a truly warm and sweet woman, and the kids – the 15-year old carrying around a hand-carved, wooden semi-automatic rifle on his shoulder, a tiny 11-year-old girl who looked all of 7, fiercely guarding a tablet with her pictures and games from the other kids, and our beneficiary, a tall young woman, somewhat impaired but in some way that wasn’t entirely clear. She was extremely cooperative and Alan was successful, I think, in getting some good shots, but it was challenging. I can’t show any of the photos that reveal identities, unfortunately, because some of them are really evocative, but here are a few that give a flavor:
This place had shadows and sadness, but there was hope and love there, too. It was a clean and safe place for these kids, with a loving housemother. No such luck with the last place we came to, right here in my town, Gori. We came here to photograph a young girl, living with her mother, who has experienced more than her fair share of tragedy in her short 11 years. Lika is from South Ossetia; during the 2008 conflict, her house was bombed and her little brother and grandmother were killed. Lika herself sustained damage to her left eye and burns on her face. After fleeing to Georgia, her family settled here, but her father died a few years later. After this calamity, the family financial situation, already precarious, became completely unstable. The mom was not able to pay for Lika’s medical care and applied to one of our programs for medical assistance, which she received.
Lika and her mom live in a single room with no running water, no toilet, no shower, no refrigerator or stove, and, as far as I could tell, no heat. Two beds and a cabinet, and a small photographic shrine to the dead brother, father and grandmother. No lock on the door – it’s held shut by a string. The smell in the building is indescribable – most likely a sewage pipe is broken beneath the building, and has been for a long time. Appalachian might be one way to describe it. The mother did not speak one word the entire time – she just gazed blankly into the distance. Lika was friendly but reserved, and didn’t want to leave the room. The whole scene was just suffused with so much hopelessness … I’ve spent time now, in IDP settlements and poor villages, and I’ve seen terrible poverty in my travels, especially India. But something about this particular scene was just heart-rending. We have permission from the family to share this photo.
So, that’s it. From beauty and love to poverty and pathos, and back. That’s Georgia.