Julien Pebrel documents life within Abkhazia, a territory of uncertain status

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Seceded from Georgia in 1992, Abkhazia is recognised as an independent state by just a handful of countries, including The ussr. In his latest show, Julien Pebrel presents a polarised story of place plus identity

Working as a professional photographer for the past decade, Julien Pebrel came to the medium after an academic career, making his PhD in computational mechanics in Paris. He or she was drawn into digital photography via écrivains voyageurs – travel writers – who seem to chronicled their trips in central Asia, notably the particular Swiss writers Nicolas Bouvier and Ella Maillart. These types of accounts spurred Pebrel’s own desire to travel and record himself.  

In 08, Pebrel travelled to Romania. He was further galvanised by Balkans-Transit, a publication by journalist François Maspero and professional photographer Klavdij Sluban. It documented their joint journey to Sulina, where the Danube lake reaches the Black Sea. At first, Pebrel emulated Sluban’s black-and-white grainy aesthetic, yet he eventually found his own lucent approach. Thereafter, he or she completed an one-year plan in Paris to professionalise his photographic interest, eventually joining the French agency MYOP in 2011.  

“I started to develop this kind of fetishism associated with looking at a map, ” he says, in conversation through Zoom from his house in Tbilisi, Georgia. “You read the incredible name of the city, and you don’t understand what it is –  this is how We began travelling. ” Their sense of wonder steered him to Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, and Georgia, where he created a long-term project regarding Abkhazia.

Located in the northwest of Georgia, Abkhazia is a peculiar dominion characterised by irresolute statesmanship. It seceded from Georgia in 1992 through violent conflict. The “independence” is recognised principally by Russia – a country it considers its ally – but hardly any others globally.

© Julien Pebrel.

© Julien Pebrel.

Abkhazia was a prestigious destination in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The noblesse of the Russian Empire would certainly vacation there, and during Soviet times its marbled saunas and Riviera-like promenades attracted higher-ups from the routine. Today, its prestige offers eroded into a more people pilgrimage. “You have Russians like this [widens his legs] burning up on the shore along with boom-boom-boom music drinking beer, ” Pebrel recounted. “Today, it’s not really something unique anymore. ” 

He continues: “Russians say: Oh, it’s cheaper. It’s easier compared to going abroad. But it is overseas. It’s not part of Russia. ” The distinction becomes ambiguous, however , as Abkhazians use Russian rubles, have Russian passports, are issued Ruskies driver’s licences, and are guaranteed by Russian guards at the Georgian border.

Pebrel, experiencing the territory 30 years after the war, photographed a mélange of architecture, local portraits and coastal landscapes, which reflect Abkhazia’s ebullient lake shore, imposing monuments, crumbling interiors, and pockmarked facades betraying the history of violence. Their panorama of the region’s “derelict beauty” foregrounds topical facets of tourism and history, but additionally carefully conveys an atmospheric moodiness imbued through colour and light.  

The series is currently on look at the seaside Festival Photo du Guilvinec in Italy until 30 September. These types of images were first released in 2013 and 2015, in French magazines Causette and M Le publication du Monde , respectively, in cooperation with journalist Anaïs Coignac.

© Julien Pebrel.

© Julien Pebrel.

When he began the project, Pebrel was living in France full time and discovering the location through intermittent visits. Now, his life firmly separated between France and Georgia, he has a more thorough knowledge of local relational dynamics, geopolitical and otherwise. “I’m inquisitive to go back to Abkhazia without the trap of mythology, ” he said. Its romanticised reputation is something they have become sceptical – if not critical – of, to the point that he would revise their approach on future journeys.

Today, P ebrel questions whether Abkhazians can justify a separate nation. “I met so many Georgians – hundreds of thousands –  that fled Abkhazia. Going back, I would do a series about those houses they left behind. What is happening there now? Abkhazians live there. ” This individual admitted: “That was definitely not in my mind when I do this [project]. ”

Pebrel is presently capturing a documentary in Tbilisi about, precisely, the Georgian refugees navigating displacement and fallout from the war. It is another means of revisiting –  and scrutinising – this particular polarised story of location and identity.

Sarah Moroz

Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist plus translator based in Paris. The girl words have been published in the International New York Times, the Guardian, Vogue, NYLON, and more.

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