The Broken Sea

 

Nilofer Khan speaks to Irina Sadchikova and Nata Sopromadze about their intimate project on home and forced borders.

First layer: The Botanical Garden. Sukhumi. Second layer: A refugee boy whose family used to live in Abkhazia. He was born in Georgia, but his family is still considered refugees. Georgia.

Four months ago, while searching for interesting work, I stumbled upon The Broken Sea project by Irina Sadchikova and Nata Sopromadze. The first picture that I saw (on the right) captivated me because of its complexity and mystery. A little later, I wrote to Irina, expressing my interest in their work. Our correspondence over the last few months was a discussion about their photographs, and their process, which resulted in this interview.

Initiation Through a Chanced Meeting
Irina and Nata did not know each other before. Both of them were born and raised in two different places—Irina in Moscow and Nata in Abkhazia. However, on a fateful day, they met through photography, marking the beginning of their friendship.

Irina: In 2016, I met Nata at a masterclass by Antoine D’Agata, which was a part of the Tbilisi Photo Festival. At first, I was deeply touched by her photos. I didn’t know Nata’s story at that time, but it was obvious that something not very pleasant had happened to her. The main theme throughout her photography dealt with variations of symbols of death—flowers on tombs, dead animals on the road, etc. I was interested in understanding what was behind it.
We stayed in touch after our first meeting.

First layer: A street dog on the beach. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata, Tbilisi. When leaving Abkhazia, Nata and her family had to leave their dog behind—a memory that weighed very heavily on her. This street dog in the photo closely resembles the dog from her childhood.

One day, I found myself in Tbilisi, having lunch with Nata in a small cafe. Our normal conversation transitioned to the topic of her childhood. I discovered that she was happy in the small town of Sukhumi, close to the Black Sea. As a child, Nata lived with her family in a huge house with a yard, where kids from different ethnicities played together. The way she described it, the yard was like a small model of the old USSR, before it split up (in 1991), where people of different nationalities lived together—Georgians, Abkhazians, Russians, and Ukrainians. In 1992-93, the war (Abkhaz-Georgian conflict) stopped all of this, and Nata had to run away to Tbilisi with her family. Her story shocked me.

She said that she once harboured a dream about going back to Sukhumi to see her native town and house. But in reality, it is not possible for her to do so. Sukhumi is now part of the Republic of Abkhazia, and as a Georgian citizen, it is impossible for Nata to access it.
Coincidentally, I was planning to travel nearby to her native town in Abkhazia, which was a possible for me, as a Russian citizen. So I proposed to Nata that I go and visit her native town as well. So, Nata prepared a list of places that were important to her, that made her happy when she was twelve. That’s how I first found myself in Sukhumi.

First layer: Stormy waves of the Black Sea. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata’s son with a friend. Tbilisi.

Nata: I often say that my photography comes from my childhood memories. Memories of the war, which forced me to leave the place I was born and raised in, where I spent the happiest period of my life. People who had been through this tragedy, still have a deep, untouchable desire to get back the life that was taken from us, to go back to the place that was once our home. This feeling has lasted within me for 25 years. Somewhere, just 350 kilometers away, there is a world with locked borders for us. This dream to go back to a captured home is what transformed into this project—a series of double exposures on film, from there and here, and from then and now.

A Touch of Melancholy
There is a certain tinge of gloom in the frames. The faces in the photographs look haunted and disturbed, with traces of tension. The abandoned beaches and homes highlight the tragedy that Sukhumians had to face. But more importantly, the images bring together the past and present in a single frame, portraying the possibilities of what could have happened if the war never took place.

First layer: Trees, metal fence. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata took a photo of one of the few pictures from her childhood. A family friend found a couple of prints in his archive and sent them to Nata. In this photo, she is sitting on a beach at the Black Sea with her friends. Sukhumi, approximately 1990.

Irina: The first layer of each picture was made in Sukhumi by me. The second layer was made by Nata in Tbilisi. When Nata received the film from me, the only thing she knew about it was that it came from Sukhumi. Similarly, I did not know what her plans were for the second layer. We had complete freedom to make our pictures.

When I was shooting, almost ninety percent of the time, I simply tried to listen and be very attentive to the location. My idea was that the town itself would show me something that was important to see. There were surprises almost all the time, and I reacted to what I saw, without any special plans.

First layer: Stones and a bird feather on the beach. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata’s self-portrait. Tbilisi. After the war, her life split into parts, like the portrait.

Nata: For the second layer, I wanted to capture the impressions I had through the post-war period. They are still alive and I don’t want them to disappear. This second layer is my second half of the exposures. It is more intense, fraught with emotions, different from Sukhumi’s quieter melancholy. Most of my photography is about the emotion.

At this time, I also was making my long-term project, Death. When we began working on The Broken Sea, some of my compositions from Death also became a part of Irina’s images of Sukumi.

I was absolutely sure that the series would turn out this way, pensive and melancholic. But Irina was more optimistic about it. I also added some portraits of my kids, who were of the same age as I was, when the war started. And it was such amazing serendipity that the pictures of my kids overlapped the yard of my childhood home.

First layer: The Black Sea coast, the pier. Sukhumi. Second layer: By pure coincidence, Nata made a picture of fire. Georgia.

Irina: After seeing all the incredible coincidences on the film, we joked about how it seemed like a third photographer was also a part of the project—Nata, Irina, and fate. It amazed us both. For example, there were just two pictures that I made in the yard of Nata’s former house. Nata made the picture of her son. The final result was Nata’s son in the yard of the house built by his great-grandfather. It is astonishing. Nata could have made a photo of her legs, or flowers, or any other thing. But it was her son!

Film Over Digital
The process was lengthy, difficult, and quite intense. There were chances of this concept not working out at all, but it was worth a try. There were also two issues with this experiment—the first was setting the correct exposure to avoid overexposures, even as the second frame was randomly shot over the first one. The second issue was synchronising the frames on the negatives, so that the same roll reloaded into a camera the second time, overlayed the first set of frames. This would be almost impossible. Digital photography could have tackled it. Yet, they decided to choose 35mm film.

First layer: Asphalt road with light rose flowers. Sukhumi. Second layer: Red flowers. Georgia.

Irina: Could we do it digitally? Yes. It would have been easier to combine pictures on a computer. But then, this would be logical combinations. We were trying to add something else to it. The element of coincidence was very important for us.

In the beginning, we thought that using film would make it extremely difficult to get the synchronisation right. There were too many unknown factors. But it was okay. Almost eighty percent of the photographs were good from a technical standpoint.

We then decided to try different films, black and white, and colour—Kodak Portra and Ilford Delta—to ensure we had the best of both. Black and white film is very direct and dramatic. Colour allows a certain level of depth and realism. We agreed to only make horizontal pictures. Knowing that these are double exposures, we also decided to underexpose. Finally, some of the film rolls were processed in Georgia, and some in Russia, without any over or under processing with chemistries.

First layer: An abandoned house. Sukhumi. Many buildings in Sukhumi have been empty since the war. Second layer: Nata’s daughter. Tbilisi.

Nata: As for me, it was important to touch the rolls of film, knowing that it had physically been in my native town. It felt real to me. Digital photos would never have had the same feeling.

We used two cameras for this project—Irina’s Leica M6 and my Nikon FM2. For the black and white images, I borrowed her M6. But for colour, we decided to use our own cameras. Irina made several trips to Tbilisi and Sukhumi, across the year. When the first roll of film was developed, we realised that the idea worked well technically. Seeing the results of those initial negatives made it easier to correct our exposures and set the frames with the rest of the rolls of film. We shot about twelve rolls of films. Only one of them was ruined.

First layer: The pier. Sukhumi. Second layer: Self-portrait by Nata. Tbilisi.

Finding their Voice
Many photographers from around the world have made hard-hitting photographs of wars, disasters and ethnopolitical conflicts, where people were forced to leave things behind and flee. Unlike these images, The Broken Sea quietly opens conversations around loss, fading memories of a lost home, and the complexities of unredeemed dreams, through the eyes of Nata and Irina, twenty-five years after it all happened.

Nata: Double exposure with different layers became the physical form to express something a lot more intangible, to bring back memories, to unite the past with the present, and to let us show people where we come from. It also allowed us to break a lot of boundaries, both in the way we thought about photography, memory and serendipity, and the physical borders enforced on us by war and politics.

First layer: A destroyed pier on beach. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata’s self-portrait. Tbilisi. In her dreams, Nata often returns to her hometown.

Irina: As photographers and by using photography, there is a very important change that we can make to humanity and the world. Photography can achieve the impossible. In a very real, tangible sense, it has eliminated a political border. I realised the power of photography with this project, and this is now our manifesto—we believe that people should have the possibility to visit the places where they were once happy.

Borders, restrictions and limitations should not exist in the 21st century. Quite often, when we explain the idea of the project, people find that they have something similar going on in their lives. They have places that they can’t visit for all sorts of reasons. But it is not just about physical borders—it is also about borders in the mind. It helped me reunite Nata with her native town, Sukhumi.

First layer: A building surrounded with palm trees. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata’s self-portrait. The famous sulfur baths. Tbilisi.

Their Inspirations and Practice
Having different photographic styles and varied affinities to subjects, benefited the project. Rather than becoming creative differences between Irina and Nata, layering them unforgivingly on film, served to make their photographs all the more engaging.

Nata: My inspirations come from my memories, which, sadly, have begun to fade away with time. These are memories that I love so dearly, and I want to keep them clear in my mind.

To photograph, I don’t mind using digital cameras. However, working with film, especially with a medium format camera, gives me more satisfaction, because there is something to touch, something very real.

First layer: Asphalt road with yellow plastic bag. Sukhumi. Second layer: Green grass. Tbilisi.

Irina: We both enjoy the work of Antoine D’Agata, Alec Soth, Alex Majoli, Diane Arbus and Sally Mann. Some people, while looking at our pictures, said that it encapsulates the post-photographic condition, with respect to these famous photographers.

As for me, I use both—digital and film cameras, even an iPhone, depending on my projects. However, my preference is definitely a film camera because there is always an element of surprise involved. It has magic. It is timeless.

First layer: Dry leaves on asphalt. Sukhumi. Second layer: Nata’s shadow. Tbilisi. The two shadows—a small one and a big one—symbolise childhood and adulthood.

An End has a New Beginning
As I flipped through the pages of The Broken Sea, I couldn’t help but notice how time seemed to stand still in the photographs. Each object and space in the images scream silently in agony for Nata’s loss, and her longing to return home. The surreal photographs are an ode to her perseverance, her hopes, and her fading memories. In the photobook they produced together, Irina wrote a note after understanding Nata’s plight. Wanting to ease her friend’s sorrow, she writes, “Baby, there is only one way out of it—to get up in the morning, smile to yourself, to your children, to the sun. Take a deep breath; shout aloud with all your strength, as if it were for the last time. Then breathe out, relieved. And turn this page—once and forever. Then go ahead and never look back. Write your new pages of life, filled with the most wonderful things of your soul. I love you!”

Irina Sadchikova holds a PhD in Economics. In 2018, she began film direction at the Salt Movie agency. After graduation, Natalia Sopromadze founded Bina, a photo studio. Later, she became a member and Co-founder of Error Images, a Georgian photo agency. To view the rest of their project, visit www.brokensea.photoshelter.com.

Tags: double exposure, film photography, interviews, Irina Sadchikova, June 2019, Nata Sopromadze, Nilofer Khan, Perspective