The Story Behind The Images | Tskaltubo, Georgia
Ten years ago Georgia appeared onto my travel radar for the first time. However, back whilst I was backpacking I never did get round to visiting the place back then.
Roll onto 2016, and Georgia reappeared onto my radar whilst seeking new photography destinations and architecture locations to take images of. I visited firstly in March 2018 and have just this last week returned from my most recent trip to this stunningly beautiful country.
One of the highlights on both occasions was my visit to Tskaltubo, a small town a short distance from Kutaisi a city in the West of the Country. I returned in October with the addition of some extra people, some crew from Georgian Imedi TV who wanted to run a news story and video interview about my work in Abkhazia (De Facto series) last March. They run this as it was recently the 25th anniversary of the end of the Abkhazian conflict.
The first bathhouses are believed to have opened in 1870 in Tskaltubo, but in 1925 the first sanatoriums and in-patient facilities were built. Development continued and in 1931 Tskaltubo was designated as a balneotherapy centre and spa resort by the then Soviet government. During these Soviet times the Georgian town was a popular health destination famed for its therapeutic water and sanatoriums. Four trains arrived daily full of guests from Moscow in Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s, the buildings were abandoned and fell into decay. Floors have been ripped up for firewood, the metal salvaged as scrap by locals ever since.
In 1992 a war in nearby Abkhazia broke out. An estimated 10,000 Displaced Georgians fled from the conflict and were given temporary shelter in Tskaltubo’s unoccupied buildings and sanatoriums. Twenty-five years later, hundreds of families remain living in these stunning architectural remains of a Soviet past.
On both occasions, I was greeted with a warm welcome by the residents but one thing stood out since my visit just 6 months ago - and that was Graffiti. This is my run through of the town and each of the buildings, it also coincides with a video that I have produced over on my youtube channel about the subject:
According to an online Georgian news site, the Iveria was sold a couple of years ago for a little over one hundred thousand US dollars. Not a bad price, but there is a catch: the terms of sale state that the buyer should invest at least €6 million in building a hotel with 160 rooms and employ over 80 people. Sadly the terms don’t state that any original features must be retained.
Work here has progressed rapidly since my March visit, and thus with it taken the last remaining actual “abandoned spot” away from the town.
This one I photographed primarily in March 2018, with the second image the one I was proud of the most. Shot using a tilt-shift lens I created a panoramic, stitching together three shots, top, middle and finally the bottom.
A building very much now the home to IDP’s (Internally displaced person’s), being respectful here was paramount - I also had to ensure that I cleaned up the courtyard prior to taking my one photograph and also seek permission out of respect.
I shot this looking straight back at the building, until this point I had never seen an image from here online. I shot this at F/8, ISO 100, settings that I use regularly.
I only went here in March and did not return in October, however this was another building (a former hotel) that is now housing a large amount of war refugees, some 25 years on. No maintenance has been done since those fleeing Abkhazia took temporary shelter here.
I actually had a “wow” moment when I first laid eyes on the entrance to the former hotel Medea, with it’s stunning blue ceiling and marble columns. I visited this location on both of my visits, and on both times I got speaking to the locals here and asked if it was ok to take images of their now home, despite 50% of the large structure now under heavy decay. This building features heavily in my youtube video.
This place was difficult to photograph, the second image was taken by standing on a wall, high up. Then I positioned the tripod balanced with the legs very close together, before shooting my three shot panoramic on my 17mm tilt shift lens.
Back in March I had trouble locating this one, it was easier this time and simply a process of elimination. Ruling out those visited in March as possible Google Maps pins.
This former hotel has a large number of occupants and had fewer damaged and abandoned parts than many other hotels or Sanatoriums that we visited. The large theatre is no longer in use but I saw very little additional evidence of abandonment.
The main draw here was the central part of the building, once the hotel foyer, where there is a huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Although photographing these spots is difficult, when nothing lines up!
This amazing building is 50% in use as well and it is distinctive as it has a yellow and blue dome with columns and a stunning trio of fantastic staircases, one of which is is heavy decline.
The dome here is really tricky to photograph, however I managed to get a couple of images in March which I was happy with - so my return visit I concentrated on the Stairs as well as making sure the Georgian TV crew obtained everything they needed for the interview.
One of the things that sticks with me about this building were the little gardens created out of the rear, by the now residents. This made you appreciate the lengths that the people have gone to call these buildings home.
Taking images here is hard work, fitting in the dome is extremely difficult. I eventually did so by placing my tripod onto bricks and then using my tilt-shift lens to capture the entire scene in three vertical shots, left, middle and finally right. Pulling together in Photoshop (although Lightrooms new “merge to HDR panorama” feature would have been ideal!
The construction of a new 5 star hotel on the site of the famous sanatorium Meshakhte in Tskaltubo was well underway before our March 2018 visit, however we did pop in. Avoiding guards to take a look at what was left - but by October the building was completely stripped without a single feature left.
I actually do not mention this former hotel in my video, it is by far the place in the worst condition and by far the place that hit home the most to me about the plight of these IDP’s that have now been making these buildings their homes for over 25 years. Incredible situation for anybody to find themselves in.
Looking for unusual compositions was my idea here and eventually I came across this shot, from one staircase in decline to another.
Bathhouse Number 8
A short distance from the hotels, in the central park is Bath house Number 8 I think this is a communal bathhouse that was presumably more for the poor rather than the party elite. It is completely abandoned and given over to the elements and features a huge central skylight, which made for some great drone footage.
Bathhouse Number 5
I visited this bath house twice in 2018, and this is the place the amount of graffiti has really taken a foot-hold. Disappointing. The interior was large and it would have looked pretty impressive in its day. Several of the deep, yellow-tiles baths are now heavily graffiti’s, but we did find one angle to shoot here.
Tskaltubo as a whole has the potential to become a new cultural and tourist center of Western Georgia. Nearby the International Airport in Kutaisi, which receives a large number of international flights every day; important tourist sites like Sataplia (with dinosaur footprints), and the Prometheus Caves are rated one of the best in Europe.
However to have THIS much development taking place under the noses of the refugees seems a little harsh. Surely these people need to be re-homed prior to more work taking place?
On the subject of tourism and whether or not it is appropriate to visit these part occupied buildings, this is something I have considered in depth on both occasions. On both occasions my main reason for visiting Tskaltubo was to explore the sanatoriums and learn about the history of the town and the spa culture.
It just so happens that the history of the sanatoriums has become mixed up in more recent ‘dark’ events in Abkhazia, which have changed the use of the buildings. My interest was genuine and on both occasions I was sensitive when intruding into the lives of those less fortunate than myself, as were the rest of my friends.
I asked if it was ok, I asked if the people minded, I made conversations and made them aware of my presence. Do the graffiti artists do the same? Does every DSLR waving photographer? I doubt it…
Thank you for taking the time to read this and check out the images. I also have a youtube video showcasing the town, my images and video footage captured by myself, Adam and the guys from TV Imedi news channel. The video tells a similar story.
Until next time, take care.