Interview with Elina Valaite, the curator of the “Tbilisi Photo Festival”: on the power of art and its relationship with Lithuania - Kauno Bienalė

Interview with Elina Valaite, the curator of the “Tbilisi Photo Festival”: on the power of art and its relationship with Lithuania


While the global pandemic caused severe stagnation in all areas of human life, the field of art has found a way to adapt to this new reality. Last year, the Creative Europe project “MagiC Carpets” awarded the European community award “Co-create & Comprehend” to four projects for the activities with the local communities. One of the winners was the “Tbilisi Photo Festival”. Together with the curator of this festival Elina Valaitė, we talk about the contemporary art, the opportunities opened during the projects, the power of documentary photography and art, and Georgian culture, the paths of which have repeatedly led to Lithuania.

By becoming the most important photo festival in the region, the “Tbilisi Photo Festival” has firmly established Tbilisi as the capital of photography in the Caucasus. What specific impact does this event have on the Georgian art field and contemporary art in general?

Since 2010, when the Tbilisi Photo Festival (TPF) has been founded by a Georgian journalist and photo-curator Nestan Nijaradze and French photographer Lionel Charrier, many international and worldwide photographers, artists, field experts have been visiting and taking part in the program of the opening week of the festival. Year by year, it created many layers of new professional exchanges between the local and international artists and different photography institutions. I should say that this practice in particular resulted in significant changes and created new international opportunities for local as well international artists opening for them new yet undiscovered Georgia. Any artistic and educational activities implemented by TPF with international partners and artists, have put the Georgian photography and art scene on the world map.


For more than a decade, this festival uses the power of documentary photography as a catalyst for social and cultural changes in Georgia and the South Caucasus region. What are the visible cultural changes during this period?I think the visible cultural changes is that many of our project beneficiaries and other photographers who work with us are becoming internationally known, and also a very important point is that since 2010, TPF is showcasing the latest visual stories from all of the world and professional trends that inspire local artists, curators, cultural managers and that each show, exhibition, installation, artistic talk, workshop, masterclass are sharing international experience and know-how of the global dynamic photography scene. Moreover, since 2016 and even during the trying times of the global crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic, the TPF strongly supports female artists in Georgia, South Caucasus and the wider region, both professionally and financially and that gives the voice to many social, economic, political issues from different countries throughout the medium of photography.


Tell us more about the long-term 2018-2021 Photography Hub for Education and Innovation (PHEI). What goals are already being achieved and what are the key changes that can be made in this platform?

The long-term project – Photography Hub for Education and Innovation (PHEI) has been launched in 2018 by a newly established Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum (MMP) that is run by the same team of Tbilisi Photo Festival. The main idea and goal of PHEI is to establish a strong educational and artistic platform in the South Caucasus region using photography as a powerful tool for storytelling.

The entire project consists out of different artistic and educational activities such as the creation of the online multimedia archives i-mediatheque that were initially launched on the basis of multimedia projects collected from the archives of Tbilisi Photo Festival and consist of photos displayed during different years of the Tbilisi Night of Photography programs; the creation of photo book library – the first donation of the books have been done by Kaunas Photo Gallery and different photography institutions from Lithuania; the Moving Museum of Photography that provides artistic and educational events around the South Caucasus countries mostly in remote places of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia. In 2018, the MMP became a part of Committee for Education and Cultural Action (ICOM-CECA) CECA book publication was nominated as “Best Practice 8. A tool to improve museum education internationally”.

As a part of PHEI projects, there is also an educational platform for teens – “Fabrika of Images” that opened a new realities and opportunities to work with teens using medium of photography and different disciplines to better understand the world. And the Exhibition of South Caucasian photographers in 2019 showcased the rich regional traditions of three countries from South Caucasus. This project is ongoing and will feature different periods of regional photography within the exhibitions organized.


There are so many different ongoing projects. One of them is Fabrika of Images which is an educational platform for teens. The first three programs have been held in different regions of Georgia and a suburb of Tbilisi. During the global lockdown, three online programs were specially adapted for online platforms. Could you tell us what benefits the artistic approach of this project has brought to young people?

First of all, I would like to underline that this project is our know-how and was designed with the help of international colleagues from the Finnish Museum of Photography, who have excellent experience working with children and teens. Sure, the program was shaped and developed according to our needs and reality. As a curator of the project, I can say and following to comments what we have received from questionaries within the programs, we definitely helped young people to obtain the skills of the critical thinking throughout the power of visual language, art in general and gave new opportunities to our young community to believe in what they are doing, meaning that the majority of participants are already interested in photography and working on their personal projects. Some of them became active members of museum and festival platforms and are actively involved in different artistic and educational programs, so it means that we have somehow already built a bridge between us and the young generation again for their future development and new perspectives of art field in general.


The other one is the Multimedia Lab Production Grant Program for South Caucasian Women Photographers from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. What social issues have women photographers in the South Caucasus revealed in this project?

Within program editions from 2018-2020, the voice has been given to many important issues from three countries of the South Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia) such as – migration, conflict, border crossing and national identity, LGBT communities, domestic violence, disabilities, remote communities, humans and their environment, women’s emancipation, COVID-19 crisis.

What are the similarities and the main challenges of these two projects, which include two different age groups?

Similarities are that within both programs, we are introducing new perspectives and opportunities. It is interesting that the main challenges for these both different age groups are that participants sometimes

cannot fully engage or access the courses because of the social issues. I remember one very touching moment, when we have been implementing Fabrika of Images in one of the villages, and some of the program’s attendees have been busy with the farm work, helping their parents and thus not able to attend the session, but afterwards, they proudly claimed that they have been helping their family not because of the pressure, but because they were learning how to be strong people. It was emotional for me to hear such brave opinion from teenagers that make me personally proud to work with and also learn from them. Another challenge for both age groups is internet accessibility, as for instance Multimedia Lab Production Grant Program was run through online sessions, same for Fabrika of Images, last three editions have been held in online format and we know that lots of teens from remote places really wanted to attend the program, but have been struggling with internet accessibility.


Tbilisi Photo Festival has joined MagiC Carpets in Y3 with the residency program Subtropical Cultures and won European Community Award. The aim of the project is to use an innovative approach in conflict resolution and lay the groundwork for rethinking recent history. Is it possible to challenge existing nationalist narratives and provide new means to discuss this issue?

I think the wonderful initiative of “Subtropical Cultures” residency program proved that a rare chance has been given to both sides for rediscovering, rethinking and learning the recent history throughout contemporary art. The whole process of residency, experts and artists involvement with the final exhibition of showcased works is a true evidence of success.


What is your relationship with Lithuania? What do you know about the Lithuanian art and cultural field?

Lithuania is my fatherland, I was born and raised in Tbilisi, but I am, of course, familiar with the traditions and the everyday life of Lithuania. For me, Lithuanian art is linked to the names like Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Fluxus, Vitas Luckus and many more. The contemporary Lithuanian culture field is very dynamic and charming with great potential and international success – opera “Sun & Sea (Marina)”, the theater scene, photography, galleries, book printing.

How did the pandemic affect culture in Georgia? How did the artists and you manage to adapt to the changed everyday life?

The pandemic hit the cultural field all around the world, and Georgia is not an exception. The total lockdown and the financial loss experienced by a lot of people reshaped the structure of the cultural organization and corporative goals that are common nowadays. Despite the great challenges, we did not stop and move over with hard work and a strong belief which have created new opportunities with financial and professional support of artists. For instance, I_Residency program for twenty women artists (photographers and writers) that I have mentioned earlier was created and implemented specifically during the global lockdown.

Since the start of the nationwide lockdown, together with our partners Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum, Adjara Group, Les Rencontres de la photographie, Arles, Magnum Photos we have initiated a series of Night of Photography screenings to express solidarity with the different communities around the world during the period of the global quarantine. The screenings have been held in various locations in Tbilisi, different cities and villages of Georgia, New York, Los Angeles, Ljubljana. It was a nice coincidence that the screening of the Georgian photography has been held in Eiguliai District in Kaunas organized by Kaunas Photo Gallery during the anniversary of Kaunas city. It is obvious that some artistic activities cannot be replaced by new forms using the digital platforms, but still we are trying our best to use the digital tools for better engagement and adaptation to the new normality with a hope to gather again soon.


Tbilisi Photo Festival Gallery