In case you hadn’t noticed, we’ve been writing a lot about Tbilisi. The Georgian capital city has recently emerged as one of the next creative capitals, with innovative designers, amazing street style and a burgeoning nightlife scene. Much of this is thanks to Georgian-born Demna Gvasalia, who is putting the small post-Soviet country on the wider world’s radar. But Tbilisi isn’t all techno and emerging designers. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Georgia’s brutal Civil War in ‘93, Tbilisi has been grappling with tensions between those who believe the city should stay loyal to its conservative past, and those who want to embrace a more liberal future.
No one knows these two sides of the city more than photographer George Nebieridze, who has carefully documented youth culture in the Georgian capital until his transplant to Berlin four years ago. Nebieridze’s work is raw, intimate and and somewhat biographical; his images document the two worlds he’s inhabited and the importance of nightlife in both. The differences between the two cities are striking — in Tbilisi people party to escape, in Berlin partying is a way of life.
“When I was growing up in Georgia, when I was a teenager, when I studied at university there, it was completely different,” Nebieridze says. While he stresses how proud he is to be Georgian, his time in Tbilisi was stifling and he has previously described moving to Berlin as an escape from his “conservative and religious homeland.”
Georgia is 82 percent orthodox Christian and Nebieridze detailed how neighborhood gangs would use their religion as an excuse to enact violence. He was singled out for arbitrary reasons; he wore skinny jeans, a leather jacket, he danced in the street — according to his attackers, all signs that he was gay.
While getting beaten up became an almost regular occurrence for Nebieridze, he was one of the lucky ones. Nebieridze friends were losing their lives and he decided to get out. “I was hearing about stabbing and shooting and killing everyday, and I just had enough. I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be free.”
It was in this atmosphere that Nebieridze captured youthful moments of escape. His work documents the universal language of nightlife — the pre-party restlessness, the euphoria of a peak-time dance-floor, the sleep taken wherever you fall — and all the tender moments in between.
Youthful excess is at the heart of Nebieridze’s work, so it’s no surprise that he doesn't see himself strictly as a documentarian of it, but an active participant, with much of the images being created when the photographer was just as far gone as his subjects. “I have this creative switch when I’m drunk. I shoot things I wouldn't dare to shoot when I’m sober. It makes me feel more free. Like when you're really shy approaching a guy or a girl, when you're drunk it's easier, you know? It’s the same thing with photography.”
Considering how intimate Nebieridze’s work can get, it’s no surprise he chooses to be under the influence. If Nebieridze’s Tbilisi images are characterized by a certain innocence and naivety that often comes with a conservative background, his Berlin work is the polar opposite. Taking advantage of Berlin’s open attitude towards sex and drugs, Nebieridze captures the sheer hedonism of the city, from the darkest corners of the party to the groggy comedown in the cold morning light. As Nebieridze puts it, “in Berlin, everything is just exposed.”
But this candid portraiture has caused some issues for the photographer. Nebieridze’s work follows a school of photography, from Nan Goldin, Wolfgang Tillmans and early Ryan McGinley, that relies on a certain candidness to produce raw, uncensored images, but social media and the existence of revenge porn is forcing people to be more protective of their image. One bad picture gets into the wrong hands, or is uploaded to the wrong account, and it can wreak serious havoc on your life.
Privacy is definitely an issue for photographers, as Nebieridze describes one instance where someone pulled their consent to the image after his book was already published and there was nothing he could do short of pulling the publication altogether. Mostly though, he understands, deleting images or editing out faces if a problem is raised with him. While other photographer’s may get complaints from people who think their images are unflattering, “when your mom sees you having sex with five guys at the same time and taking [GHB], it's kind of a different thing.”
The photos in this series were taken over a long period of time, from about 2009 all the way to 2015. Since then things have changed for Nebieridze. His first book, 15, documented the party-filled year he met the mother of his children — he now has a one-year-old daughter, and recently just welcomed a second. “Before becoming a father I would go out on Tuesday or Wednesday and come back on Thursday, not the next day, the next week” he explains. “Now, I have to be contactable, I have to be fresh, I can’t be high.”
Like Nebieridze himself, his work is maturing. He’s stepping back from what he describes as his more “flashy” after-hours photos, focusing on more calmer subjects as he works on his second book, 16. But that doesn’t mean the photographer has turned his back on his previous work. Looking back over his images, most of which include close friends, gives Nebieridze a sense of nostalgia and pride, “the older my photos get, the more I love them.”
You can purchase Nebieridze's first book, 15, here.
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