New East Digital Archive

Defiant bodies: meet the photographer behind these tender portraits of Tbilisi’s queer community

Neither LGBTQ experiences nor nude photography are topics taken lightly in Georgia, yet Lasha Fox Tsertsvadze is dedicated to celebrating both in his portraiture

2 February 2018

Bodies are beautiful, powerful, pleasurable, resilient. They can also be frustrating, unreliable, fragile; they hold onto painful experiences and traumas and are susceptible to the passing of time. They can work with us, helping us achieve our most inconceivable ambitions, or act as barriers. They ground us within our identities and make us feel disconnected all the same. The relationship you have with your body is fluid and always changing, no matter your gender or sexual orientation. However, in the case of the LGBTQ community, bodies continue to be censored, stigmatised, colonised and erased from historical and societal narratives around the world. In a country where homophobia is the norm, self-acceptance for the queer community often means shedding attitudes about, among other things, their bodies. In Lasha Fox Tsertsvadze’s portraits, this process of unlearning is represented by the straightforward and sincere act of undressing.

“I take photos of those who are minorities, who are marginalised, who are beautiful, who are free”

“First of all, there is nothing shameful about the naked body,” is the first thing the Georgian photographer tells me, when I ask why he has pursued nude photography across genres. For the last few years, Tsertsvadze has been taking delicate nude portraits of queer people in their own homes in Tbilisi. Broaching the subject, the photographer is ardent yet cautious. Neither LGBTQ experiences nor nude photography are topics taken lightly in Georgia, and for this reason Tsertsvadze has never had the opportunity to show his work anywhere but online. “In the USSR, sex was something that was very shameful. Nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia is still a very conservative country,” says the photographer, who originally studied to be an architect. Though he has been bringing his camera with him to parties and on trips since he was 16, it was in his second year at university, when his friend gifted him a Zenit camera, that gave him the push to take more street photos, travel stories and, of course, portraits.

Nude portraits were naturally trickier to pursue. “I couldn’t ask just anybody,” he recalls. In the end, Tsertsvadze reached out to those people with whom he felt equally included. He considers himself as much as a queer activist as a nude photographer. “The nude body is very beautiful in my opinion. Even when exposed it is very strong.” In his photos, nakedness isn’t the literal act of undressing, rather a sign of the defiant vulnerability that is so crucial in a country where neither the LGBTQ community nor gay rights activists cannot demonstrate safely in public. Since 17 May 2013, when a peaceful rally to mark the International Day Against Homophobia was violently disrupted by clergymen and anti-gay demonstrators, the need for safe places has never been greater. Horoom Nights, Tbilisi’s secretive queer night, was founded to support and empower the city’s LGBTQ community after the violent clash of 2013 in a way that no NGOs could. Yet it is a rarity.

“I take photos of those who are minorities, who are marginalised, who are beautiful, who are free, who want to change the society they want to live in, who want to go against the grain. I chose to take photos in their own environments, where they live or perhaps their friends’ places. LGBTQ people feel safe in their homes, even though there have been cases of homicide where trans people have been killed in their apartments,” the photographer says. There is another reason for taking photos in domestic privacy. While there are those who flat-out deny the existence of gay people in Georgia, Tsertsvadze tells me, these days people are more likely to claim they do not have any problem with local LGBTQ people, so long as “they do whatever they want in their own homes”. His portraits are an attempt to reclaim the domestic space, which has long been associated with heterosexual-cisgender family structures.

“For me it is an amazing experience, because every time I visit someone’s home, we drink coffee, chat and I get to know them a little bit. Every person has their own story and their own reasons for agreeing to pose nude.” When Tsertsvadze, who is 25, first came out to his friends five years ago (he came out to his mother two years later), he didn’t have an LGBTQ community to fall back on. He admits that he didn’t know any gay people in Tbilisi who were in a relationship. Nowadays, more people are willing to discussing gender, sex and queer issues. “For example, the younger generation is very free and they are not afraid to talk about sex, or being gay. I am a little bit jealous of young people because I didn’t have these experiences when I was 18. I felt very ashamed, shy, closed off. But it’s good to know that because of my generation the younger generation can be more free.”

“I want to see more people who are proud, who are free and who are rebellious, who don’t care what others think, who live as they like, who are gay in every sense of this word,” he continues. Free, proud, rebellious are apt descriptions of Tsertsvadze’s portraits. But there is also a gentleness to his work. For the last year the photographer has been working towards an exhibition celebrating Georgia’s queer boys. The project’s name is GIORGI, “the most authentic and popular Georgian male name”. Though there is no guarantee it will be exhibited, Tsertsvadze is hopeful things are moving in the right direction in Georgia, and his work and energy themselves are a sure sign that a sexual revolution is underway.