Svaneti, an area in the north-west of Georgia, is a place quite unlike anywhere else. Tucked in the rare habitable pockets of the Caucasus mountains (sometimes even clinging to the sides), its villages are a patchwork of higgledy-piggledy dirt tracks complete with free-range cows, bear-like mountain dogs and the hairiest of pigs. Medieval defensive towers punctuate the landscape, built as places for the whole village to wait out enemy invaders – a tactic that worked so well that the Svan language, polyphonic singing style and many of its unique customs (blood feuds included) were just as impossible to conquer as the mountains themselves. The nearest town Mestia is between three and five hours of stomach-churning roads away, and in the harsh winter metres of snow damage this one road so completely that it needs to be laid again every spring. Here you can try to domesticate nature, but it has a will all of its own.
When Russian documentary photographer Natasha Sharapova first visited Svaneti, its beauty and the warmth of its people despite these harsh conditions, really got under her skin. “I left everything behind, sold almost all stuff that was holding me back and went to the Caucasus with one backpack. I was looking for stories, people and life. To this day it is my favourite place on earth,” she tells us. Her latest project Just the Two of Us, follows two Svan pensioners, Valera and Maro, who live in an isolated village close to the border with Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria, 1550m above sea level. Only accessible by car between May and November, the village has been losing people to more modern, connected lifestyles. Since Valera’s brother left the village last year, Valera and Maro are its last remaining inhabitants, bar the 40 or so livestock that sustain them.
“The magical thing about this was that almost no one remembered this place," says Natasha. “There was no sign on the road and there was no road to the village itself. I learned that the couple that lived in this village had another house and could leave any time they like, so I was curious to know why they would stay in an abandoned settlement all alone; there must have been something important.”
Natasha was struck by the melancholy of their isolation but also the intense pull that the land had over them, and made series Just the Two of Us to show both their resilience as well as their sadness. “One day Maro showed me some photographs of the village and her family in the early years. She said it was a great place and time. Nine families lived here and in the photographs they seemed very happy. I really enjoyed spending time with her, we would talk about life and mostly I would watch her do all the chores.”
Following the couple with a Canon 5D Mark II, Natasha captured their everyday routines, from shaving outdoors (the village has no running water), to waking at 5am to milk cows and make the spongey suluguni cheese Svaneti is known for. Without any other neighbours, the couple must take over all of the villagers’ roles – Valera even steps in as the local priest, reading prayers at mass and feasts. “Everyone persuades them to leave the house. But they say that someone must stay to watch after the graves of their ancestors,” explains Natasha. “This is so important to them that they are ready to reconcile with loneliness and all domestic inconveniences. And so they stay.”