Silver-Haired Stories: Photo Competition Connects Generations Across Georgia
Feri Ismailova says her mother always dreamed of attending university. “Growing up in Laghodeki in an ethnic Azerbaijani family, my mother’s parents decided that she would be married at a young age. She had me soon after and never got the opportunity to pursue a higher education.”
Feri, who is now a graduate student at Ilia State University, is one of the finalists of a recent photo competition that challenged young people between the ages of 13 and 30 to find a “silver-haired” person (above the age of 55) in their community and tell their “small or big achievements, inspiring everyday life, thoughts on aging, or stories of perseverance.” The competition, held by the NGO Civic Initiative and supported by the USAID Civil Society Engagement Program, received 64 photo story submissions before offering selected participants the opportunity to partake in masterclasses in photography and digital storytelling.
Following these masterclasses, which gave participants the opportunity to put their new knowledge to use and refine their photo stories, the competition culminated in an exhibition and award ceremony held on June 30, 2023, at the National Library of the Parliament of Georgia. The top 11 photo stories were featured at the exhibition and prizes, including vouchers for tech store Zoomer and participation in a short-term study trip to the Czech Republic and Spain sponsored by the International Center for Peace and Integration (ICPI), were awarded.
Standing in the hall of the Silver-Haired Photo Exhibit, Feri describes the process of asking her mother to recount her own story. “It was an interesting experience recording her stories. There was a mix of joy and sadness in my mother’s recollections as she told the story of being a minority facing hardship after hardship, raising me as a single mother, and always wishing she could get an education. But despite all of this, she managed to secure enough means to send her child to university. Writing her story was a great way to honor how far she has come and help her acknowledge how much she has accomplished.”
Head of Civic Initiative Nana Bagalishvili says the photo contest aimed to bridge generational gaps by inviting young people to capture and share the stories of older Georgians through their own lens. “This older generation, with more than half a century of experience, has so much to share. We know that people in this age group did not have an easy life. But this project was about pulling out the encouraging and useful lessons they’ve learned that can resonate with the younger generation.”
“We didn’t ask our contest participants to try and find the most exceptional or accomplished people in their communities,” continues Bagalishvili. “This was about finding and telling the story of the ordinary people among us. It could seem like there is nothing special about them – but if you focus in and really listen, everyone has a unique story to tell and lessons to share.”
After competing in the contest, participant Mariam Ninashvili agrees that some of the best stories can come from the most unlikely sources. She drew inspiration for her submission not from family but instead from a familiar face in her village—a man deeply passionate about fishing. Aleksi Doiashvili, more affectionately dubbed ‘Ali Baba’ by locals in his village, self-describes himself as an “ordinary man with an ordinary lifestyle.” The elderly man, who has long lived in the Georgian municipality of Tianeti, says he derives daily satisfaction in the little things like “enjoying the nature around me” and “feeding the wild pigeons.”
But for Mariam, Aleksi represents beauty found in simplicity.”Aleksi caught my attention during my visits to my village,” she recalls fondly. “Every time we crossed the bridge, he would be there at his chosen spot, casting his line into the water. Unaffected by the weather or season, he became an integral part of the natural landscape—a testament to the beauty of being connected to nature and living in the village.”
Civic Initiative’s Bagalishvili says that stories like these serve the NGO’s wider goals of creating lasting relationships between generations in Georgia. In addition to Knowledge Café – a multi-functional, interactive, co-educational space in Sighnaghi that the NGO runs to offer local elderly and student populations a place to engage and learn together – she says she hopes to see other elderly-oriented programs implemented in other parts of Georgia.
“There is a real lack of social space for Georgia’s elderly population – but there also aren’t many places for younger people to come together. This photo competition was our creative endeavor to forge relationships between these groups and build a culture of continued learning where one generation’s experiences can serve as lessons for the next.”