When I look at others’ travel photos, I find myself most drawn to those of local people looking straight into the lens. I study the shape of their eyes, the draw of their lips, the way their cheeks wrinkle. I wonder how the photographer approached them, what (if anything) they will tell their friends about this camera-wielding foreigner, and what stories they have lived. Sadly I haven’t taken many of these myself, because I felt uncomfortable asking strangers for permission to photograph them and rude doing so without asking. While traipsing through the street market and bazaar on one of my last days in Batumi, though, I mustered up the courage to approach someone—and discovered a wealth of characters, stories, and surprises I’d been missing out on.
Tables spread with newsprint piled with shiny silver sardines border a busy intersection choked with exhaust fumes, which are sliced by the unmistakable whiff of fishy flesh. Pedestrians scurry across so as not to be mowed down by the Ladas and SUVs barreling past—can the vendors do much business here? Their sleeves rolled, they dig their hands elbow-deep in buckets swimming with fish, then wrap their arms around each and other and grin gap-toothed smiles for the camera.
Farther on down the sidewalk, burly men play backgammon among crates of apples, lemons, and tangerines. They want to know where I’m from, and “America” is bounced incredulously back and forth down the row in a spontaneous game of Telephone. A fragile lady with long fingers and sad eyes sits quietly in a doorway, gazing out at nothing in particular. She obliges my request for a photo with a wan smile and shrug of the shoulders. “Babushka,” she says in Russian, calling herself an old woman. Something about her reminds me of Emily Dickinson.
I take a picture of one woman inside her makeshift shop, where two younger women, perhaps her daughters, are playing games on their cell phones together. She points at a framed portrait of a young man sucking on a cigarette, a hint of a smirk on his face. It’s perched on a small altar among the oranges. “My son,” she says solemnly, and asks—commands–me earnestly to photograph his picture. I do, twice, and she seems satisfied. He must have died, I think to myself, maybe in one of the road accidents that seem to occur with alarming regularity here. Perhaps the thought of his face reflected in a stranger’s camera halfway across the world comforts her somehow, as if I’ve commemorated him by taking his image with me.
I finally reach the covered food market at Boni, where vendors sell meat, produce, spices, homemade sauces, and dried goods with a little more elbow room. I dive into the meat section first, which, unlike most other sections, is staffed almost exclusively by men. It is a gauntlet of affection: not the type of place where a young blonde feministka such as myself prefers to spend a lot of time. But today, feeling empowered by my camera, I am bold. A scrum of 40-somethings smelling of sweat and tobacco forms around me to point out crimson cow livers larger than my head plunked unceremoniously next to cow hearts, cow brains, cow tongues, even a pair of cow lungs. They’re displayed for sale on a greasy table, open to the air. Though a part of me is grotesquely fascinated by the sight of so much offal, I move on as quickly as the men will let me.
As I make my way up one aisle and down another, word carries about who I am and what I’m doing here. A few people decline my request to take their photo, but almost no one seems to care that I’m not in the market for liver or radishes or dried persimmons today—all they ask for in return is a look at their image on my camera’s LCD screen and a chance to point and giggle and show their friends like giddy schoolkids. I photograph their wares, too—gleaming eggplants, snub-nosed carrots, fragrant herbs—for these also tell stories, I think. They will be become dinners, will welcome guests, will shape the tastes of children.
Leafing through these photos now, I can only imagine these people’s backstories, the families they went home to that day, the kitchens they eat breakfast in. But I hope that, anonymous as they are, their faces can impart a deeper sense of the spirit of this place, and remind us that traveling doesn’t always take us so far from what we know after all.