Tucked between the Caucasus mountains and the Alazani River, Pankisi is an isolated region in northern Georgia encompassing nine villages. At the heart of the region lies the idyllic valley of Pankisi Gorge, but its apparent calm is deceptive.
“One would never know that the small region was internationally known as ‘The Valley of Terror’,” says Maximilian Mann, who collaborated with fellow German photographer Tim Brederecke on a project centred around the Valley.
Following the Chechen crisis in the ’90s, thousands of refugees fled over the mountains into Georgia, and many ended up settling in the Pankisi Gorge area, home to a Chechen Muslim minority called the Kists. Then, after cases began to emerge of a small number leaving Pankisi to join ISIS, the valley swiftly gained a reputation for violent extremism, dragging the entire community of 8000 under this prejudice. At one point, it was even suggested that Osama Bin Laden was hiding out in the gorge.
Today, the region’s bad reputation continues to hold. However, the photographers note that “most villagers dissociate themselves from radical beliefs and try to attract investors for the valley.”
Their project came about almost by accident, as poor weather conditions cut their original plans to document Georgian shepherds short. After reading about Pankisi, they decided instead to focus their energies on this remote and misunderstood region.
“I’ve been dealing with post-Soviet states for some years now,” explains Mann over email. “For me, the regions with all their similarities and differences are fascinating. Many post-Soviet states are still trying to find their place between Russia and Europe. Nevertheless, knowledge of this region – which is marked by ethnic conflicts – independence efforts and civil wars, is limited. I wanted to learn more.”
Visiting the valley twice on two separate occasions, once in autumn and once in spring, the two spent a fortnight in Pankisi altogether.
Prior to going, they’d heard only negative things about the place, but the experience they were met with was a sharp contrast to what they’d heard. “Some guides warn against travelling to the valley,” says Mann, “but we experienced it differently, and were received incredibly warmly by many people.”
Despite a widespread distrust of journalists in the Pankisi region, the photographers say that most bad experiences had occurred because journalists had typically stayed for a very short time. “With a deep interest in people and enough time, trust develops on both sides. That was very important to us,” they say.
During their stay, the two were even granted access to photograph the women in the mosque praying, a rare opportunity for two men. “It was a lasting memory for me, for which I am truly grateful,” says Mann.
Overall, the photographers say they wish to present an alternative view of Pankisi Valley. “We want to show people’s everyday life in an honest and dignified way,” Mann explains. “We do not want to dramatise, but rather show the valley from our subjective point of view.”
See more of Tim Brederecke and Maximilian Mann’s work on their official website.