Photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie experiences Georgia conflict

Photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie

The upcoming issue of NEED magazine will feature a story about life-saving aid being given to those displaced by conflict in Georgia. Jonathan Alpeyrie, a war photographer whose photos will be featured in the story, describes one of his experiences photographing in the midst of this conflict.

“Life is often a series of events best described by luck, or a lack thereof. As a war photographer who has seen much pain and human suffering, I am very attached to luck, because no one outlives a thousand fateful events. During the Russian offensive in Georgia last August, I realized how much my understanding of life and luck are bound together.

While riding in my Georgian friend’s car during the Russian bombing, I was looking for a story to tell through my photographs. South Ossetian raiders roamed the streets of Gori in search of revenge and loot. After hearing bomb blasts, Jimmy and I turned a corner to take a more hidden route.

The narrow street led us to a chain of small houses, most of them abandoned by owners who had fled the city. We drove past a larger home with a garage and I asked my friend to stop the car because I could hear people crying. I looked into the garage and saw a family, mostly men, in tears.

We talked with them and found out that the grandfather had just died from wounds suffered during the Russian bombings that day. The family noticed my camera and wanted to make sure others would see what the Russians have done to them. They brought me upstairs to a room where the body of an elderly man rested inside a wooden coffin surrounded by traditional drapery. On both sides of the coffin, women of the family cried in desperation, regretting the violent death of a man whose life should have ended peacefully.

One woman grabbed me by the left arm to pull me closer to the grandfather’s body. He looked peaceful and rested, showing no strains of war or wounds. She lamented the death of a good man, speaking in her language. I took a few photos, thanked them and left with my friend.

The next day, I saw a Georgian man get executed by South Ossetian soldiers. The city of Gori was at their mercy. The looting was becoming well-organized; cars were being stolen and shops were broken into. Jimmy and I went inside a 10-story building to get a view of the main street and plaza. As we stepped onto a balcony, a passing Lada Niva loaded with heavily armed Ossetians saw us. They stopped their car and pointed guns at us. We rushed inside the still-inhabited apartment to hide from them. We waited for a while, listening to nearby gunshots. They never found us: we were lucky.

A while later we heard tank tracks on Gori Street. We peeked outside and saw that the Russians had arrived. We rushed outside, where I took a photograph of armed Russian infantry being carried by an APC. The Russians, whose mission was to secure the strategic points of the town, paid little attention to this young local man and Western journalist taking photos. They must have thought we were out of our minds for remaining in the city throughout all this. At daybreak we returned to Jimmy’s grandfather’s house to celebrate having lived through our experience.”

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