Dina Oganova, Frozen Waves

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Softcover, unpaginated, with fifty-one black and white photographs, 8.25 x 6 inches. Includes pressed flowers and leaves, with eight texts in English and Georgian by Dina Oganova, edited by Salome Bendize. In an edition of 222 numbered, hand-made copies. Designed by Dina Oganova. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Perhaps, you can see it coming. There are signs, such as the jagged calligraphy of the handwritten title and the way in which the Sharpie’s black ink makes the crimson red cardboard cover pop – almost violently. But the pressed flower in the upper-right corner, decorating this delicately made book, beguiles you with the tenderness of a family album or diary. The punch hits you surprisingly slowly, and, in fact, feels more like a twisting knot, as you open the first page of Dina Oganova’s Frozen Waves. What strikes you, however, is not a photograph, but a short text – the first of many, yet the only one in which it is Oganova herself, who speaks.

“Most of my childhood I used to hearing stories how boys/men kidnapped girls with help of their friends, to get a married on them. Sometimes the kidnapped girls didn’t even know who would become their future husbands.” Once kidnapped, these girls had no choice but to stay with the boy or man, as they could not be believed to be virgins anymore. Shamed and unable to marry them to someone else, their families would not take them back, as the girls had “a new owner”. While this practice reappeared in post-Soviet Georgia of the 1990s, Oganova thought that the tradition had disappeared by the time she was an adult. “But at some point I realized that it’s still happening.”

Oganova told me she reached that point in 2014, during a visit to a Georgian village, about an hour away from the Tbilisi, the country’s capital. There, she met a beautifully dressed young girl of sixteen or seventeen, and asked to take her picture. The two started an animated conversation, at the end of which the girl invited the photographer to her wedding. When Oganova mentioned the love it takes to make such a life-changing step, the girl just smiled and replied that she didn’t really know her future husband, because he had just kidnapped her.

Let’s be clear about what ‘kidnapping’ actually means. Georgia, its multi-ethnical rural regions in particular, is considered a traditional, that is, religiously Orthodox, country. It has one of Europe’s highest rates of under-age marriages. While these marriages are generally considered consensual and performed with parental or court consent, in reality most are forced, often using violence. Men ‘choose’ their future wives while attending school with them, or seeing them at a wedding, or on the street. They begin stalking the girl, learning her schedule and every-day routes. While some girls spot this surveillance, many don’t. And one day a car stops, a few men jump out, and drag her in. If it goes well, they only drive to the ‘husband’s’ parental home, introduce her to his family, spend the night there, and drive her back the next morning. Most of the time, though, the girls are driven to some remote place or cabin, in shock or crying, protesting that they don’t want get married or are in love with someone else. They are raped nevertheless, and, thereby, declared property.

Oganova accepted the girl’s invitation, attended the wedding, and subsequently began her project about women who had undergone this experience. All of the women she encountered were, at first, strangers to her – and while Oganova considers photography the language she knows best, conversations are the core of her book.

Graceful, like the mesh of a loosely woven net, Frozen Waves carries the weight of five women’s stories. Oganova illustrates them in grainy, often highly contrasted, black and white photographs, ranging from full-bleed, double spreads, down to the size of a cigarette case. Some of her images show clearings or a group of trees, which are so dauntingly framed that they could easily illustrate a tale by the Brothers Grimm. Other photographs depict fragmented street views, parking lots, and obstructed facades of apartment buildings. A grim-looking church stands heavy, like a threat, against a dark sky. Even the wedding dress display in a storefront window feels of sad foreshadowing.

Yet, there also moments of tenderness, palpable in the intimate close-ups of a pair of leather sandals, the folds of an unmade bed, or two hands captured as if holding a secret about to escape. Even though Frozen Waves feels like portrayal, the book does not offer portraits in the traditional sense. In fact, Oganova only captures the lower part of the women’s faces, which, at times, is almost frustrating, because you realize how much the eyes are needed to understand an expression. However, by directing our gaze to their lips, which are always closed, the women’s shame and fear to speak of their experience become tangible – and are heightened by the rough, wallpaper-like pages on which all the photographs are printed.

Thankfully, their voices appear nevertheless. Introduced by the initial of the girl’s first name and a number indicating their age, these texts, biographical fragments, not only provide crucial context and meaning to the photographs, but reveal the psychological complexity of the subject as well as the women’s differing experiences. It’s something that no image, whether a photograph or not, can convey of itself; even though we often assign them this capacity. Eighteen-year-old M, for instance, only recalls the violence of her now-husband and the rejection of her family. While 42-year-old A, who was kidnapped when she was seventeen, has become resigned to her fate: “When you live with a person for a long time you will get used to him.” S and E, sisters, mistakenly kidnapped, were released, but considered shamed nonetheless. They decided to leave their town and move to Tbilisi, where they were able to study and lead satisfying lives. “Who knows what would happen with us if we had stayed there?”

The most disturbing part of the book, however, is found in the two texts written by men, mirrored by the portrait of a cigarette-smoking guy, bluntly staring into the camera’s lens – which were not part of Oganova’s first draft of Frozen Waves.

Last year, when she thought she had finished the project, Oganova, visiting a friend, met a man who knew of her documentary photography. Asking of her latest project, he laughed and told her that she was essentially making a project about him. He was planning to kidnap a girl he had seen at a friend’s wedding – for the second time, as he hadn’t succeeded previously – and asked if she wanted to join him. Oganova agreed, but decided to remain in the village and find the girl, who was only fifteen. The girl knew about him, as she had seen him outside her school and other places, and was scared. The following week Oganova found herself in a car with a group of men, waiting for the girl to leave her English lesson. However Oganova knew the girl wouldn’t leave – as she had already alerted her by text message – until her father, with friends, arrived to pick her up. Then things in the car became tense and agitated. Frightened, Oganova made it out of the car and back home, eventually developed the photographs she had taken that night, selected two of them, and redesigned the book.

Oganova, the first Georgian photographer to be invited to the World Press Photo’s Joop Swaart Masterclass, decided to self-publish Frozen Waves not because she was lacking a publisher, but because she felt the need for the book to be handmade, to be a tactile experience for her as much as for the reader.

When she met with the women, Oganova asked them to take her to the places they were raped. As these places often were beautiful landscapes, Oganova decided to slash the negatives, so that the prints depicting these landscapes would show that something – dignity – had been broken in this place. Yet she also collected flowers and leaves from the respective places, which she subsequently pressed and glued on various pages, as she wanted life and survival to be represented in the book as well. The impact of these images and elements, as well as Frozen Waves overall, is powerful. However, knowing about their origins, bestow on these women, and Oganova herself, a greater agency than these images and elements, alone, divulge.

Considering the daring subject she has taken on, the revelations she makes, and the embrace, even protection, she provides, it feels somewhat insensitive to be critical of Frozen Waves. However, there is one aspect I wish for: more clues to unravel the photographic metaphors and botanic symbols Oganova so deliberately uses. Had I not interviewed her, I would not know so much of this subtext, which turns this beautiful book-object into something so much more.

Unforeseeing that her book would coincide with a larger movement empowering women to speak up and finally be heard, Frozen Waves is another empathetic and painful testimony of how commonly and easily women are not seen as people, but as commodities, merely existing to enrich a man’s ego and status. As much as ‘commodity’ is a term coinciding with the (un)ethics of capitalism and politics, kidnaping and raping women goes back to Greek mythology (Persephone, Phoebe and Hilaeirs, Helena – the list goes on). Even the European Union’s emblem of Europa and the bull is based on mythological abduction and rape. If shame derives its power from the mute, Dina Oganova’s book breaks this silence with subtle, yet gut-wrenching strength. She also shows how images and words belong to one another – not only to make art, but also to advocate.

Frozen waves are a natural phenomenon that rarely occurs. Oganova witnessed this once – the force they held and the secrets that lay within them. Ultimately, they broke.

Collector’s POV: Dina Oganova does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the photographer via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.) ... Read on.

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