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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI student’s exhibit disputes media stereotypes of Republic of Georgia

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- February 8, 2005 -- Don’t believe everything you read or see about the Republic of Georgia, a land of 5.5 million people living in an area roughly the combined size of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The country, which borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, gained its independence in 1991 and remains in transition, according to University of Rhode Island student Lisa Lahr.

“The media portrays the country in one of three ways: filled with churches, political upheaval, or beleaguered war orphans,” says Lahr, a Middletown resident who has visited the former Soviet republic three times with a camera in hand during the last six years, circling the country from Tbilisi to Batumi, and shooting more than 3,000 images of Georgians at work and at play.

“I wanted to go beyond the headlines, beyond the CNNs,” says the 41-year-old student who selected 40 of those images, some black and white, others in color, for an exhibit at URI. The images best represent the Georgian culture Lahr discovered and admires.

The exhibit, “Unfettered Georgia: An Exhibition of Images of a Former Soviet Republic,” will be on display until May 30 on the second floor of URI’s Lippitt Hall, the home of URI’s Honors Program. The exhibit is free and open to the public. A lecture by the artist is planned on March 30 at 4 p.m.

Lahr spent last August in Georgia, the trip supported by a $4,750 fellowship from the Michael J. Metcalf Memorial Fund at the Rhode Island Foundation. This time she stayed at a farmhouse in the small village of Khissishevi, Georgia and employed a teen-ager as an interpreter. Like most Georgians she has encountered, Lahr found her hosts warm and friendly. “Everywhere I traveled in Georgia, people always wanted to take me in and feed me,” she says.

Like many farmhouses, this one had a vineyard. More than 400 varieties of grapes are cultivated in Georgia, which is known for its winemaking.

Since her first trip, Lahr has been particularly taken with the Roma, or gypsies, whose very existence is ignored and whose culture isn’t catalogued.

Roma appear in many of Lahr’s images. The URI student captured 10-year-old Sveta Aliev, standing outside a bank, waiting to put her hand out for money as customers exited. She scowls at the camera, displeased to be distracted from her “work.”

“Roma children do not receive a formal education. A fraction of them do go to school, for how long—no one knows,” says Lahr. “Sveta, for example, speaks Russian, Romani, Georgian, and some English. I wish I could have taken her home.”

“The Georgians take great pride in their craftsmanship,” says Lahr who captured some of those images. “Their cutlery, in particular, is (second to none??.) I would have loved to bring home one of their ceremonial knives, but it’s off limits in the age of homeland security, understandably so.”

While Lahr concedes there are problems in Georgia—health care for the poor, for example, is rudimentary. Communicable diseases are commonplace and vaccinations are non-existent. The problem isn’t on the world’s radar.

But there is so much more to Georgia. Lahr points to one of her photos, a farmer’s market in Tbilisi. “The people are peaceful and friendly. There are no soldiers, no guns, no constant upheaval,” she says. “The city is no more dangerous than New York City.”