The Other Georgia On My Mind

Photojournalist Ian McNaught Davis went looking for a photograph in Georgia but found a home instead.

In a single step, Rustaveli Avenue – the road that slices through Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia – was drained of its noise. The cacophony of hurtling minibuses, wheezing accordions, spirited haggling and the screeching of subterranean trains evaporated when the pads of the tiger’s paws kissed the tar. 

Its ochre limbs swayed as it sauntered across the zebra crossing. I held my breath. Knelt down beneath the bus stop bench. Removed my lens cap. Watched it slink towards McDonalds.

It paused beneath the margarine-yellow arches of the fast food dynasty. Then it swiveled its head and stared through my viewfinder at me. The carnal glint in its eye fell into focus.

Click. It’s the perfect photograph – nature’s indifference towards the ravages of globalisation.

No… Wait.

There’s no McDonalds. Instead there’s a girl. Yes. An Afghan girl. With piercing green eyes. She’s in a Mexican stand-off with the tiger. She reaches into her rose-coloured shawl. Pulls out a sunflower. She edges closer, until deftly placing it between its incisors.

Click. It’s the perfect photograph – fearlessness in the face of tyranny.

Hang on… No.

A storm rages at night. The tiger stalks towards a stray puppy lying petrified beneath a flickering Soviet-era streetlight. The tiger sidles up to the freezing, panic-stricken mutt and coils around its shaking body to shelter it.

Click. It’s the perfect photograph – a moment of inter-mammalian altruism that we humans are yet to master.

These are some of the scenarios I predicted on a train to Tbilisi. An hour earlier I heard of a flashflood that crashed into the Tbilisi Zoo, freeing a menagerie – including six tigers, eight bears, 20 wolves and a hippo – to run amok in the streets. And I was about to take a spellbinding photograph of this literal rendition of Jumanji that would soon be framed with the iconic canary-yellow border of National Geographic magazine.

When I arrived I was told that a tiger hiding in a warehouse had killed someone. That tiger – according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Internal Affairs “has been liquidated.”

A woman told me that the army and the police had begun to hunt the cavorting carnivores. Or as the Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesperson claimed, “giving them injections”. The woman added that the police were ahead of the army in the competition to see who could inject the most escapees.

This happened two years ago, on my second day in Georgia – a country that has kept me as enthralled as a stray cat staring at the fugitive Komodo dragon lurking on the banks of Tbilisi’s Kura River. So much so that, after three years of travelling, I have decided to live here.

I like Georgia because of her mysterious beauty. But I love her because of her madness.

Because Georgia is the place where you’ll see a monk sucker punch someone during a public debate on whether Monster Energy Drink is the work of the Devil. (It turns out it is. And if you don’t agree, I know of a monk who will fight you until you do.)

It’s a country where guests are seen divine gifts. Georgians will think nothing of inviting a stranger into their house for morning tea. Except that morning tea is usually a bottle of chacha, a benignly-named yet potent spirit that will have you praising and cursing Georgian hospitality in search for a bakery to mop up the rising tide of Soviet drain cleaner in your gut.

It’s the place where I was floored with tonsillitis – an affliction that exclusively targets five-year-olds and me – and had an hour-long consultation with a doctor, three-quarters of which was her trawling through Facebook to find a picture of a gastroenterologist from South Africa she met at a conference three years ago because she was certain I had seen him before.

“Yes. I know him. Definitely,” I mimed.

She gave me a spray with “for throat and mouse” written on it. And when it didn’t work (probably because it was for mice), I got a seething abscess that a surgeon removed with a few graceful Kill Bill strokes. Which was nice of him, except that he forgot to use an anaesthetic beforehand.

He waved me sent me off, saying, “Pain, pain, sorry, sorry,” while giving a Gee whiz! Was I double parking this whole time?! type of shrug-and-smile combo.

“Do I have to escape a zoo to get an injection around here?” I wondered while stumbling out of the hospital, hoping to be invited for chacha by a stranger.

But after soothing my freshly massacred throat with Myprodol and ice cream, I could see the lighter side. This country isn’t mean; it’s just lovingly crazy at times.

Deep in the folds of the Caucuses Mountains lives one of the last Georgian tigers. Primordial instincts – once buried beneath its consciousness by steel bars, glass panes and camera flashes – have surged and brimmed to meet its mind in this uncaged existence.

Its paws pat the pine needles soundlessly as it weaves through trees in a clandestine haze of stripes.

After claiming tax from a local shepherd’s flock, it drags its prey to the forest.

The afternoon light plunges down the mountain slopes towards the pines. It shatters through the ancient trees, illuminating the tiger’s hazel eyes and shimmers on the warm blood that’s slathered on the twitching whiskers and frayed wool.

It’s the perfect photograph. And that’s why we’ll never see it.

Footnotes: Ian McNaught Davis is a South African photojournalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is currently working on a long-term photography project. View his work at