'Leftovers from a fallen society'

Story highlights

  • Ponichala is a settlement for the blind that was established by the Soviets in the 1930s
  • Photographer Marcel Maffei chronicled the plight of this community and its residents

(CNN)Tucked away in a neglected suburb on the outskirts of Tbilisi, Georgia, stands a block of decaying buildings unknown to even many of the city's residents.

Called Ponichala, the dilapidated complex is a remnant of the Soviet era, established by the government in the 1930s to accommodate people who were blind or visually impaired.
    During World War II, the Soviets built factories in the settlement, turning it into a labor camp. People who were blind or visually impaired were brought to Ponichala to produce goods, tools and supplies. Though Ponichala was effectively a working ghetto, it also housed community facilities like a library and cultural center by the '60s and '70s, thanks to the efforts of Georgia's Union of the Blind.
    After the collapse of the Soviet Union, factories were disbanded and apartments were sold. The infrastructure of Ponichala began to crumble, and many of its residents lost their jobs. The settlement was expanded to include other inhabitants, who now occupy Upper Ponichala. Lower Ponichala is still relegated to the visually impaired community: those who have lived there since the Soviet era, and their descendants.
    Photographer Marcel Maffei
    Photographer Marcel Maffei chronicles the plight of this community in his photo series, "Blind Ponichala." Maffei's photos paint a bleak portrait of Ponichala, capturing a sense of resignation and hopelessness felt by many of the residents.
    There is Sauri, who moved to Ponichala at 23 after losing his eyesight and now yearns for the Soviet era. He misses the consistency and routine of his job in the factories, but now he bides his time in his unheated apartment, looking forward to his children's visits once or twice a year.
    There is Natali, who is part of Ponichala's newer generation. She was born with a heavy visual impairment to parents who are both blind. Natali's parents used to work in Ponichala's community facilities, but the definition of work has since changed for them. Now work is what Natali's mother calls going to the train station to beg for money.
    "Most of the people never leave Ponichala," Maffei said. "From what I could see, it felt like the community is still closed off and society in general is still not ready to handle people who are different."
    One of Maffei's photos shows a disassembled white cane, a distinguishing characteristic for people who are blind in Georgia. Maffei says many of the people he met in Ponichala avoided using white canes because of the stigma attached to them. Going out in public with a white cane in Georgia would often lead to public harassment.

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    But despite the images of crumbling buildings and dated, dark apartments, not everyone is resigned to a life of hopelessness. Another one of Maffei's photos depicts Dato, who came to Ponichala after losing his sight in a childhood accident. Dato stays active working as a liaison between Ponichala and the Union of the Blind, and in his spare time he goes mountain climbing. He even climbed Shkhara, the highest peak in Georgia.
    "That's a unique part of Soviet history," Maffei said. "People there are leftovers from a fallen society, and some of them are trying to do their best to make it worthwhile to live there."
    Maffei's connection to Ponichala is personal. He says he got interested in covering the visually impaired community after an illness in his childhood caused him to lose his sight for weeks. Since then, the feeling of not being able to see has stayed with him.
    In Germany, some of Maffei's projects centered on helping blind people and sighted people better relate to each other. Through multimedia installations, he simulated what living without sight was for people who could see, and he had people who were blind use their other senses to take photos with cameras.
    Maffei was at a photo festival in Georgia to explore what life for the blind community was like there when someone brought him to Ponichala.
    "There was a moment I knew that I really need to come back and do a story about this," Maffei said. "Maybe everything there will get torn down in the next 10 years. They could start to destroy these old houses or build something new there. It could be possible that this place will get erased."