Every year on Orthodox Easter, traffic is blocked for hours on the main highway in Western Georgia to allow the men of Shukhuti village to battle for a 16-kilogram (35 pounds) leather ball, stuffed tight with sawdust, soil and topped with red wine.
Villagers from upper and lower Shukhuti gather under an old tree in front of the abandoned building, formerly the House of Culture during Soviet times. Divided into two teams, they face each other and trade cries, egging themselves on. Father Saba, the local Orthodox priest, carries the ball surrounded by his helpers like bodyguards to throw the ball into the crowd. Lelo has begun.
The playground stretches between two brooks, about 150 meters apart, marking the goal lines for the two teams. The aim is simple: whichever side is the first to carry the leather ball back to their brook wins the game. The game looks like rugby, but without rules, except one: if someone falls, the match is paused to allow a player to stand up. Nothing else can stop them.
I had photographed Lelo once before and had only a little experience on how to behave.
Whether shooting pictures or just watching, you should be ready to be involved in the whirlwind of Lelo. It may happen suddenly and then you need to collect all your strength to force your way back through the crowd, or just resign yourself to becoming part of the game. Perhaps it’s the only sport where everyone has the opportunity to become a player at least for a few minutes.