How a photographer brought home memories for Armenian genocide survivors

Looking through Diana Markosian’s portfolio and reading the list of awards she has received, you would think she has been telling stories from remote parts of the world for decades. But at 26, she is just beginning her photography career.

For her recent story, “1915” — reflective of the start of the Armenian genocide — Markosian went on a search to retrieve the memories of the few remaining Armenian genocide survivors. As an Armenian-American, she has approached her photography of the country with elegance and empathy.

When she was 7 years old, Markosian was abruptly moved from Russia to California with her mother and brother. Her father at that point, and for much of her childhood, was not in the picture. At the age of 22, two years after graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Markosian crossed the world and traveled to the former Soviet Republic of Armenia to search for her father and the relationship that never was.

This personal journey is beautifully illustrated through her project, “Inventing My Father.

Markosian’s time in Armenia changed her. “It broke something in me and I grew emotionally,” she said. “I became much more vulnerable and much more sensitive.”

From there, after unmasking a part of herself that she had not known before, she took on a request from a foundation to search for the last remaining Armenian genocide survivors. She admitted that on the day this project was proposed to her, she had been looking at plane tickets. She was emotionally worn out and ready to leave Armenia.

But, Markosian was intrigued and excited by this new idea, and with that, began working on a story that she would soon find herself being an active part of.

A map of Western Armenia, once a part of the Ottoman Empire, and now present-day Turkey. It shows the route Markosian traveled to re-trace the memories of her subjects who fled at the time of the genocide in 1915. Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Markosian.

She requested to attain records from the government regarding the status of survivors, but was denied. So she found what she was looking for through a much more tedious method.

“I started looking at voter registries. I looked for who is registered to vote and who was still alive. I then looked at who was born before 1915,” Markosian told ivoh via Skype. “I found their addresses (there were no phone numbers) and started traveling across the country. I had about 20 different addresses in villages and would go and knock on the doors and ask if they were born before 1915. Then ask, ‘did you flee from Turkey?’”

Most, but not all, families welcomed Markosian. “There was one person whose family told me that she didn’t want to talk because she was so frustrated with how the media has presented her story in the past,” Markosian said. “That is really what the challenge is. You don’t want to exploit. You don’t want to feel like you are taking from somebody.”

In her native language of Russian, Markosian established close relationships with three different survivors — Movses, Yepraksia, and Mariam — who ranged in age from 101 to 110 years old.

“I interviewed them and asked about their last memories in Turkey,” Markosian said.

After learning about the survivors’ lives, she visited and photographed various landmarks that they had described to her. Her photos brought back memories of places the survivors never thought they would see again.

A portrait of Movses placed at the ruins of his church. Kebusie, Turkey. Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Markosian.

“ told me about his village and about how he remembered the sea and eating oranges beside the water and he drew me a map of how to find that hole. So I followed the map and I found everything he described to me — about the sheep and the oranges and the sea. And he asked me to find his church and leave his image there. So I found his church, but it was a pile of rocks, so I left his image in a pile of rocks,” Markosian said about her journey to help recover a 100-year old memory.

With an elevated sense of spirit and energy, she continued uncovering bits and pieces of her native land’s past. “Mariam asked me to bring back land for her to be buried in. So I brought a container of soil for her,” Markosian said. “When she opened it, she said that I brought the smell of her village to her.”

Markosian also created large-scale prints of the landscapes that the survivors fled from, giving each elder an interactive experience with their first home. She used still photography, archive footage, historical documents, and video. “Video does something that photography can’t. It takes you into this world and allows you to feel motion,” Markosian said. “When Movses touches that billboard, you are not just imagining it, you are feeling it. You are all of a sudden there with him.”

Markosian is now based in Istanbul. It is the first home base in her career. Throughout the past five years she has been on the move with one suitcase, spending time in Burma and Chechnya before going to Armenia. In each of these places, she has pursued stories and has created bodies of work that deal with the relationship between memory and place.

“With each project, I grow in a different way,” Markosian said. “With this project, it allowed me to understand what it means to have impact with my work.

Yepraksia Gevorgyan, now 110, escaped by crossing the river to what is now present-day Armenia. She watched the Ottomans kill the Armenians, throwing their bodies into the water, which she described as “red, full of blood.” (Photo taken by, and courtesy of, Markosian)

Markosian has now begun a second part of her project aimed at helping to improve the lives of the three survivors and their families.

Markosian is selling a selection of limited edition prints for $1,000 each, and smaller prints ranging between $350 to $650. Her goal is to raise $30,000 — allocating $10,000 to each family. As of the middle of September, she had raised $6,000, a considerable amount of money in Armenia. She is hoping to wrap up her fundraiser by the end of October.

“So much of our profession is about taking and for the first time, I am in this rare position where I can give,” she said.

Markosian’s own identity as an Armenian-American is not lost in her storytelling. In many ways, her work on “1915” helped her become more in touch with her own cultural heritage. “I started understanding what it meant to be Armenian. It is one thing to understand, it is another thing to embrace.”

Looking back, Markosian said she had never planned on pursuing storytelling projects about the genocide. But sometimes the pull of a story uproots our plans and leads us to places where we never thought we’d be.

“What made it very real for me was understanding what the story is really about. So much of the story was about home and was about childhood and about loss. And it was about finding all of those things again,” Markosian said.

“The takeaway for me from this project is that so much of the past is not in the past, but it is in the present. And it is part of life. It is a history that is often overlooked, but for these individuals it is very real. And it is a legacy. It is a burden that each generation carries on with them — my family as well.”

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