I was introduced to Ara’s work in a workshop at ICP and to say I was impressed would be a understatement. His work has character and intimacy which is rarely seen in photojournalism. And so I requested him to spend some time with me in a interview to discuss his book “Father Land”.
For those who haven’t seen the slide show from Burn Magazine from the last blogpost, Father Land is Ara’s first book. Exploring the small region of Karabagh next to Armenia, this book documents the photographers presence in this homeland he’s never visited before, the residual conflict in the lives of its citizens and the search for his own identity. Coming from a family of poets, Ara effortlessly constructs complex narratives built on exile, loss, being an outsider and yet being intimately involved with the space.
The publishers, Powerhousebooks have made a video and a detailed synopsis of the book, I do recommend looking at it before you read the interview as I would be skipping to the more pressing queries at hand.
Q. Fatherland was created over ten years of photography, with you travelling between Armenia and California. And a very important part of this work has been the fact that you never had been to this location prior to the book. I’m curious how the place was in your imagination vs the reality of it? And if it was different how did that change your viewpoint about it.
That’s very true; I was born in a diaspora in the Middle East, into a nationalistic family, which was very much connected to Armenia. We were descendants of the Armenian genocide, very conscious of retaining our language and culture after this attempt to exterminate our language, culture & identity. My father and my grandfather both wrote in Armenian, so there is this whole continuity there. I grew up with an imaginary idea of what Armenia was. We were taught in school about the beautiful mountains and streams and the heroes of the Armenian past, almost propaganda of what motherland should look like. But we know the reality is very different.
So when the project happened, I went with a very open mind. I didn’t want to go back to Armenia without a purpose, but now I was working in this region, it all changed. As a photographer you just go into places and you try to connect, without judging or thinking of things should or should not be. Just tried to be there without preconceptions.
Q. Before going to Armenia, you were already documenting your family and this diaspora you exist in back in LA. Why was it necessary to go to Karabagh and not just work with your family to create a metaphysical space in California?
I was doing both and I really feel it’s very important to work in your own backyard. But going to Armenia, mostly comes out of influences of literature. Like most writers write about themselves, their people, the places where they live in. It’s expected to come from there; no body goes to a country and writes fiction about that country. And my approach was to write about myself, to photograph about myself. So I started photographing in LA but there is a symbiotic relationship between Armenia and the diaspora. My father would say, “You have two lungs, one is Armenia and the other is diaspora. And they both need to be working for the person to be alive”. It was clear to me, if I was going to look at Armenia and the Armenian experience between the 20th and the 21st century; I had to go to Armenia at some point and work on a project that connected to the diaspora.
Q. Reading your father and grandfather’s work, they both wrote passionately about Armenia while in exile. I wish to understand how your viewpoint changed being an outsider in the most basic physical sense yet always being intimately involved with the idea of home?
I think it meant I had a different perspective. I don’t think it helped me, as I didn’t really have a well-defined direction, like I’m going to start here and end here. I just started exploring and that’s the beautiful thing about documentary photography as there is no particular endpoint. The process becomes as much a purpose as the actual purpose.
A lot of the work really comes together in the editing process. Like Nan Goldin the other day said “photography is editing” and everything is very much instinctual. But yes it did give me this ambiguity that we were earlier talking about. You go to this homeland but you’ve never been there before. So I found myself in this strange ambiguity of knowing the place but never having been there. I spoke the language, but a different dialect from the locals in that region. Their culture was my culture but not quite. It was home but also at times completely foreign. So it also became about identity.
Infact the title, which my father gave the book, was “The Spirit of Karabagh” in the sense that it was going to be about the spirit of this place and how they were able to survive. In the introductory text, my father lists twelve to fifteen races that used to be in this region that no longer exist. So his question was why is Armenia still there. But as I was working, it became more about me, my identity and the connection to my father.
Q. Do you consider yourself in exile?
Through and through, in a sense, yes. An outsider. I don’t think of it as exile because that would mean I’ve been thrown out of someplace. But I’m in a state of constant diaspora; even if I go back to Armenia it would be a diaspora for me. So I believe this is my state of being, between multiple cultures, languages that influence all of my work.
Q. As we look deeply into the image construction, the classic style of photojournalistic documentary comes into play and invokes a deep sense of conflict intertwined with poignant awareness of normality. How did you start exploring layering and working through this contrasting stability and residual conflict in your images?
Yes, the aftermath of war is obviously a important part of that region. The book for me was about the place, the issues as well as about my identity. There is a image in the book which is very much about the duality of war with some kids who are playing with these rusted old military vehicles. War and life are definitely one of things which I explored in the book.
Q. Your father’s work has always been about the loss and struggles of Armenians yet always a hope for the future. As we look at fatherland there is a deep sense of loss, the lost land, your own history, losing your father, as you became a father. Do you think somewhere this work becomes a family album more than the exploration of a society?
In a sense it is a family album. Everytime I went, I had one more addition to my family. My sons were born and at the same time I lost my father. So there is a cycle which is repeated. Yes, you could look at it as a family album, a very very strange (laughs) family album. And I do feel that for the work to be relevant it has to have multiple layers. Its a dark book but in it there is this idea of becoming, which looks at the future of myself and this place.
Thank you Ara for taking the time to talk to me for this interview. If you are interested in more information about the book or Ara’s work, please visit his website. Father Land is available at the ICP Book Store (Signed Copies, I think) or it can be ordered on Amazon or via the Publishers directly.