‘Tears streamed down his face. He told me his son had died – his pride and joy – and that I looked just like him. I asked if he would dance for me’. I was a dancer before I was a photographer. Born in France, the grandchild of Armenian genocide survivors, dance was one of the few ways I could connect with a homeland I had never known. When I danced as an Armenian peasant, I became an Armenian peasant. It was a way to animate the stories my grandparents told.
Ishran dances in the mountains near Aparan, Armenia. Photograph: Antoine Agoudjian
Around 1985, I was performing in Boston, when the owner of a one-hour photo lab – a pretty revolutionary thing back then – offered me a job. It came with one condition, that I train his amateur dance troupe. Dance inadvertently led me to photography, but the two had more in common than many think. Each combined artistic vision and technique. Each was about telling a story.
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In 1988, an earthquake shook Armenia. Around 40,000 died and hundreds of thousands were displaced. I headed there with a humanitarian organisation and took my camera. Photography was a way to bear witness to the aftermath of the quake, but it soon became more than that: an archaeological enquiry into Armenian identity, culture and memory since the 1915 genocide.
The extermination of Armenian Christians living in the Ottoman empire began on 24 April 1915, when around 250 intellectuals were deported, many of whom were later executed. But I believe the Balkan War of 1912 was the true origin of the genocide. The Ottoman empire in Europe collapsed that year, sending shockwaves through Anatolia. The trauma burrowed its way into the Turkish psyche, and forced it to fortify itself against a weaker opponent. In some ways, that trauma has never healed.
Armenian Christians, already classified as second-class citizens with inferior legal rights, became an obvious target for a Turkish backlash. In April, the operation of forced displacement, death marches, and the mass extermination of the able-bodied male population began. Around 1.5m died, and Armenians scattered across the world. This was the reason I was born in France, far from the land of my ancestors.
Photography became my way of exploring this history. But I learned quickly that reportage couldn’t tell the stories I needed to tell. Photography interested me; photojournalism did not because it could not explore what I came to learn was the heart of Armenian identity: poetry, communion with the land, and ancient folk traditions. Every time I shoot, I’m face-to-face with a history that traumatised me as a child. In those circumstances, objectivity is a myth.
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In 1998, I found myself in Aparan, a large town an hour’s drive from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. A local dance troupe was performing that evening, in the open air, with most of the suburb in attendance. The old, the young, everyone was present, sitting hunched on stools or cross-legged on the floor, transfixed. In the background, small mountains and jagged cliffs framed the scene.
As soon as I took my first shot, an old man approached me. Tears streamed down his face. He told me that his son had died. That he had been electrocuted, that he was his pride and joy, and that I looked just like him. He broke into sobs and moved towards me with outstretched arms. His name was Ishran.
I asked if he would dance for me, and he began dancing. The troupe paused and perched on an outcrop of rocks in the background. It was beautiful, not because the man is beautiful, but because he represents something deep inside the collective consciousness of the Armenian community: a celebratory resilience in the face of overwhelming loss.
Many who left in 1915 thought they would return. The Armenian people had suffered massacres before, and even when mass killings continued into the 1920s, people believed they would eventually reclaim their homeland. The word “genocide” did not exist at the time. Conceptualising what had happened was almost impossible. It was only coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin to describe what had happened in Armenia.
‘Photography interested me; photojournalism did not’: Antoine Agoudjian
The Turkish state still refuses to recognise what happened as genocide. In that sense, my work is not historical; it is intimately tied to the present. Following the centenary in 2015, the world seems to be taking notice, however. The Bundestag officially recognised the genocide in the last few weeks. Every other state must do the same. The more Erdoğan denies us, the stronger we become. We know what it is to disappear. And we resist that against all odds.
Antoine Agoudjian’s CV
Born: St-Maur-des-Fossés, France, 1961
Influences: “My grandparents’ stories, and the Armenian archives documenting early 20th century life in Armenia.”
High point: “The publication of my book, The Cry of Silence, following an exhibition in Diyarbakir in Turkish Kurdistan. It marked the centenary of the genocide and was the culmination of 30 years’ work.”
Low point: “The moment when I realised that a photographer is dependent on the establishment, and that without their help, it’s almost impossible to follow one’s ambitions.”