Our genocide does not define us
A photographer’s journey to discover what it means to be Armenian
By Scout Tufankjian
“There is a small area of land in Asia Minor that is called Armenia, but it is not so. It is not Armenia. It is a place. There are plains and mountains and rivers and lakes and cities in this place, and it is all fine, it is all no less fine than all the other places in the world, but it is not Armenia. There are only Armenians, and these inhabit the earth, not Armenia, since there is no Armenia, gentlemen, there is no America and there is no England, and no France, and no Italy, there is only the earth.”
–William Saroyan in The Armenian and the Armenian
Growing up, I was always fascinated by my fellow Armenians. I lived about an hour from the Armenian heartland of Watertown, MA, so trips to buy lahmajun (a pizza-like dish) or to church bazaars were always looked forward to and never taken for granted. I would pore through Armenian newspapers and magazines, search through libraries and bookstores, and flip through channels, searching for glimpses of Armenian school kids in Kolkata or jewelers in Lebanon; soccer players in Argentina or musicians in France. I was enthralled by the idea of these other Armenian kids in Addis Ababa or Aleppo, and I wondered:
Did our being Armenian connect us or did the different paths taken by our refugee grandparents and great-grandparents separate us in some way?
In 2009, after the success of my first book on Barack Obama’s first campaign, I set out to try to answer the questions I had as a child and to tell a different story — a story that would, over the course of the next six years, take me to more than twenty different countries and six different continents. My goal was to photograph Armenian communities and interview Armenians about their lives. Instead of telling a story of victimhood, my new book, There is Only the Earth: Images from the Armenian Diaspora Project, compiles my images and their thoughts in a portrait of our survival and of the thread that ties a people together across a vast earth.
It was a crazy journey.
I photographed drag racers in Los Angeles, met seminarians in Jerusalem, altar boys in Addis Ababa and card-playing revolutionaries in Beirut. I mourned the victims of the genocide in the U.S. and celebrated Armenian holidays on the island of Kinaliada in Turkey. I sparred with Russian-Armenian boxers, cheered on Iranian-Armenian rugby players in Kolkata and shared perfectly silent meals with the Mekhitarist monks in Venice.
Halfway through the project, I realized that I was having a great time, but I was having trouble pinning down the story I was trying to tell. I decided to go back to what my grandparents had always called The Old Country (Armenia) to see if that would get me back on track.
There, I found more than just the roots of the stories that they told me as a child — instead, I found the very roots of our people. I had been mistakenly focusing on what connected our people one hundred years after being scattered across the globe. I was thinking about it all wrong.
A hundred years seemed like a long time, but we had made this land our home more than four thousand years ago. Compared to that, a hundred years was nothing. Many of our houses were still standing. The trees that we had planted were still alive. The rivers ran along their same paths. The grooves in the hills of Kharpert that once held our homes remained in testament to the thousands of Armenians, including my great-grandfather, who once called that city — now a tiny Anatolian village — home.
Those tangible things, and the way this history connects a people, are impossible to erase in a mere hundred years, no matter how far we have been scattered.
This past is what ties a schoolboy in Paris to children playing in a Lebanese refugee camp. It is what binds a gay rights activist in New York to a pious, elderly woman in Damascus. It is what drives a woman to travel from Philadelphia to pre-war Aleppo so that she can give birth to her baby near her grandparents and in an Armenian-speaking hospital.
By history, I don’t just mean the genocide. Throughout the six years that I worked on this project, I did not meet a single Armenian who defined themselves solely through this lense. While the genocide is the defining trauma that runs through our past and reverberates throughout our present, we are not a disappeared people, and it does not define us. Our story began thousands of years before 1915, and by no means did it end there.
We, I discovered, are so much more than that. We are our shared history and our disparate present. We are the holidays we celebrate, the food we eat, and the way we laugh. We are the church we attend and the traditions we keep, as well as the church we do not attend and the traditions we have left behind.
We are tied together not by the horror of the genocide, but by the strength of our survival.
This is the story I have tried to tell through the images in my book — it is my attempt to show us as we are, not as we were.
It is my attempt to speak not of death, but of life.
Although best known for her work documenting Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Armenian American photographer Scout Tufankjian has spent the bulk of her career working in the Middle East, including four years in the Gaza Strip and extensive time in Egypt documenting the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath. Her new book, There is Only the Earth: Images from the Armenian Diaspora Project, is the culmination of six years spent documenting Armenian communities in more than twenty different countries. It was partially funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign. She is based in Brooklyn, NY, where she lives with her husband and their puppy, Noushig.