Armenia: From a photojournalist’s perspective

I began this project by journeying to another country that not many remember exists: a country that considers itself to be a part of Europe, when it can technically be classified as within Europe, the Middle East, or even both. With a rich and dense history, Armenia is a place to be discussed. It is a country that is smaller than Maryland and has an estimated population of a little over three million people.

It is ranked 79 in the World Press Freedom Index, which is down since 2016 when it was ranked 74. The Press Freedom Index is a yearly ranking of all the countries in the world based on what the Reporters Without Borders think and evaluate to be accurate of the countries’ press freedom records for the previous year. When it comes to media in Armenia, it is considered to be diverse and spread-out. For broadcasting, there are two public networks that operate alongside about 40 privately owned TV stations that provide a variety of news coverage, including local and nationwide news. Also, many major Russian broadcast stations are widely available.

Print media, mainly investigative journalism, has had some terrifying setbacks including police brutality against journalists. There is never just one reason as to why police are being brutal towards journalists. There are specific instances that explain what happened, but even then, we don’t always know why. For example, a newspaper in 2015 had to go to constitutional court to have the ruling show in favor to keep journalists’ sources confidential. Many policemen were capable of using this as a reason to show force toward journalists.

Even with this win in 2015, 21 journalists were the victims of abuse by police forces. There was only one investigation carried out to look into all the various cases of this issue and, in the end, no one was charged with any crimes. Violence still prevails and goes unpunished. In July of 2016, about a dozen journalists were injured while covering the use of force that is used to break up demonstrations in Armenia.

Armenia, despite temporary bursts of freedom, has for centuries been under the commands of various empires. This includes the Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Persian, and Ottoman empires. While under the Ottoman’s reign during World War I, atrocities were committed against the Armenian people; this is known as the Armenian Genocide.

The definition of genocide is the organized killing of national, political, racial, or cultural group. The Armenian Genocide was mainly planned and put into action by the Turkish government against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Before World War I there was an estimated population of two million Armenians. Over a million people were deported at the start of the genocide where some fled to surrounding, or safer countries, to lead a new life as refugees. Unfortunately, 1.5 million people who could not escape the darkness that was occurring in Armenia were either violently slaughtered, or killed due to starvation, exhaustion, or epidemics that were in the concentration camps.

To this day, Armenians are still fighting for this genocide to be known as such. The current Republic of Turkey still denies that the genocide was committed against the Armenians during World War I and sees these atrocities as pure allegations. Countries such as Russia, France, Greece, and Argentina are officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide mainly due to the vast population of Armenian survivors and their decedents in these countries.

Photo of Nazik Armenakyan (from her website)

Nazik Armenakyan has been a photojournalist since 2002. After she completed a photojournalism workshop coordinated by the Caucasus Institute and World Press Photo in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, she gained an interest in pursuing more long-term documentary projects. The first of these is a project called “Survivors.” She began in 2005 after the workshop when she was given the simple assignment of doing a portrait. She chose to do it on a survivor who, at the time, was 100 years old.

“It was important for me to show that these people… were not immortal, even if they had lived a hundred years and still continued to live because they have a message,” Nazik explained on her website as she describes the motivation to continue the project. “I understood that having kept their message silent for all these years, they were waiting for something.”

It has been about a decade of searching and scouring as Nazik’s project tells the stories of surviving victims of the Armenian Genocide. She would spend days with each of her subjects to gain their trust. Most of the individuals she photographed were children when they were recounting their memories to her of the genocide. This made most of them to be in their 90s or over 100 when she talked with them.

Photo by Nazik Armenakyan.

According to an article about Nazik and her work “Survivors,” she spoke about what it was like to find the 45 survivors she did. Nazik recalled a specific scenario of when she would arrive at isolated, distant villages to see death had taken a person before she arrived. She explains in the interview about a single moment something such as this occurred. Nazik had hiked to reach a survivor’s home when she broke into tears and saw the hearse parked in front.

“I turned to leave, but then stopped because I realized that even in death I needed to take her photo,” Nazik Armenakyan said.

Nazik continues her work as a photojournalist to this day, and she has even worked on other projects. She is also a co-founder of 4Plus, an Armenian organization that seeks to strengthen and empower women through photography. They have had exhibitions that highlighted the different problems women in Armenia are having to face daily. This may include some topics such as violence against women, treatment of refugee women, and transgender issues.

Photo by Nazik Armenakyan.

Nazik Armenakyan second long-term documentary-style project is called “The Stamp of Loneliness.” It shows what it’s like to be a part of the most at-risk group in the LGBT community in Armenia: cross dressers and transgender women who engage in sex work. She describes her subjects on her site as being the gay youth who were “cast off from society” and “who cannot find another job because of their appearance and sexual orientation.” Sex workers are always in danger and are often victims of assault. Many she has photographed have explained that they are only in this business because they are unable to find other work.

Although there were many attempts at communication, I wasn’t able to interview Nazik directly like I’d hoped to. Her work and inspirational stories speaks for themselves. Whether it is about the survivors of the Armenian Genocide or members of the LGBT community in Armenia, I see the passion and dedication she has brought when recalling individual’s stories. She truly cares about what she does and the people she is representing. Although it may have the highest ranking, and it still has issues with police using excessive force toward journalists, Armenia shows great momentum when it comes to freedom of the press.