~~Ara Oshagan is a documentary photographer. He is also my cousin. His father, Vahé Oshagan, and my mother, Anahid Oshagan Voskeritchian, are brother and sister. I must mention our familial tie in the spirit of full disclosure as I am about to sit with his recently published book of photographs, Father Land (powerHouse Books, NY), to write. But rest assured: If there is the appearance of a conflict of interest here, it is a ruse. True, we are related to each other by blood and friendship and common interests, but we are (and have been for some years now) each other’s interrogators; at times, each other’s corrective lens; at times, each other’s critic. In addition to breaking bread at the same table many times, we have thought together mostly in Western Armenian, our ancestral language, but also, of late, our “language of return.” And almost always, we have been each other’s mirror of refraction and congruence, agreement and divergence. Ara Oshagan’s Afterword to the book follows this post.~~
Father Land is a consciously complicated book. Here the photographer son and the writer father cohabit and claim not only the space of the book but also the attention of the reader. In addition to this generational cohabitation (and competition), there is also a cohabitation of languages, the original Armenian of the father’s long essay on Karabakh and the English language translation by G.M.Goshgarian (who is also the translator of record of Hagop Oshagan’s Mnatsortats), followed by the seventy or so black-and-white photographs whose sequencing as well as the placement of each photograph on the page often take the breath away, so well thought out are the design and narrative choices here.
Ara Oshagan’s short Afterword in English and Armenian translation brings the book to a close, but nothing is concluded despite the absolutes which surround Karabakh in the national consciousness of Armenians the world over. In fact, this inconclusiveness is directly related to the tension between the text and the images, neither one illustrative of the other, neither one subservient to the other. If Karabakh’s recent history is a struggle for national liberation, which it is, then this book is also a declaration of artistic and generational autonomy, an autonomy which is nevertheless sustained by the common theme of the journey the father and son make to Karabakh.
There are other complications as well. The Afterword’s final sentence opens onto a new space, a new territory, as though the book were the prologue to something which is yet to come or something of huge import left intentionally unsaid or left to the reader’s literary and visual perceptions. And the Afterword’s last words are echoed in the opening paragraphs of the father’s essay with which the book begins, forming another loop, another return, if you will, to a beginning. A journey of discovery, yes, but also of return; a book of narrative, yes, but also of cyclical time.
Father Land is Vahé Oshagan’s last completed prose work, and more significantly the only prose work (as far as I know) which he wrote about a specific locale. His poetry, on the other hand, is very much anchored in urban settings. In fact, one of his most powerful poems, “Beirut-Paris” is a counterpunctal drawing of an imaginary line between Beirut and Paris, a line which does not go through Yerevan, as the poet himself says in the poem. In this respect, Father Land is a kind of anomaly in the prolific output of Vahé Oshagan, perhaps fueled by his accentuated sense of mutability, or perhaps by the congruence between prose and the idea of a journey.
And why Karabakh in specific, and not the Republic of Armenia? And why Karabakh as the subject of a testament from a writer whose entire literary and public life was sustained by the idea of dispersion and absence, or at least illusiveness, of The Home? Why not a prose work about journeying to the Armenian ghetto of Bourj Hammoud in Beirut, for instance, instead of Karabakh?
Some of the answers to these questions can be found in the father’s narrative, which is at once a short history of Karabakh, an evocation of its landscape, an extended hymn the heroism of the Karabakh Armenians in battle and everyday life, and a travelogue of a place whose merciless remoteness is equal to its hold on the imagination. Everything matters here, and matters deeply–from history, to landscape, to legend, to literature, to military victories and quotidian triumphs of will and tenacity, to larger-than-life common folk whose mission seems to be resistance to the poundings of life and artillery of hostile neighbors across the border. As I sit with this book, I am reminded of a comment which Marc Nichanian once made in passing, when we were talking about photographing the diaspora. “The diaspora is invisible,” he said. “How to make it visible? That’s the problem.” In contrast, everything in Karabakh is visible and “known.” The question for the photographer, then, is perhaps a reversal of Nichanian’s question: How to make Karabakh invisible, or half visible. This, I think, is the unspoken intent of Ara Oshagan, his craft’s declaration of independence from the text.
And here, again, there is another complication. In its content, the father’s essay is all about anchor, about presence as thick as October honey, about the way the living and the dead cohabit the lush, darkened landscape of Karabakh. Vahé Oshagan writes: “What boundless optimism, what blind faith must one have to cart Bibles to the top of this deserted mountain, where the people’s struggle for their daily bread does not leave them time to catch their breath.” The son, by contrast, sees mostly movement, passings, actions and gestures. It is telling that there are very few photographs here of depopulated landscape. The emphasis is always on the living and roiling, the animals included.
Father Land is also Ara Oshagan’s first major, book-length work as a photographer intent on looking at the known, but also beyond the known—looking at knots of uncertainty, or creating them. Vahé Oshagan prepares for this when he writes, addressing the reader: “Like you and with you, we, the authors, do not know how this adventure-journey will end, and will not until we have turned the last page. Every time we leaf through this album, that truth may be different, and the discovery of it as fresh as each new reading.” It is the writer who writes these words, but the medium which fully exploits this idea is not so much his text but photography itself.
All these complications—intentional, generative—are the modernist’s bread and butter. Father and son–both products of dispersion, several resettlements in major urban centers–take up the journey through the land of certainties that is Karabakh. The tension is a given, sneaks up at every turn of the page, lurks in the folds of every photograph. All this, and more, is implicated in the act of reading this volume, of looking at the photographs. All this heaviness. And Father Land is indeed a heavy book, several books, in fact, compressed into a handsome, well-designed and meticulously produced volume. From the concept, to the typeface, to the photographs, to the quality of the paper, Father Land is a dense, weighty work of witness, or as the father says, “testimonial to the truth.”
What are the characteristics of this testimonial for the photographer? Perhaps the most significant element is related to this idea of making the visible invisible, or half-visible, of intervening in such a way that the familiar becomes strange, becomes almost unrecognizable, as though we are in front of a visual puzzle. In practical terms, this element reveals itself in where the photographer places himself in relation to the photographs. He is certainly not a passive receiver of visual impressions, but he is neither engaged; he’s somewhere off center, almost at the edge. You could say he is displaced. (The word choice there is intentional.) His gaze seems to go beyond what is in the foreground: the woman in the window in the back holding an infant while men are smoking and playing backgammon in the foreground; or the thick mist behind a bride and groom getting ready for a picture; or the young girl skipping across the corridor in the back while the mother’s presence is a kind of in-your-face intrusion; or the carcass of an old car in the back while children play in the sand in front of us.
At other times, the scene is clearly off kilter, at an odd angel, with the personages either jumping out of the photograph or submerged in it. In fact asymmetry is an organizational principle in these photographs; it is as dramatic as it is disconcerting, as if the personages (and there are a lot of human presences in these photographs) were hemmed in by the frame, squeezed and left out to dry. Asymmetry is also the companion of tension, and almost every single photograph in this book carries some sort of tightness, as though the scene is merely the façade of something far more complicated that we do not see but are invited to imagine.
In their homes, in their churches, but most strikingly we see them with their animals, the individuals of these photographs seem to carry their hard-earned dignity on their shoulder; they are not content and happy but rather unrelenting. And in each photograph and between and among photographs a narrative is taking place, a narrative which is only half-visible, at best. It is no coincidence, therefore, that many of the photographs carry a palpable darkness, a weightiness; even the hens and dogs are black—all of which is suggestive of the hard lives these people lead, but also of what the photographer finds exciting about what he is photographing, what is open to question, what is worth re-visiting many times.
The Karabakh which is displayed in these photographs is far from the certitudes we, in the diaspora, attribute to the place. Not so much the hardness, the steadfastness, but more of the brew of the living and the dead, the ghosts and the presences, the visible and the invisible, the emergent but also the residual. In fact, Ara Oshagan alludes to this notion of emergence in his Afterword, which I think he fixes not in what is close to us as we look at these photographs but in what is far, in the distance, away from the center, at the edges—which is where “the testimonial to the truth” is located, or perhaps more accurately, dislocated.
In his essay, Vahé Oshagan, referring to Stepanakert, asks “When is a city born? When does it mature? When does it acquire an identity? There is just one answer to all three questions: when it looks death in the eye.” So, too, with populations such as the people of Karabakh where death is intertwined with life, has left its indelible mark on everything. That’s the bedrock truth, the one certainty, but the look itself—as revealed in Father Land, in the eyes of the generations that inhabit its pages– is far from simple in intent and result, journey and destination, discovery and return.~~
This reading is dedicated to A.P.
Afterword to Father Land
My father died in June 2000.
My last memory of him is seeing him in a hospital bed. My first, of a man hunched over a desk, writing.
Sometime in the late nineties, my father and I decided to embark on a project about Karabagh: a place we had barely heard of before its precipitous rise to the world stage as the first nationality conflict of the collapsing Soviet Union; a region that was part of our distant fatherland, a place where our forefathers had lived and died.
Until the nineties, neither one of us had stepped foot in that part of the Armenian homeland. Both our generations were born and came of age in the sprawling cities of the Armenian Diaspora: in Jerusalem, Paris, Beirut, Philadelphia, Los Angeles.
On New Year’s Eve 1998, I landed in Karabagh for the first time, alone. En route, our car hit ice on the dark road and came within inches of falling off a cliff. Mud at the side of the road saved us. In the dark, a car stopped, five men got out, pushed our car back onto the road. They told our driver to be careful. I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a family I had just met. Their father: the lone survivor of his entire platoon. They had two boys, one a baby. We ate and we drank. We drank to the memory of the men who fell in war. We drank to our fathers and forefathers. We drank to the future and to life. I returned home and within months I was a new father: my first son, Sebouh.
I returned to Karabagh in the fall of that same year, 1999, in the wake of that euphoria and madness of newborn life. This trip I made with my own father. The father and the new father, one writing, the other photographing: this land, this people, this way of life so unfamiliar to us yet so naturally ours. Working together and in parallel, working to bring something to life. Bearing witness. We ate and drank with the same family.
It would be the only trip I made to Armenia and Karabagh with my father. Next year, I lost him. His writing for our project was the last thing he completed.
In the spring of 2002, almost immediately after my second son, Adom’s birth, I returned to Karabagh. I wandered and I photographed. I saw soldiers at the front lines, I spent time in hospitals and homes for the aging, I witnessed a birth. I moved under the constant gaze of the generation of men who died in the war, whose images are omnipresent in public spaces, at school entrances, on the walls of every home. I ate and drank again with the same family. They had a newborn baby girl. They no longer had their grandmother. We drank to our fathers and forefathers. We drank to life.
During my last and final trip, in 2006, atop Karabagh’s mountainous heights, I got news that my wife was pregnant. Within a few months of my return my twin sons, Shahan and Aren, were born.
And so, unbeknownst to me, a process, a cycle seemed to conclude itself. A cycle of new life and death. A cycle that linked and begot generations. And a project seemingly intertwined in this cycle. The loss of the father, the becoming of a father, the transfiguration of the son to see himself finally, after so many years, as the father. An emergence from under his shadow. A transformation. A becoming.
Karabakh–the people, the land, the very way of life–are under-going a similar transformation.Political, social, existential. A nation with a president, parliament, and military, but no political recognition. Victors in war but yet to win the peace, its process of self-determination and reconstruction yet to be concluded. A place and a people emerging out of a dark history, transforming.
This FatherLand itself in a state of becoming, looking for its own father.