This week we talk to AHRC PhD Candidate at Central Saint Martins, whose practice is part of multidisciplinary research, which focuses on personal archives, memory, post-memory and trauma. Interested in photography and its use as a referent that bears witness to the traumatic events of the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, Armenoui talks us through her experience of photography and imagery in its materiality, and how imagery can open up a conversation to a more sensitive society.
From a ‘100’ photographic objects
Photo Presents (2014) C-type prints, variable sizes.
I came from a Fine Art Background and did my Masters in Photography at Central Saint Martins. I had an interest in the ways in which I could record ‘Armenianess’, firstly in the local community and then more broadly, moving outside of Greece and more universally. It was around this time that I began my PhD program which focused on the materiality of photography and used photographic archives (from both family and public sources) to explore the materiality of photography, and how it could reference the Armenian genocide and diaspora.
My research mostly focused on photographs as physical objects; not only as representational forms but also as objects that get exchanged, circulated, created, stored. I mainly rely on their materiality as vehicles, to approach the topics of remembering, forgetting and inter-generational memory. Looking at work from Marianne Hirsch, who coined the term ‘post-memory’ and looked at the memory of the Holocaust through cross-generational dialogue, helped to reference the approach in this area. But in my work, I mostly looked at the dialogue between generations where photographs, postcards, personal documents and objects are employed to re-experience the Armenian exile.
I then chose to turn my focus to collective memory and collective remembering, which is influenced by post-memory in the sense that we experience the past through our personal memories and prism. We enrich that memory so that it is never the same for any other person and collective memory is hence diverse.
Role of family
Tracing Back - Un-mounted C- Type prints on Fuji Crystal Archive paper.
The data collection for my research first came from interviews with family members, informal conversations and collecting their family photographs (objects). Then, I went on to complete my practical research in the studio. My motivations come from my Armenian heritage and personal memories connected to the previous generations. So my approach was, from cultural heritage but also from the visual artist perspective. Of course, the threshold of this research has been the collection which I have grown over the years. I started with a small collection of fewer than 100 objects which then grew to four times that; all of which were family photographs, not public archives. I discovered more photographs as I went along and met more people who were willing to share; this was interesting in itself, how people felt more engaged with the project over time and were ready to share.
It is interesting how images can act as triggers for our memories or in recalling memories that otherwise would have disappeared; this is the methodology that I follow for my interviews as well. I ask for my relatives to provide me with family photographs and then to discuss the pictures. There were some interesting findings, where they would sometimes happily describe the scene of the image in great detail and in other times they won’t be able to recall the image at all, they will have forgotten, or the image will have just been passed down to them as a keepsake. It is at this point where they will enter the era of post-memory, and they will discuss general issues around the Armenian identity, like how life was 50 years ago in the Armenian Diaspora, etc. At other times, there will be misremembering where we will have spoken for the first time and heard one story, then the second time the story will have changed. It is clear that you cannot rely on the narratives that come from the images as accurate recollections.
The feeling of Armenianess
The Survivors (2013) : 7 Inkjet prints on Tyvek banner, nylon beading wire, MDF boards Installation space 300 x 300 x 300 cm. Single piece.
The feeling of ‘Armenianess’ grew throughout the project. I belong to the fourth generation of the diaspora, far removed from the historic homeland and more than a century away from the migration. So, the more I learnt or knew about the history, the more Armenian I felt. It had to do with taking an active stand in the modern, contemporary Armenian diaspora to feel the connection with something so far removed. You choose to engage with the community, speak the language, learn about the history, keep the traditions and it is ultimately up to the person to bring that feeling to life.
We talk about post-memory and how that relates to trauma, not knowing what is exactly true but looking at the shared testimonials, in the roots we discover what the historical facts are, but there will always be pieces of the puzzle missing. They will be missing due to the traumatic occurrences or voids of memory that present themselves, because of the spatial and time distance we have from the facts.
The materiality of photography
- images as testifiers
I find that the way most people see photographs are as testifiers. It’s quite problematic because we only see what is happening on the surface of the picture but, there is much more to it than that. It is in a way, a two-way action in situations demanding a photographer. Of course, today we have more self-photography than anything else. But, in traditional photographic practices - which is my focus in research - at least two people are required to be present on both sides of the lens, and it is this dynamic in photographic practice that we often forget. What it means to be photographed, documented or present is often overlooked completely. Our view of what goes on behind the picture is still restricted today.
Something else that we miss from looking at photographs is the value of the image as an object through time. How has this picture survived? And, this connects with reality directly. Images today tend to be quite immaterial, as they often only exist in the online world. How these images are viewed and circulated, does that affect how they will be experienced? If we look at the physicality of archival prints, their size or cost - we can view their value as personal objects.
Role of documentation today
Archive Mist (2016) Hahnemühle archival paper and acrylics, variable dimensions.
When looking at the documentation in the past and today, it's hard to make a comparison point by point purely because of the varying reasons as to why people document or share photography. However, what is interesting is the politics of representation in times of conflict or crisis. Of course, many writers have given excellent analysis in this area: Allen Feldman’s Cultural Anaesthesia. Specifically, how the pain of the other viewed through a picture grows an anaesthesia, that we develop gradually over time. We build a resistance to pictures because we’re bombarded with content regularly. If we look at public imagery that is often in circulation, what comes first is the narrative or the story that the photographer tried to convey. And most of the time, this is to bring about a bigger story. For example, from the American Red Cross archive that I used for my project “Archive Mist“, the American Humanitarian Foundation used several stereotypical images of boys in need, and they would share a short story in the caption, ‘typical refugee boy being rescued, etc.’ That story was part of the much bigger story, of the end of World War I and how the foundation had helped the refugees. In this way, you get the perfect, realistic illustration of facts which through the meditation of imagery. Whereas sometimes when meditating over the meaning of an image, you can get distanced from the actual story.
Identity can be unidentifiable
Armenoui Kasparian Saraidari - Of Armenian origin who have never obtained any other nationality (2013)
Un-mounted C- Type prints on Fuji Crystal Archive paper, 29x23 cm, edition of 5.
I have this project called, 'Of Armenian origin who have never obtained any other nationality’ - this is a phrase that I found stamped on early proofs of identity that were given to relatives of my father. So, they were welcomed to Greece after the population exchange in the 1920s, and the first identification that was issued had this phrase, next to nationality. Later on, they managed to receive Greek nationality or other nationalities of their host countries. It’s this experience, from my family, that made me understand that belonging to a nation and or longing for a nation, can be two completely separate things. But, just because these two instances are separate doesn’t mean that they cannot coexist. It is politics that demonise one or the other to appear as if they cannot coexist. So, if you haven’t lived in a country for a certain number of years, you cannot possibly belong to it, or even long for your home country while living elsewhere. I believe they can perfectly coexist.
This topic made me think again, of the idea of being Armenian and feeling Armenian - how that barrier is not clear in itself. I think I feel Armenian and I’m not. Just to be clear that phrasing is from a writer called Bakalian, who mentioned that the generational change is from being Armenian to feeling Armenian, speaking for the Armenia diaspora nowadays. I think that perfectly illustrates how I feel myself. I feel there should be no barrier that we slide from one condition to the other and that nationality is a complex issue. The feeling of changing your nationality cannot be identified, by any documentation and identity is in that way unidentifiable.
The materiality of photography is undeniable
Armenoui - scan of sketchbook in the Darkroom that includes documentation, analysis and reflection of the practice-based research methodologies.
The materiality of photographs, legal documentation or testimonials is undeniable. But, I think it is the interpretation of this material that divides people and nations. In the case of my research, the analysis of that material either accepts or recognises the genocide, or doesn’t. I don’t believe that any of my work can change the way someone interprets facts, neither can it change the point from which a person views history. But I think that work, like my own, can offer a voice for the untold stories and can help our understanding, make us more sensitive and sceptical about photographic archives, as well as the way we're utilising them today. Remembering is an active stand and not remembering is also an active stand, if we collectively choose to remember it may most likely lead to a more sensitive society.
We can always view the pictures of American Red Cross, referring to my project “Archive Mist“, in their historical reference or view them in the now, how did these people survive, where are they now, are they integrated into host countries? These were the kind of topics my project put forward. It’s an opportunity when we look at works of art, to think differently.
The interviews were a fascinating part of my PhD, a very personal part. It wasn’t the interviews that made me decide on the materiality focus of my PhD, but it was a kind of confirmation. I had this feeling that materiality was the most important aspect of family photography as an expression of Armenianess. It is materiality that makes the images objects, kept as precious keepsakes and so I had set this as my focus from the beginning. Also, in my practice, I treat photographs as materials, so the images are not just documentation but objects that we create. In most of my work, you will be able to see that the works exist as 3D sculptures almost or artefacts. So, when I began the interviews, I knew materiality would be my direction, especially when I heard that individuals would speak of the photographs as if they were something more than clear documentation. Documentation is an item made at the moment of a click, to serve a purpose, but these images/objects we were discussing had a clear timeline - life and an after-life.
Armenoui - Project: Armenians
I feel my research still has a way to go, when first broadening my research to public archives I realised that there was an entire area of photographic collections that I could explore in my research aside from just personal objects. I would like to ultimately visualise Armenianess for the fourth generation, probably following my PhD, by using site-specific work and 3D, not just imagery.
I tend to work on the methodology rather than the outcome when beginning a new project. So far, I have been exploring how far materiality and the material of film can take me in my research. Now, I would like to consider how far space can take me in the experience of observing views of post-memory and embodiments of post-memory.