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Hrair Sarkissian Interviewed by Anahit Poturyan

By ANAHIT POTURYAN, August 2019

Hrair Sarkisian is an Armenian photographer, born in Syria, and currently based in London. He is a photographer who re-examines the long existing but inconspicuous socio-historical and religious narratives of the Middle East and Caucasus regions by utilizing documentary techniques with a 4x5 analogue camera. Growing up and later working in his father’s photography studio in Damascus, Sarkissian received his foundational training and later went to formally study photography in Europe. In 2011, around the start of the Syrian Civil War he relocated to London. His photographs, installations, and videos have a potent aesthetic appeal and he directs our gaze to the invisibility of identities, autonomy/agency, and spaces/places. Be it through the absence of humans in urban settings, sites of unresolved suspense, images of an erasure of identity and history, our bodies and our lives revolve around a political existence; Sarkissian pulls out the stories and subtleties of such an existence.

Unexposed, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 110 x 137.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

AP: Hrair, I was introduced to your work through your Unexposed series which was exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennial for the Armenian Pavilion. How were you selected?

HS: The whole idea was to choose Armenian artists from the diaspora, I was born and raised in Syria.

AP: How would you define yourself as an artist? Your photographs seem part documentary and part personal narrative.

HS: That’s always the problem with photographers. I mean I define myself as an artist because now I started to do videos and installation work. Now I am working on a sculpture. I started changing. I find it very interesting and refreshing. Keeping the same way of thinking is depressive - that is the balance. I am someone who makes a lot of jokes and my work is completely depressive, melancholic, and only sad stories. There is nothing that gives a positive feeling. It’s all kinds of desperation.

AP: Humans are strikingly and noticeably absent from your urban photographs. They all seem to have a hauntological effect. Humans have become ghosts and ghosts have been recorded on the surface of generic urban landscapes. As the late theorist Mark Fisher has suggested to be haunted means to be possessed by something, a longing that is eerie yet not horrific, intangible yet intense. What are these ghosts in your cityscape photographs Execution Squares what do they do when they are not photographed?                                 

HS: My take on avoiding people in the photographs is because I always want to concentrate on the space itself rather than the people. I find having individuals in these works and in these spaces will distract the viewer from concentrating on the space and they will be more curious on the individuals and what they are wearing, etc. I also prefer to be in an isolated space, empty spaces, that’s quite important for me, almost like mirroring myself with the space – I become feeling myself more than if there were other people there, rather than if people standing next to or near me. The feeling would get out of me more if I get out alone. 

AP: When did you take these photographs in the Execution Squares?

HS: Taken when the sun was rising. 

Execution Squares, 2008. Archival prints 125x160cm, 125x175cm, Courtesy of the artist.

AP: A way of showing human suffering… without any humans present at all.

HS: Suffering. I don’t see suffering in the state element in my life. You can see them as political works, it’s not political, it’s more personal, historical, and all these works relate to me. Either through Armenian origins, or being Syrian, or being from the region, or just death (everyone dies), I avoid being in this carousal of – I don’t do political works, or the political power.

AP: There is a stark contrast between these impersonal city shots and your personal almost curated biographical shots. One would think if you place a familiar human face, the trace of people in photographs, they become less ghostly, but they do exude an even more eerie aura. Why is that?

HS: I photograph portraits only in two series, one of the Zebiba (2007), which is more about the prayer mark. Not interested at all in faces, the whole idea is about the prayer mark that creates a wall that distances me and the pious who believes in being closer to God. That was the main point. When you look at the portrait, you don’t see any other facials elements. Stain immediately captures the viewers eye.

Zebiba, 2007. Archival prints, 60x60cm, Courtesy of the artist.

The second series is Front Line (2007) of the Nagorny Karabakh region. These are portraits of the rebels who fought against the Azeris. For me, they were still living, their lives kind of stopped when the war finished. So, I saw them as dead people. As tombs rather than living humans. It’s the only thing they speak and talk about it’s only the war and they have been through and what happened, one lost his leg, one lost his eye sight. This was not about portraits, but rather a portrait series and what they have gone through. And what they are living in the present moment.

Front Line, Archival inkjet prints, 100 x 150 cm, Photographs printed on perspex, 25 x 25 x 10 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

AP: Why don’t you address the political in your photography?

HS: No, I don’t talk about this. Either through Armenian origins or being a Syrian or being from the region or just death (everyone dies), I avoid being in this carousal of “political” – I don’t do political works or the address the political power.

I have my personal own opinion. I don’t like to include it in the work and I don’t like to make a work about what’s going on in Syria. I find it immoral about the satiation while people are suffering – because there have been many Syrian artists who have tried to kind of take advance of the situation and to just push themselves and using the situation on war in their own profit – eventually they do a work and they hang it in a gallery and take a portrait with a smile.

I am not that kind of person. I was really angry and mad with what was going on in Syria. Instead, I came up with an idea about losing a home. Losing a home can happen to anyone – fire, earthquake, any reason. It’s more about losing home memories rather than the cause itself.

AP: I am particularly interested in your Unexposed series about Islamic Armenians in Turkey. You are not directly speaking about the political, but more about the individuals affected by political and social upheavals of the past and the present.

HS: The idea came from one YouTube person, Sadik, he was actually a Kurdish guy from Turkey, with origins in Eastern Anatolia. He was doing this interview on hidden Armenians, I was quite surprised to hear about the Hamshen Armenians and then later on these Armenians forced to convert into Islam during the genocide. They call them the “ones who escaped the edge of the sword” who were forced to convert.

So, I watched this YouTube interview, this guy Sadik was Kurdish but a communist and it turned out he is actually Armenian. So, he goes to Agos [a Turkish-Armenian political newspaper]and he starts to dig more into his documents and he found out he is Armenian. Things started to come back to him from his past. For instance, one basic thing is when they [his family] stand or sit down they say: “Ya Jesus”. Things started to get clearer for him. His school mates would always call him the name of the people who converted into Islam. So, I was just interested in the subject. Then it turns out there are Armenians and there is this movement were Armenians dig and find out their identity and go to the Armenian church in Istanbul and they get an Armenian name and convert.

Unexposed, 2012. Archival inkjet print, 110 x 137.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

This movement started to expand more especially after the assassination of Hrand Dink [former director of Agos newspaper] when the 17-year-old Turkish nationalist stabbed him in the back. Hrand Drink was very active and creating bridges through Armenian and Turkish societies and to heal the wounds with anything related to the genocide. But of course, the government never wanted this to happen. Until he took it one step further and brought documents showing that the fourth adopted daughter of Ataturk ‘Sabha’ was actually Armenian. And that’s why he was assassinated.

AP: After your initial research into this community of hidden Armenians, how long did you work on the project?

HS: The project took three years to find people and photograph them.

AP: How did you come in contact with the subjects in this series?

HS: I found someone through a friend who was doing her PhD on hidden Armenians in NYC. I contacted her and she gave me the contact into to Sadik, the Kurdish man from the videos. We got in touch with Sadik and then met with nine other families in Turkey. We meet these families in their houses and photographed in their homes because they feel themselves and do not need to hide. When they convert they have to hide their identity, they can’t say we are converted from Islam. Then Killing you can be Halal. Acceptable. They recreate smaller societies within the bigger Turkish societies and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t do it.

AP: Were there any people who wanted to dissent and stop hiding by showing their real identity in your photographs?  

HS: Sadik was challenging, he said “photograph my face.” Converting was an act of revenge [to the Turkish government] and saying to the Turkish officials and deniers “that this is because of you that I am doing this and because of you I have been through this.”

AP: Generally, are people still afraid to disclose their identity, even after 100 years of persecution?

HS: This is the other part of this black obscure part of Armenian society in Turkey. Especially, for the ones that are still afraid and the effect this would cost them, those who would convert from Islam into Christianity. Their number will grow again, and this will eventually open the eyes of the Turkish officials. They are becoming again powerful. So, it is kind of like they do not accept the Armenian minority in turkey. There are groups who do not accept.

AP: Let’s talk more about your work practice. You have a number of various types of photography and sculptural series. Do you ever revisit a site or project?

HS: I follow the subject always. I don’t do that in my work – I don’t visit any of my previous works. I always try to make something different and new. Also, I don’t work on long projects. I just want to make one case which is a study case and do it to my capacity and then just put it down there.

AP: How would you define yourself as an artist? Your photographs seem part documentary and part personal narrative.

HS: That’s always the problem with photographers. I mean I define myself as an artist because now I started to do videos and installation work. Now I am working on a sculpture. I started changing. I find it very interesting and refreshing. Keeping the same way of thinking is depressive - that is the balance. I am someone who makes a lot of jokes and my work is completely depressive, melancholic, and only sad stories. There is nothing that gives a positive feeling. It’s all kinds of desperation. WM

WM

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