Georgs Avetisjans (Photo courtesy FK Magazine. Photographer Arnis Balčus)

Georgs Avetisjans: Pursuing His Crane to the Fatherland


YEREVAN/RIGA — I met Latvian photographer Georgs Avetisjans at the end of April in Yerevan, at the height of the Velvet Revolution. Yet the purpose of his visit was not connected with this historical event, but a planned project and the simple desire to get acquainted with the country of his paternal ancestors. Georgs’ two sisters and brother-in-law were with him, accompanying him sightseeing, meeting interesting people and participating in public actions. Months later, I received Georgs’ gorgeous photobook of his last exhibition, “Homeland,” featuring landscapes and portraits from the Latvian village of Kaltene which present its recent history from World War II until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 via interviews, notes and archival imagery.

Georgs Avetisjans at work

Avetisjans was born in 1985 in Riga; he graduated from the University of Brighton (UK) in 2016 with a Master of Arts degree  in photography. He has lived in the US and the UK for seven years, and had several exhibitions in Latvia, Italy, China, Netherlands, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, France, Denmark and the UK. Most recently selected for the Magnum Photos Graduate Photographers’ Award 2017 in partnership with Photo London and RBB Economics, he won the Second Prize “Different Worlds 2017” at Photon – Centre for Contemporary Photography in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which showcased recent works of ten young and emerging contemporary photographers from Central and Eastern Europe. In July 2018 the photobook Homeland: The Longest Village in the Country was published by Milda Books during the opening week of Les Rencontres d’Arles in France, and it will be launched officially together with a solo show at the Latvian Museum of Photography in Riga.

My conversation with Georgs concerns his creative life, photography, and art, as well as his ties with Armenia.

Georgs, you studied photography in prestigious schools in the USA and the UK. What did this give you which you could not obtain in your native Latvia?

In Latvia it was not possible to get an MA degree in photography and we don’t have as strong and qualified professionals as in the UK or in the US, so I decided to move abroad. It was also an opportunity to strengthen my academic English and challenge my writing and reading as well as translating from one language to another – especially for my final MA dissertation and body of work, which was closely related to my home country in Latvia. Study abroad gave me discipline, shaped my beliefs and helped me to expand my visual and critical thinking as well as writing. It has opened completely new horizons, points of view and new ways of approaching my individual practice as a visual storyteller. The course has developed my research capabilities, aesthetic control, critical thinking and improved my academic voice and understanding of how to read, review and analyse other photographic works.

In Latvia we also have a really great institution called International Summer School of Photography (ISSP), which is a non-commercial platform for contemporary photography acting internationally offering high-quality alternative education and networking programs for emerging photographers around the globe. Since 2006, ISSP has yearly run the International Summer School of Photography, initiated local and international education and exchange programs, produced exhibitions, publications and festivals with qualified and renowned professionals worldwide, and, most importantly, gathered a thriving community of emerging photographers in Latvia and internationally. I’ve participated at the ISSP in 2015 and 2018, and in 2018 I was invited as a guest lecturer for their ISSP School students.

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Since the invention of photography hundreds of high-quality photographers document this world through black and white or color images or express their inner world through the images of inner reality. What you do with your photo camera?

I’m mostly interested in multi-layered, research-based storytelling about contemporary issues from a historical and ethnographical aspect on the line between reality and fiction, as well as poetic, metaphoric and authentic imagery in the field of documentary reality. I’m also very much interested in photo book making, archival materials, notes and investigative recordings and ways of how photography, design and materials could possibly shape the story of an entire photographic project. The themes of my work are mostly about regional and national identity, genetics, ethnography, memory, nostalgia and existentiality. Years ago as a photographer I started to explore subjective aspects such as moods, associations in documentary reality, which formed, and still forms my visual narrative.

Do you think that it is still possible to say something new with the language of photography?

Yes, always! That is as if I ask a writer is it still possible to write a new sentence or a novel with your pen? The pen, like the camera, is just a mediator between the writer’s philosophy and a reader (destination).

In our digital epoch many professional photographers still use non-digital means. Do you think one day the digital will rule over the others?

It is inevitable, but there will always be someone who will prefer to work with the analogue techniques, just as audiophiles will always seek a vinyl quality sound when MP3 digital audio files will rule over the other possible audio techniques.

You write your first and last name in the Latvian way. It would be Gevorg Avetisyan in Armenian (transliterated into English). Please tell us about your Armenian roots.

In the early ‘80s (when both countries were still under the umbrella of the Soviet Union) my father Vladimirs Avetisjans migrated from Tbilisi, Georgia to Riga, Latvia where he met my mother Inta Avetisjana while he was studying at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) at the world’s oldest film school in Moscow. While my grandfather Georgs Avetisjans was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, my great-grandfather Artjoms Avetisjans came from the land of our forefathers — Armenia, to Georgia, whereas my father migrated to Latvia from Georgia. My great-grandfather Artjoms Avetisjans was born in Kars, Armenia, which is currently a city in northeastern Turkey and the capital of Kars Province today.

While my father’s roots go back to Armenia, he was born in Tbilisi, for centuries a centre of Armenian culture and socio-political thought, and died in Kaltene, Latvia. The mix of ethnicities in my blood – Armeno-Greek on my father’s side and Latvian-Russian on my mother’s – has always intrigued me and encouraged me to become more familiar with ideas of identity and genetics. Of course, Latvia is my birthplace, the country I love as the place I grew up in, but I have never been quite sure if I really belong here, having always lived with this fragmentation of ethnicities, and with a hidden, as yet unfamiliar mystery of the Armenian soul, which I now long to uncover.

Have you any idea how many Armenians live in Latvia and can you remember some interesting figures?

Nowadays it could be around 2,500. We have many art professionals, like film director Aik Karapetian, painters Arturs Akopjans and Varuzh Karapetian, ballet dancer Avetik Karapetyan. I have interviewed pastor Ter Khosrov Stepanyan, artist Babkens Stepanjans, businessman Roberts Ogenesjans, poet Gagik Sarkisjans, painter Varuzh Karapetian, and musician Tigrans Tumanjans.

Last spring you came to Armenia during a very crucial for the country period. Tell us please your impressions of what you have experienced and your general thoughts.

It was such a great coincidence that I could join you in Armenia for such a crucial period of Armenian history. It was wonderful experience and also an opportunity to witness such a spirit and elevation of the nation during the Velvet Revolution in April 2018. I think that I have photographed and witnessed an important part of my project – a history, and I also have recorded the voices of Armenian people from different backgrounds. All this addition to my research and materials will be shown into my new photobook Krunk: The Crane That Flew Over The Fatherland, reflecting the past, present and future.

Please tell us about your Armenian project.

This is a story about my father; this is also a story about our genetics, Armenian diaspora and history of the land of my forefathers in Armenia and Georgia. “Krunk” means crane in Armenian and it is a symbol of longing for one’s homeland, as well as a song sung by wanderers that embodies the historical fate of the Armenian people. The song, composed by Komitas and sung for centuries, has become a quasi-official state hymn, a hymn of sadness and longing.

Endless foreign invasions, great social and ethnic oppression, and a host of other political and economic conditions have meant that large swathes of Armenians went to live abroad. The exodus began a very long time ago, and gave rise to Armenian settlements in many parts of the world where Armenians preserved their language, their cultural traits, their religion, and the idiosyncrasies of their inner life. Recent history has few nations whose sacrifices and bloodshed could equal that of Armenians. The 1915 genocide murdered the flesh, but strengthened the spirit, as whenever the enemy tried to take out Armenian culture by storm, the same storm carried the seeds of this culture to the far corners of the Earth, and new life sprouted in faraway places, just like the crane, headed for foreign lands, and made its song heard throughout the world.

Armenia is covered in rocks, hard and weighty as the soul of the people who carry its weight, its sadness and its melancholy. This enigmatic territory of the Caucasus is nestled between two seas – the Black and the Caspian – that is traditionally regarded as the point where the West and the East meet. This befits its history, at once exciting and tragically ridden with conflict, which I am approaching to find out more about the place my father came from in Georgia and our roots in the land of our forefathers, Armenia.

My first dummy of the photo book Krunk. The Crane That Flew Over the Fatherland was developed, created and produced during a workshop “Photobook As Object” in 2018 by Jan Rosseel (Belgium) and Yumi Goto (Japan) at the ISSP in Latvia. The dummy was exhibited at the ISSP Gallery in Riga, Latvia and in the Art House in Kuldiga, Latvia. My next solo show, and first of this project, will be held at the Archdiocesan Museum from September 15 – October 15 in Poland during International Photography Festival Bialystok INTERPHOTO 2019 and after in Yerevan (dates are still to be confirmed).

Georgs Avetisjans in Echmiadzin

Whom have you interviewed and photographed in Armenia?

Many interesting people – musician and collectioner Yakov Zargaryan; artist and public activist Zaruhi Muradyan; photographer Vahan Kochar; cultural figure Gayane Georgian; ballet master Roudolf Kharatian; architect and actress Arine Tagvor; translator of Latvian and Russian literature Naira Khachatryan; Armenian cuisine researcher Sedrak Mamulyan; business woman and finansist Anna Vardanyan; architect and filmmaker Oshin Yeghiazariantz; musician Alex Mirzoyan; journalist and lawyer Zaruhi Mejlumyan; folklorist Verjine Svazlyan, and historian Knarik Avagyan. I should not forget you, philologist and author Artsvi Bakhchinyan!

What was your biggest impression of Armenia?

Unity of the whole nation, hospitality, nature and all the seasons across the country – from

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