Pomegranates outside a house in Martuni. October 1, 2020.

Paradise Lost: Anush Babajanyan’s A Troubled Home

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Even though increasingly doubtful and scared, the internationally acclaimed photojournalist Anush Babajanyan from Yerevan, Armenia, kept returning to that “special place” whenever she could, “partly because Armenians, like me, lived there,” but also because “the story of this place and its people had not been told enough, and I wanted to tell it.”

What started off as a documentation of the natural beauty and the ordinary life of the families living in the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) ended up being a documentation of loss. “Nature in that unknown yet familiar place felt more gorgeous even when we didn’t know we were going to lose it,” says the artist with much emotion. The ninety-nine photographs comprising Babajanyan’s recently published A Troubled Home (EBS, 2022) tell the stories of the families who, following the dissolution of the republic in 2023, were forced out of the land they had called home for millennia to become refugees trying to resettle to a new life.

Harutyun Chobanyan 13, hugs his three-month-old brother, Levon, February 29, 2020

Babajanyan made her first trip to Artsakh on April 2, 2016. Notwithstanding the ongoing fighting between Artsakh and neighboring Azerbaijan, she kept going back and forth, actively photographing even in regions ceded to Azerbaijan following 2020’s 44-Day War. It was in 2020 that she decided to bring together the work she had done for five years.

The photographs assembled in the elegant volume owe their tremendous appeal to the intimate relationship Babajanyan had with the families. “I had unimpeded access into their homes. I was not an intruder. I am still in touch with them,” she notes candidly. Her pictures are of real people with real names. Only a photographer sharing her subjects’ most familiar space could capture the everyday joys and sorrows the shots convey to the viewer. When asked about the amazing power her work has to touch people, “Once the personal connection is established, photography follows,” she adds.

The six children of Varduhi Chobanyan, 31, living in poor conditions, July 15, 2017.

It was especially the lives of the many large families in Artsakh that Babajanyan wanted to document, as the photo of Liana Babayan happily introducing her newborn son, Movses, the Babayans’ tenth child, to her children at the Stepanakert maternity hospital attests. A mother herself, it was Babajanyan’s genuine concern for the families that won their confidence. There are pictures of children playing joyfully inside their homes, and outside in their backyards while the mother hangs the laundry to dry. Photographs of the entire family seated at the dinner table strewn with numerous dishes abound. Why so many children? How does one feed a family of 12?

Whether it is of the young woman at the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi lighting 31 candles and putting them together in a tight bunch, one for each year of the age of her friend who was missing in action, of the seven children lined up against the wall of their old apartment waiting for their new home, or of the endless flow of cars during the week-long exodus from Artsakh, the photos reveal the woman who cares deeply for her fellow human beings and for her native land.

Kitchen table inside a house in Martuni hit on September 27, 2020, the day the 44-Day War began. October 1, 2020.

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“Hadrut is so beautiful,” she says with a sigh.

A whole personal philosophy comes to life. Referring to the shot of Harutyun Chobanyan, 13, ”soft and gentle,” hugging his three-month-old brother Levon, she says, “We have to preserve the gentleness boys have that the atmosphere of militarization ruins.”

Besides representing the everyday lives, the thousands of photographs Babajanyan took document the consequences of incessant shelling. The breakfast table inside a home in Martuni, hit on the first day of the 44-Day War with Azerbaijan in 2020, tells the story of destruction with all of its implications of violence, of disruption and of loss. The destruction caused by wars is even more directly evoked by the photograph of lieutenant Vahe Avanesyan, 27, and conscript Harut Gasparyan, 19, waiting and smoking in a trench on the frontline during the shelling of Martakert in the 2016 Four-Day War. There are mages of wounded soldiers, of funerals, and of burning homes. Many owners set their homes on fire before they fled. Babajanyan bemoans the fact that “It is yet another tragedy” that the photographs document. “I never wanted the photos to be a document of what was,” she says, but “we need to talk about it and the photos help.”

“There is so much to learn and to understand,” she adds.

Indeed, a whole history of pain and of displacement comes through in these hauntingly beautiful images. It is perhaps true that “We have art in order not to die of the truth,” to borrow the words of celebrated philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The sense of beauty lost is made palpable in the images of the greens and the yellows in October in Shushi. The oranges of the house burning in the night, on November 14, 2020, make it clear it is all being given away.

Lieutenant Vahe Avanesyan and conscript Harut Gasparyan wait in a trench on the frontline in. Martakert, April 4, 2016.

The poem by twenty-one-year-old Anna Hakobyan from Hadrut, printed on the first page of the book, sums it all up:

The taste, the smell of my sweet home,

Of my soil that has seen pain, every bit

Of my Artsakh, my world, all of it, I miss.

I miss my soil,

I miss my space,

I miss my place, my home,

My rocky slope, my orchard.

Dear people,

If in this world there is one sweet place,

It springs from my heart. It’s my Artsakh.

 

Nonetheless, in Babajanyan’s own words, all is “not soaked in tragedy.” The good spirit of refugees trying to do their best to resettle is also evoked.

Babajanyan believed her photos “would make a difference but they didn’t.” “Nothing is happening,” she deplores. At best, it is the ambiguity in the lives of the displaced residents that the photographs capture. There is no theorizing here about grief and the healing process. Just a suffocating feeling of helplessness against the injustice of it all.

Babajanyan’s slide show presentation at the newly inaugurated Center for Armenian Arts in Glendale did much to enhance the book’s appeal to those present. Comments on the beautiful images projected overhead — “Each of my trips to this land has brought me closer to the known,” “I cherish the beautiful, meditative six-hour drive to Artsakh,” “Motherhood has given me access to a deeper level of emotion” — highlighted the emotions depicted in the photos and brought the artist’s work even closer to everyone’s heart. What ultimately emerged was the woman of feeling behind the photographs.

At the end of her presentation, Babajanyan acknowledged the “incredible help” from the designers, the editors, and the printing house in bringing the book together. “The book is for everyone living in Artsakh,” she writes in her Afterword.

To purchase a copy of the book, visit https://anushbabajanyan.org/books/atroubledhome

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