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PHOTO OF THE DAY
Eve Arnold, School for non-violence, Virginia, 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
Eve Arnold, School for non-violence, Virginia, 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

For Antoine Agoudjian, it all began on December 7th, 1988, when an earthquake struck Armenia. Between 25,000 and 30,000 Armenians lost their lives. Agoudjian was only 27 at the time, and he returned to his country of origin to aid the survivors. He began a long and introspective work on the memory of the Armenian genocide, a lifetime’s work, which he has been pursuing for nearly 30 years. Today this adventure takes us to Diyarbakir, in Anatolia, for the opening of his exhibition Le Cri du Silence on April 24th, 2015—one century to the day after the raid of April 24th, 1915, perpetrated by the Young Turks, which officially marked the beginning of the genocide that led to the deaths of 1.5 million people.

“Truth has but a single definition: that which eventually comes to light.”
– Antoine Agoudjian

What is the story behind this extensive work of photography on the memory of the Armenian Genocide?

It was after the earthquake of ‘88 that my project about memory was born, as well as my desire to visit and photograph Turkey. At the time it was completely unconscious, but I viewed this tragic event as a continuation of the genocide. And when I returned, a publisher commissioned a story on Istanbul, and I realized what it was that I was looking for: the Armenians. That’s really where the project and my desire to work with the memory of Armenians comes from. I went from bearing witness to introspection, moving closer to an artistic approach, using photography as an extension of what I was feeling as an “heir” of the Armenian Genocide.

My grandparents were born here in Turkey and then they fled. My mother was born in Bulgaria during their escape, and my grandmother was pregnant with my father when she took a boat to Marseille in 1924. My parents never went to Turkey. For them it was impossible to come here given their heritage. For their parents, the survivors, the last faces they saw were those of their murderers. That’s what our grandparents passed down to us. I understand that Armenians are afraid to go back to Turkey, and that they feel resentment. The first time I came here, I was afraid something would happen to me. I encountered so many problems, starting at the airport, then everywhere else. You have to understand that being Armenian in Turkey is worse than being Kurdish. In certain regions of Anatolia, people still believe that if you kill an Armenian, you’ll go to heaven! Armenians are seen as traitors, like they have yellow stars on their chests. It’s the only place in the world where I have to pay attention to what I say. 

What story are you telling with this exhibition?

During my travels, I sought out encounters, creating images. These photographs correspond to the overall story I want to tell, that’s the meaning behind this exhibition: I’ve created a dreamlike mural about the memory of the genocide. The story is tragic. There’s a composer named Komitas who replied, when someone told him that his music was sad: “It’s not the music that’s sad—it’s the story it tells.” For me, it’s exactly the same thing: the photographs themselves aren’t sad, only the story they tell. What I’m interested in is life, movement, the people I met, and I want all of that to be present in my work. I remember my grandparents telling me that they were happy to live here, they were happy to be among the Turks and Kurds. Curiously, it was the 2nd and 3rd generations who stigmatized and resented the Turks. The survivors of the genocide were governed by a different logic. They were silent, and said little.

I put my guts into this exhibition. I left nothing out, and made sure I didn’t use the people I worked with, because I wanted to maintain the pleasure, and a work without pleasure is meaningless. These are the people I met, the people who helped me. What you see there is truly what’s in my heart.

 

https://vimeo.com/125667038

 

The exhibition commemorates the centennial of the Armenian Genocide on Turkish soil. Why have it here in Diyarbakir?

Diyarbakir is a symbolic place, because the genocide started here. In 1894, the Sultan ordered massacres in this region. That’s when the genocide began. The reason they gave was the rebellions, and the Armenians were accused of aiding the enemy. That was a reason to execute them. At the time of the genocide, the Armenian populations of Diyarbakir were systematically and ruthlessly massacred.

In 2011, I had my first exhibition in Turkey, in Istanbul, thanks to the help of Turkish intellectuals. This exhibition is different. It’s an offering for the people who come to see it. Exhibiting these images in Turkey on the centennial of the genocide, and in collaboration with a local government which has recognized the genocide, gives this cultural event an extra dimension, a historical, political and aesthetic dimension. Moreover, this setting is special, almost mystical. I see Keci Burcu as a church, a temple. It could be pagan, it could be a mosque, a synagogue. Nobody knows the story of this place. The first time I came here, I immediately fell in love. When I’m here, it’s like being in a sanctuary, but a sanctuary with a fighting and political spirit.

Is there a possibility that the exhibition with be censored?

The mayor of Diyarbakir has been unambiguous with respect to the genocide, in a country where there are laws that forbid any attacks on Turkish identity, i.e., Article 301. This exhibition is indeed subject to law, but I’m not sure that it can be censored, at least with respect to the photographs, because the captions contain no mention of genocide. However, the film that’s being screened might run into problems because there’s a woman in it, a survivor of the genocide, who calls on the government to finally acknowledge the atrocities that were committed.

In Diyarbakir, everything is going pretty well, but, admittedly, I’m not that familiar with the region. There are the extreme-right parties, but it’s a kind of sanctuary here. We’re in Kurdistan. The Kurds were the armed wing of the genocidal forces in 1915, serving in the name of Sunni Islam, but they quickly understood that the problem was ethnic, not religious. After 1912 and the loss of European territories during the Balkan Wars, when the Turks were massacred, they latched onto the idea of preserving the Oriental entity of the Ottoman Empire, but Christians lived here, as did Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Yezidis, Kurds and, of course, Armenians. Today, the “enemy within” are the Kurds. The desire to get rid of the Kurds today is the same one behind the genocide of the Armenians in 1890. The Kurds realized that their fight was inseparable from the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. So here we feel somewhat protected, naturally.

No institution in France agreed to feature this exhibition on this commemorative year. Why the lack of interest?

We haven’t found anywhere in Paris to host the exhibition, but I don’t know why. Not the Maison Eurpoéenne de la Photographie. Not the Jeu de Paume. Maybe they’re shunning me. Maybe they think it’s too “ethnic,” that this is all about Armenians. They couldn’t understand that every artistic work is autobiographical—I can’t help but talk about myself. My heritage is the pretext of this work. I’m talking about love, exile and death. Death inspires works of art. As an artist, you have to go to all  the way.

I’m a little fed up with seeing how things work in France with respect to how grants and prizes are awarded, and how artists gain visibility. It’s exhausting. But I don’t want to start questioning their motives, because people are free to like or dislike my work. But it’s hard. There was a time when I wasn’t sure if I could go on. But I don’t have a choice. I don’t know how to do anything else, and I still have lots of things to say, and friends here who keep me going.

 

EXHIBITIONS
Le Cri du Silence, Traces d’une mémoire arménienne
Antoine Agoudjian
From April 24th to May 21st, 2015
Keçi Burcu
Diyarbakir
Turkey
http://www.agoudjian.com

Le Cri du Silence, Traces d’une mémoire arménienne
Antoine Agoudjian
• From Aprim 3rd to May 22nd, 2015
Galerie Le Bleu du Ciel
12 Rue des Fantasques
69001 Lyon
France
http://www.lebleuduciel.net
• Through Aptil 30th, 2015
Bibliothèque du Grand Parc
34 Rue Pierre Trebod
33000 Bordeaux
France

BOOK
Le Cri du Silence, Traces d’une mémoire arménienne
Antoine Agoudjian
Editions Flammarion
28,8 x 2,2 x 30,7 cm
159 pages
ISBN-10: 2081303302
ISBN-13: 978-2081303300
65€

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PHOTOGRAPHER
Antoine Agoudjian

Antoine Agoudjian was born in Saint-Maur, France, on February 6, 1961 to Armenian parents; his grandparents were survivors of the 191 5 genocide. Following an earthquake in Armenia in 1988, he joined an NGO and began an ongoing photography ...

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