Tough Situations in Difficult Countries

Posted on November 4, 2008 by Alexandra Avakian

Mount Ararat, as photographed from a burning Armenian wheat field

Continuing to chat about the personal introduction chapter, the other thing that drew me to cover tough situations in difficult countries undergoing change was that like many American immigrants the Armenian side of my family had experienced some rather challenging events before coming to the United States. My family had to move often between northern Iran, the Caucuses, and Russia, according to the dangers and pressures they faced.

In the photo above, Mount Ararat--where the bible says Noah's ark landed--is Armenia's holy mountain and stands in Turkey. I photographed it from Armenian wheat fields.

I began learning the details when I was about 20. My family didn't want to tell us about it when we were too young.

My family experienced the Russian Revolution and many of my grandmother's relatives were wiped out in Stalin's Great Terror. And in the early 1800s they barely survived a cholera epidemic in Armenia. The Iranian side of the family also lived through the Constitutional and 1979 Revolutions of Iran.

They fled the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as violence also spilled over the Persian border, plus several smaller massacres before and after that. Turkish Armenian relatives also survived the Genocide. During that time there was no UN in existence to stop the organized killings. There was no bunch of international photojournalists to document it in pictures. But there were some military officers from Germany and Russia who did photograph the killing fields. There were diplomats who witnessed it and reported. The genocide and the massacres were covered well by reporters in the New York Times, National Geographic magazine, and other publications of the day—and extensively in the Arabic press. In 1915 there was no such word as "genocide"—it was created later to describe the Jewish Holocaust and describes other cases of government-organized ethnic cleansing as well.

A shadow of a digger cast against remnants of a mass grave site

I photographed some of the mass graves in 2005 on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, in northern Syria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. My Uncle Roy Gertmenian was from Adana in Turkey and was marched into the Syrian desert as a four-year-old and survived. These sites are near the old path of the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates. In Syria riverbanks were favorite spots for the elimination of Armenians, mostly women and children. The men had been killed first back in Turkey. I photographed children's teeth and the skulls and bones of adults. Each of these sites is threatened: This one (not in the book) is in Ras ul Ain, hard against the Turkish border, and has a farm atop it. Bones are tossed aside and crushed every year as farmers till the land. Locals won't eat produce from here and it must be sold far afield.

Hands holding a pile of bone fragments, recovered from a mass grave at Margada

The mass grave at Margada had a waterworks project on it when I was there. Here Armenian and Muslim youths are digging for bones: One enormous mass grave is under the town of Deir el Zor, one under a reservoir. A small one is part of an oil field, near Shadadiye.

A man pays respects to a church elder on Genocide Day

These Syrian Muslim sheikhs whose families had saved Armenian orphans came to pay respects at the Armenian church at Deir el Zor on Genocide Day.

I had to be engaged in the world and to understand its troubles—to get as close as I could to knowing what my family had experienced. What was it like to be a refugee, a mother trying to protect her child, a person fighting in the street for freedom? It is not ideology that interests me so much, but how far people will go in order to survive, to be free, or even just to feed their families. I was drawn to those places my family had lived. I worked in post-revolution Iran, covered several civil wars in the Caucuses, lived in Moscow from 1990-1992 to document the fall of the Soviet Union and the aftermath for Time. (Here is a cover of mine. ) More on those as we get to their chapters.

A man swings a sledgehammer at a fractured portion of the Berlin Wall, while onlookers cheer

I also photographed in other countries and stories outside the Middle East, so here for a change of scene, is one of the pictures I did for Life of the Berlin Wall. The East Germans were firing water cannons through the hole these West Germans made at dawn that November morning in 1989.

In 1996 I stopped covering open conflict—long before I became a mother. I felt lucky to be in one piece and bone- and soul-tired of funerals. I wanted to embrace life and beauty in the subjects I chose. Now I still work in countries undergoing change where anything can happen, and I do sometimes work with people in tragic or hard circumstances.

By the way, the worst physical harm I ever came to on the job was breaking my knee seriously while on assignment for National Geographic in Romania, despite being beaten by Hamas, shot at by Israeli troops, threatened by a 12-year-old gunman in Somalia, and fired on by Azeri troops, among other things.

So, one doesn't need to go to obviously dangerous places to be at risk. Spinning out of control on an icy road in Moscow or being caught in a blizzard in the New Mexican desert during a vacation is just as frightening.

Next, I'll write about what it's like to be a woman in my profession, and to live and work in the regions covered in the book.

Filed Under: ArmeniaPhotographyTravel

Buy the Book

'Windows of the Soul' Book Cover

Named one of Oprah's best gift books and selected among American Photo's year-end best

Buy the Book

Become a Fan on Facebook

Become a fan and follow the latest news about Alexandra and Windows of the Soul on Facebook

Become a Fan

Buy the DVD

'National Geographic LIVE!—The Photographers' DVD cover

Featuring presentations and interviews by veteran National Geographic photographers Alexandra Avakian and Sam Abell

Buy the DVD