From a project on her lost father to her recent film on survivors of the Armenian Genocide (1915), Diana Markosian is not someone to shy away from heavy subjects. In fact, she prioritizes personal projects over editorial assignments, even though she takes on variations of both. Her work is mature, honest, and touching. From New York’s JFK airport, she chats with Blink’s Laurence Cornet about obstacles she’s faced in the industry, past projects, and how to stay motivated.

Laurence: Where was your first project?

Diana: Chechnya. I was 20 and had just finished graduate school. I am not sure why one would move to Chechnya, but at the time, it seemed like the natural thing to do. I lived and worked on assignments, trying to make a name for myself. And slowly, I started to find my voice. My first project followed girls’ coming of age in the context of post-war Chechnya. I was meeting people my age, who had lost their childhood to war. I was an outsider, and they brought me into their world. It was a sense of belonging I hadn’t felt in a long time; Chechnya felt like home.

Monks at their home before morning alms in Mytchina, Myanmar.

Monks at their home before morning alms in Mytchina, Myanmar.

Irrawaddy River in Myitkyina, Myanmar.

Irrawaddy River in Myitkyina, Myanmar.

The Kachin are devout Christians in a predominantly Buddhist Burma. Worshippers at morning mass at St.Francis Savor Church in the Myitkyina, Myanmar.

The Kachin are devout Christians in a predominantly Buddhist Burma. Worshippers at morning mass at St.Francis Savor Church in the Myitkyina, Myanmar.

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Laurence: What obstacles did you face in finding your voice as a photographer?

Diana: I didn’t go to school for photography, so when I was starting out, I felt like I needed to prove to myself that I could be a photographer. I think that initial pressure is something we all go through, in any industry. I guess the difference now is that I don’t produce work for the industry. It doesn’t interest me anymore.

Laurence: What drives your work now?

Diana: It is a feeling. I like to push myself. To do things I’ve never done before. My work isn’t about the output. It is much more reflective. I am looking inwards, and learning to be quiet with myself.

Laurence: What did you learn when working on the project about your father?

Diana: I think my strongest work has been through collaboration. It started with my series on my father. When the piece published, I asked his opinion and he said it was missing his voice. His response made me pause. He was in every one of my frames, yet he didn’t see himself in the project. That is when I started to realize this project was not just about me: it was about our relationship, or the lack of. I had to involve him in a real way.

Catholic Nuns at a Church in downtown Myitkyina, Myanmar.

Catholic Nuns at a Church in downtown Myitkyina, Myanmar.

Seda Makhagieva, 15, wraps a pastel-colored head and neck covering. Makhagieva fought to wear the hijab - a sharp break from her families' traditions.

Seda Makhagieva, 15, wraps a pastel-colored head and neck covering. Makhagieva fought to wear the hijab – a sharp break from her families’ traditions.

Chechen girls after school in front of the Heart of Chechnya mosque, the largest in Europe. All Chechen girls, despite religion, must wear a head covering in public schools and government buildings.

Chechen girls after school in front of the Heart of Chechnya mosque, the largest in Europe. All Chechen girls, despite religion, must wear a head covering in public schools and government buildings.

A couple on a date in the village of Serzhen-Yurt. Couples must meet in public and sit a distance from one another. All physical contact is forbidden before marriage.

A couple on a date in the village of Serzhen-Yurt. Couples must meet in public and sit a distance from one another. All physical contact is forbidden before marriage.

Laurence: How do you get funding that allows you to work on long-term personal projects?

Diana: My personal work is my priority. I work on assignments as well, which enable me to work on my own thing. I apply for grants, but I don’t want to rely on them – it’s just not sustainable nor is it feasible in the long term. My latest project, 1915, started as a commission from a foundation, then turned into a personal project (which I self-funded), and has now become a short film, whose profits fund the initial piece.

Laurence: How did your latest project, 1915, develop? When and how did it start? 

Diana: I am Armenian by-origin, but I’ve never been keen in pursuing a story about the genocide. It felt so distant from me that I never believed I had enough authority to cover the subject. When I was working on the series on my father, I hit this point where I was emotionally exhausted. I didn’t want to continue.  I was about to book a ticket out of the country, when a foundation reached out to me about finding the last survivors of the Armenian genocide. I decided to go ahead with it. When I began the piece, I traveled across the country, and met survivors who were over a hundred years old. I asked them about their childhood and about their last memories in their homeland, Turkey. And, despite my original distance, I felt connected to their stories. Like me, they were taken away from their home at a young age and never had any sense of closure with their past. It was the same sort of feeling I had growing up in America. This mutual understanding and shared loss drove the rest of my project. After asking them what they most missed about home, I decided to travel back to their village, photograph those memories, and bring the pictures back to the survivors 100 years later.

Chechen dancers backstage at a concert hall in the Chechen capital, Grozny. A suicide bomb exploded in front of the concert hall in 2009, killing six people and wounding several others.

Chechen dancers backstage at a concert hall in the Chechen capital, Grozny. A suicide bomb exploded in front of the concert hall in 2009, killing six people and wounding several others.

This is the closet thing I had to an image of my father. A cut out of him in my mother's photo album.

This is the closet thing I had to an image of my father. A cut out of him in my mother’s photo album.

I am looking at a man I don't recognize. He's looking back at me.Ê It took me fifteen years to be here, sitting across from my father.

I am looking at a man I don’t recognize. He’s looking back at me.Ê
It took me fifteen years to be here, sitting across from my father.

As a little girl, my father felt like a secret being kept from me.  When I would ask my mother about him, she would tell me he was gone.

As a little girl, my father felt like a secret being kept from me. When I would ask my mother about him, she would tell me he was gone.

Laurence: What was your relationship to the survivors? How did they help you and vice-versa?

Diana: This was not my story. I needed the survivors to guide me through the process. So when I met Movses, Mariam and Yeprkasia, I asked them to lead me through their pasts.  They, in turn, asked me to help fulfill their wishes: Movses wanted me to find his church and leave his image there, Mariam asked me to bring back Turkish soil so she could be buried in it, and Yeprkasia wanted help finding her older brother whom she was separated from after the genocide. I never found Yeprkasia’s brother, but I did come back with a story for Movses and a container of dirt for Mariam. When she opened it, she thanked me, and said, “You have brought the smell of my village to me” It was a real exchange. This project moved me. I wanted to give something back beyond my images. I started a print sale last year to raise money to help rebuild their homes. We’ve just completed the renovations last week.

Laurence: You are mainly working on emotionally heavier stories, how do you cope with their weight?

Diana: I am not sure if I do [cope]. I guess for me, there was a point when it was no longer about the photography; the work became my life. It all started in Chechnya: something broke inside me and it was hard to understand how to cope with it. I would come home and write down my feelings, trying to understand the girls’ pain, almost like if I thought about it enough I could somehow take on that pain. It was the same sort of feeling I had when creating the work on my father. But now it became personal. It was my life. I was vulnerable. And photography allowed me to confront this feeling head on.

Mariam spent most of her life moving back and forth between her home in Armenia and visiting relatives in Syria. She never again saw the place where she was born. Her one request: "Go to my village and bring back soil for me to be buried in."

Mariam spent most of her life moving back and forth between her home in Armenia and visiting relatives in Syria. She never again saw the place where she was born. Her one request: “Go to my village and bring back soil for me to be buried in.”

A box containing the remains of Armenians from Der Zor, Syria: a destination to which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forced to march in 1915 and 1916. This location in the Syrian desert, now ISIS controlled, for Armenians is synonymous to Auschwitz.

A box containing the remains of Armenians from Der Zor, Syria: a destination to which hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forced to march in 1915 and 1916. This location in the Syrian desert, now ISIS controlled, for Armenians is synonymous to Auschwitz.

Yepraksia holds an image of the location from whence she recalls escaping with her family. This is the first time she has seen it in 100 years.

Yepraksia holds an image of the location from whence she recalls escaping with her family. This is the first time she has seen it in 100 years.

Ani, once the capital of Armenia, forms part of the current border between Turkey and Armenia. Once known as the city of 1,001 churches, Ani was abandoned after the genocide and now is populated only with the occasional presence of Turkish border guards.

Ani, once the capital of Armenia, forms part of the current border between Turkey and Armenia. Once known as the city of 1,001 churches, Ani was abandoned after the genocide and now is populated only with the occasional presence of Turkish border guards.

Holding a cane in his right hand, Movses Haneshyan, 105, slowly approaches a life-size landscape.

Holding a cane in his right hand, Movses Haneshyan, 105, slowly approaches a life-size landscape.

Laurence: So, what’s next?

Diana: I want to keep pushing myself – to challenge myself in a different way. I’ve just finished a new collaborative project with my father. I am now in Georgia, working on something else. I am really not sure if it’s good, but I’ve realized I like this feeling of not knowing. It is what drives me. I guess it’s not so much about having my work published, at least it isn’t anymore.  That’s just the side effect.

 

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Writer: Laurence Cornet

Editor: Soraya Ferdman

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