Monday, April 13, 2009

Humanizing the other side: Interview with Alex Avakian

This was first publised the March 7, 2009 Armenian Reporter

Photographer Alexandra Avakian seeks to “humanize the other side”
She has worked in some of the world’s most violent places

Alexandra Avakian has been a National Geographic photographer since 1995. Armenia, Gaza, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Muslims in the United States have been among her assignments. From 1988 to 1996 she worked for Life, Time, and the New York Times Magazine, covering conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union, including the 1988 earthquake in Armenia and the war in Karabakh.

Ms. Avakian recently released a book, Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World, published by Focal Point / National Geographic. She completed it while she successfully battled breast cancer. The book includes a chapter on the former USSR, including a number of photos from Karabakh. She spoke about her work with Washington Editor Emil Sanamyan on February 13.

Professional roots

Armenian Reporter: What brought you to photography?

Alexandra Avakian: By the time I graduated from college, I was already very advanced, soon became a professional, and got my first paid job at Newsweek. And one of the most important reasons is my dad.

Ms. Avakian produces the November 1969 issue of Life magazine (“I just bought it on E-bay”) featuring the work of her father, the late Aram Avakian, a filmmaker best known for his 1969 film End of the Road. The article includes a picture of Ms. Avakian’s mother, actress Dorothy Tristan, and of Alexandra herself.

And the family’s artistic prominence by no means ends there. Aram’s brother George Avakian is a jazz music producer who was honored with a Grammy award on February 7.

Avakian: My dad taught me how to tell stories through pictures from the time I was very, very young. He sat me down on his lap as he was editing a movie, and he would say, “Here is where you cut the story and this is why.” And he would let me make the cut.

I would draw him a story on a blank strip of film that he would run through a Moviola, so that I could see the product. Photography was a way of expressing myself since the time I was very young.

By the time I finished college in 1983, I already had a portfolio of my work in Manhattan. And that was another thing, since I was born in New York City, I didn’t really have to go far to begin working for top magazines.

AR: And how did you end up going that far away from home?

Avakian: Already in college I was very fascinated by revolution and fights for freedom and how far people would go to be free. And it did not have anything to do with ideology.

I covered the Berlin Wall fall [in 1989] and ended up living in Moscow [from 1990 to 1992] during the fall of the Soviet Union, and I was fascinated with all these republics spinning away and what they were doing.

The other important thing that influenced my work deeply is my Armenian heritage. Like many Armenians, my family fled many terrible things, survived many horrors, and that led me to engage in world events and cover people’s suffering.

Learning what my family went through was the ultimate lesson in empathy for others. And working in regions my family had lived in was a way of reaching my ancestors and relatives who have passed and can no longer speak to me and tell me what it was like to live through these things. I felt the need to understand what human beings do to one another and why, and what it is like to be in the shoes of a refugee woman trying to escape with her children.

The strange and awful times in Armenia

AR: You went to Armenia following the earthquake in December 1988.…

Avakian: I did. We were on a family vacation in Egypt. And when I heard [the news] I felt I could never forgive myself if I did not get on the plane and go.

So, I went to the Soviet Embassy and there was an ethnic Armenian diplomat there. And I nagged him, “Please, I am an Armenian, I have got to go.” And he said, “You need an invitation [to go into USSR] but just go.”

When asked if the diplomat in question was the current foreign minister of Armenia, Edward Nalbandian, who worked for the Soviet Embassy in Egypt at the time, Ms. Avakian says: “You are probably right, but that was a long time ago.”

“It is interesting how many people who became well-known Armenians I met over the years while at work,” she adds later. “I met Robert Kocharian while he was organizing a protest in the Stepanakert street in 1989. And Arkady Ghukasian and I worked side by side on the front line when he was a war reporter in 1992.”

So he gave me a visa and I went, and I landed in Moscow, and I could never have imagined myself in that place. I was wearing very light clothing and it was snowing. I could not get a hotel room because I did not have an invitation.

But I had already been working for Time and Life magazines a lot and by the time I arrived in Moscow, I had an assignment to cover the earthquake. I went to their [Moscow] bureau, not realizing at the time that my life would center on that bureau and the former USSR for the next four years.

It took me a while to get permission to get out to Armenia. In the meantime, I photographed children evacuated from Armenia to Moscow and camped out at government buildings there.

Eventually, I went to Armenia for a month and lived with Armenian doctors from MSF [Doctors without Borders] in a broken-down school in Leninakan, now Gyumri.

It was a strange and awful time.

When I first arrived our plane had to land in Georgia because of the weather – I think a plane had just crashed trying to land in Armenia – and we drove in.

The first place we stopped was Spitak, and there were these trenches for the coffins. It was extremely difficult. To see people suffer is difficult enough and that was in a country where I have roots.

I saw very moving and very surprising things. Like in a war, [in a major calamity] you see the seemingly weak become strong and strong become weak; I saw a lot of that. ¬ere were villages where people were looking after one another and villages where aid trucks were attacked.

After covering the earthquake area, Time magazine had me stay on to cover some of the skirmishes on the border with Azerbaijan [in early 1989]. It was in the Kapan area [in southern Armenia].

There were these villagers mostly with hunting rifles and some with Kalashnikovs patrolling the area. I stayed at the home of one of their grandmothers, who was a very classic Armenian lady.

And then, being based in Moscow, I kept coming back to Armenia. But I also went to the Baltic states, Central Asia, and to Georgia and covered the wars there. (In fact, my grandmother was an Armenian from Tbilisi, whereas my grandfather was from an Armenian village in northwestern Iran.)

AR: When did you cover the Karabakh war?

Avakian: I got out there five or six times during the war and afterward as well.

The first time I really covered Karabakh was for the New York Times with Bill Keller in August 1989. We arrived in Baku – it was still possible for me to do this in the Soviet period – and we went by train to Aghdam and then to Shushi and Stepanakert.

There was not an out-and-out war yet. Armenians and Azeris were fighting village to village. [The Soviet envoy] Arkady Volsky was still in [charge of Karabakh] and Soviet troops were very much there.

The next time I went in March 1992. Things got really intense by then. My Armenian colleagues in Yerevan discouraged me from going, but I again really felt like I had to go. In the end they gave me a bulletproof vest and a map. We took a small plane in that landed like this [makes a corkscrew motion].

AR: What did you see?

Avakian: It was bad. People were losing their minds because they were living underground [in bomb shelters] for so long. 158 or 159 Grad missiles landed on Stepanakert in one day. It was nuts.

It was also fascinating because I got permission to work at the front line in the trenches between Askeran and Aghdam. And it was as wild and out of control as wars get.

I went to one of the exchanges, where prisoners, civilians, as well as bodies were traded. And as we were driving away a shell flew right over the hood of the Armenian commander’s car we were in. ¬

They tried to kill us. And it was not the guys with whom the trade was done because their commander was actually a friend of the Armenian commander’s. And you could tell the shell came from another direction.

I could no longer cross the line to the Azeri side – it was impossible at that time. And in fact it was not possible for a while before and after. As a journalist you want to reach the other side but it was just not possible [because of my Armenian background].

Windows of the Soul is not about Armenia – that I will get to, perhaps when I do a book on the fall of Communism or something – but I decided to include Karabakh.

The last time I went to Karabakh was in 2003 when I did a story on Armenia for National Geographic.
I guess I have been to Armenia 15 times all together.

AR: And how did Armenia strike you that time?

Avakian: The previous time I went was in 1994, shortly after the cease-fire, so there was a big difference. But there were three things that were challenging for Armenia.

In Gyumri, there were still people living in a bad situation in makeshift housing. There were so many Armenian men going to work in Russia, leaving women and children alone. And something that former Soviet republics have difficulty focusing on with all the other problems – the environmental issues, like industrial waste.

But it was a much happier time and I really felt the country was really healing at that time.

Importance of mutual respect

AR: You worked in Iran – covering Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral in 1988 and again later – and you worked with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Was it especially challenging for a woman?

Avakian: I had to wear extremely strict hijab (modest dress with head covering) in 1988. Now it is much looser, you can show more hair, but then it was really strict. It was never my role to challenge those mores at all. For me wearing a scarf was like having a passport. And when I wear it, I am treated with respect and people know that I respect their culture. And I am happy about that.

There is a chapter in the book about Muslim-Americans. I spent almost two years with them after the September 11 attacks. In one of the assignments, I photographed the Muslim population of Graterford prison in Pennsylvania – some 800 inmates, mostly African-Americans – they are mainstream Sunni Muslims and just a few Nation of Islam guys.

It was a maximum-security facility, a lot of [people] sentenced to life in prison. But when I went in, even though it is America, I went in full Islamic dress to show respect to the Muslim elders at the prison. I was coming to ask them if I could photograph their Friday prayers.

And they were very welcoming to me. Moreover, they protected me in this very dangerous facility, because when you are deep inside a prison like that there are no armed guards around.

World’s least frequented places

AR: What was the most dangerous place that you have been to?

Avakian: There are different levels of danger.

Living in Gaza, anything could happen any time. I was shot at by an Israeli sniper and beaten bloody by Hamas just doing my job. It was at the time of riots against Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian authority.

[In the latter case] I had to go the Hamas sheikh in the area that I lived in to complain, because I could not be beaten like that and continue living in that place. And the next day they ordered from the minarets that journalists are not to be attacked.

Somalia definitely was most dangerous in terms of going from place A to place B. You could not do it without bodyguards. ¬They could kill you for a can of coke, your sunglasses, or nothing. I was there for five months and people were dying from starvation all around and clans were fighting each other.

In the book there is a story about a 12-year-old boy trying to kill me. For nothing. His gun was practically as big as he was. And I yelled at him, “I could be your mother.” And other gunmen around actually took his gun away from him. It was a gamble, but it turned out OK.

AR: And how was southern Sudan? How did you even get in there?

Avakian: I was in Nairobi, Kenya, and wanted to cover Sudan, where the famine was getting worse. With a few journalist friends we rented a little plane, with Time magazine and Reuters splitting the costs.

We went and spent some time in Ayod, this tragic village with the Irish aid group Concern. ¬The people were starving to death there in large numbers. And the axle on the plane breaks as it hits a hole in the earthen landing strip on takeoff and we wait for another plane.

And then we fly to this other village, Yuai, to photograph the rebel chief and his guerilla fighters. The writers, including the Time correspondent, did their interviews and they said “we are done” straight after they finished their interview with the commander.

And the United Nations [people] said, “we are done too,” because they could not operate anymore with the front line getting so close. All the aid agencies left and I stayed along with two other journalists because I did not have my story yet. (In addition to starving civilians I needed to cover the rebels.)

I finally got out of there after being stranded with no way out after my work was done, when an aid plane dropped some bags of food and I jumped aboard. But all the people of that village were massacred a couple of weeks later if they were too weak to run. I can never forget them.

From violence to dialogue

Now, for many years I no longer cover open conflicts. By the time National Geographic first hired me in 1995 I felt I was really done. I had seen too many funerals and I felt lucky to be in one piece.

But before that, [covering conflicts] was my job and my calling. Starting with the Haitian uprising against Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and through 1995, I was covering conflicts.

But I am still interested in revolutions and revolutionary societies are fascinating. And I love culture. I am always interested in covering the other side.

Iran, for example, is fascinating for all those reasons. It is a very old culture, by now also an old revolution and also a long-time enemy of the United States.

It is very interesting to go to the other side and capture the humanity of people. How they get up in the morning and have breakfast. How they dress. How they worship, whatever their religion. All these things humanize the other side and this is especially important in a post 9/11 world of deep misunderstandings. Because then I feel like there is a chance for dialogue.

AR: The recently elected President Barack Obama has been talking about the need for dialogue with the Muslim world. Having spent so much time in that world, what advice can you offer?

Avakian: I am not an advocate. I always try to cover both sides. I think that is my duty as a reporter. What I think I have learned is that all over the world people want to feed their families, they want freedom of speech and security, they want respect. ¬This is what all people share.

Now, looking back at the many conflict areas I covered it seems economics are at the root of many conflicts. People need to have an opportunity to make a living, to protect their families, and to build a decent life.

Alexandra Avakian is a senior member of the prestigious Contact Press Images, N.Y. photo agency. For Avakian’s National Geographic blog, book, gallery, bio and more visit:

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