BY LALIG V. ARZOUMANIAN
On Saturday evening March 27, I had the opportunity to attend “How We Live,” a unique photography exhibit of the LA-based multitalented attorney, photographer, filmmaker and humanitarian, Sara Anjargolian. It was held at the Casitas Studios in LA, and impressively designed by Sara’s old friend, renowned architect, project designer and also filmmaker, Narineh Mirzaeian, who became the curator of the project.
The vast three-storey heigh studio which bore nothing but concrete on its floors and surrounding walls stood up in complete darkness. Forty-six 5’x7’ vividly colored silk sheets, elaborately suspended from the ceiling by a tensile network of black ropes, beamed out of the darkness. They spoke of Armenia, our homeland.
In that studio in LA, so far away from our homeland, we, the audience, had the privilege to first get acquainted, then to connect in just a few hours with 9 modest Armenian families, who resided in different parts of Armenia: the outskirts of Etchmiadzin, Geghard and Getap villages, Nubarashen, Arinch, Vanadzor, and the capital, Yerevan. The 40 luminous photographs and 6 multi-media vignettes narrated their stories. They were stories of beautiful yet unprivileged families, who struggled among the shadows of the most vulnerable strata of the Armenian population.
As my friend Dominique and I entered the studio, we were handed out thoughtfully realized yet sophisticated brochures in the way they guided us through the peculiar maze. The photographs projected on those immense silk sheets were sequentially ordered within each of the nine families that they portrayed. However, the sturdy ropes hung from the ceiling beams, that carried the radiant photographs followed a path that looked like an amazingly woven fishnet from a sky vintage point. That was the intricate scheme that was outlined in the brochures, which led Dominique and me in discovering the way these Armenian families lived in Armenia.
Following the scheme and brief explanation about each family in our brochures, the more Dominique and I advanced through the web of the silky photographs, the closer we felt to each family member portrayed in the exhibit. The quasi-human size characters looked almost real. Within their deep gaze, each one of them told us about how he or she lived.
In five of the nine families, the parents were single mothers.
Nune lived with her 3 children in a run-down house in Getap village. Being the family’s sole bread winner, her son couldn’t go to school. Ruzana lived with her 4 children in a tin shack in Nubarashen. The kids had to get water from a source that was an hour roundtrip walk. For living, they sold items they found in the nearby garbage dump.
After years of domestic violence and abuse by an alcoholic husband, Narine’ could obtain a legal divorce. She lived with her four children in a dilapidated house in the outskirts of Yerevan. Narine sold vegetables. Her children were mostly fed potatoes and bread. For bath, they used a rusty bathtub in the yard. Her daughter Gohar,8, was very fragile emotionally. Narine attributed that to years of abuse and their extreme poverty.
Rima lived with her 4 children in a metal shipping container, called domik, in Vanadzor. She cleaned houses, and sold jam that she prepared from berries she collected in the forest.
Armine and her six children lived in a run down house in Yerevan. They moved there from a barn where they used to live with yet another abusive alcoholic father. The children were fed water and sugar and had reached advanced levels of malnutrition. A non-profit organization intervened and had Armine’s two daughters, Christina, 6, and her younger sister hospitalized.
As for the other parents, Arthur and Susanna, Senik and Garine, Grigor and his wife, Arthur and Gayane, their fortune was no better than the latter ones.
The first couple, Arthur and Susanna and their daughter Anna, 12, occupied a hut wrapped in plastic in the outskirts of Etchmiadzin. Their main source of living was items Arthur picked from the nearby garbage dump that he sold. They didn’t have enough money to send Anna to school.
The second one, Senik and Garine resided with their daughter Ani,12, and her 4 siblings in a two room tin shack made of scrap tin in Geghard. In winter, the water froze in their home, which caused respiratory problems to Ani. After failing in numerous attempts for Ani to be hospitalized, a non-profit organization made it happen. She feels much better now.
Grigor, his wife, mother and 3 children lived in a shack in the outskirts of Etchmiadzin, at proximity of a large garbage dump. Grigor too brought food to the table by selling items he found in the dump. His mother, Haykoush, burnt old shoes in the stove for cooking. She also worked slaughtering chicken, and sometimes brought left over chicken heads for the children to eat.
Arthur and Gayane have stayed with their 8 children in a dormitory room in Yerevan for the last 14 years. Former soldier in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Arthur struggled to make ends meet.
This is the raw truth of the dire circumstances in which these Armenian families who opened up to us and welcomed us in their daily lives through the lens of the camera lived in Armenia. Deprived of jobs and the bare necessities of appropriate shelter, water, food clothing and hygiene, with no access to education, health care and social justice, their eyes watched us, the more privileged ones, full of hope for better lives, better future and better dreams.
Later on in the evening, first at 8 then 9 p.m., the viewers were presented a 15 minutes documentary created by journalist and editor, recipient of four Emmy awards, Karlo Gharabegian. The documentary short incorporated pictures, footage and interviews that Sara took during her 2 years stay in Armenia. It featured an original song that renowned artist, Gor Mkhitarian, recorded for this project. The footage and interviews further put to life our Armenian compatriots who inhabited the displayed photographs.
The viewers were also offered the possibility of bringing home a scent of their experience by purchasing “How We Live,” the hardcover book, designed by talented graphic designer, Mary Minassian, who gracefully assembled all those poignant photographs. Wine, refreshments and warm food were served outside the studio.
The entire project of “How We Live” was initiated and sponsored by the philanthropic organization, Tufenkian Foundation. Since 1998, the Tufenkian Foundation has dedicated itself to promote the economic, social, educational, environmental, and health conditions in our homeland. It has operated through numerous projects and ventures in three different venues, the Armenia, Karabakh, and Environmental Programs.
Following the presentation of the documentary, Antranig Kasbarian, Executive Director of the Tufenkian Foundation, addressed us, viewers, with more information about the mission of the “How We Live” project and the link tha
t the Tufenkian Foundation can create between Armenians in our homeland, and the ones in the Diaspora.
Antranig Kasbarian reiterated that based on The World Bank’s reports in 2009, 28 percent of the population in Armenia lived in extreme poverty, and that for the first time in the last 10 years, poverty was on the rise in Armenia. Over the past decade, the Tufenkian Foundation’s Zangakatun program has spent more than $ 1 million toward promoting social justice in Armenia and assisting the unprivileged families like the ones in the exhibit, many of whom have already become beneficiaries of Zangakatun.
With the support of the Tufenkian Foundation, and the willingness of this team of amazing artists, Kasbarian explained that all donations and proceeds from “How We Live” were to go to the Zangakatun program, hence bear the honorable mission of tending a hand to the unprivileged Armenian families in Armenia.
Finally, the viewers were honored by the very humble and humanitarian, Sara Anjargolian’s address to an audience of more than 300 men and women. She shared with us her personal experience while she met, got to know and even lived with the families that she photographed. She expressed the profound connection she felt with them and her gratitude for having known them and having been given the privilege to reach out to them.