Oshagan and Oshagan’s Take on Karabagh: A World Of Images and Words


Soldier’s tombstone, Stepanakert, 2006

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — Ara Oshagan’s photographs all have something askew. Things are viewed from unusual angles, bodies are cut off into torsos, hands or legs appear without bodies and geometric patterns take form. Starkly black and white, his images are intriguing glimpses into people’s lives, illuminated with emotions. Intimate moments, in private or public space, are revealed. Father Land, Oshagan’s first volume of photographs, more than 10 years in the making, appeared at the end of 2010. It is a collaboration with his father Vahé Oshagan, who passed away in 2000. Its Brooklyn-based publisher, powerHouse Books, hosted an exhibition of some 20 photographs from November to December 2010, Oshagan signed books at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan a few weeks later and a larger exhibition, ending this January, was held at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery.

Father Land contains a preface by Vahé Oshagan, the noted poet and writer, in its original Western Armenian, together with an English translation by G. M. Goshgarian, and Ara Oshagan’s images, along with a brief afterword and acknowledgments by Ara Oshagan. In words and photos respectively, the father and son explored in parallel the victorious newly-independent but unrecognized and isolated Republic of Mountainous Karabagh from 1998 to 2006. Vahé’s essay was the last thing he wrote before dying. He wanted to understand as a Diasporan Armenian what Karabagh meant to him, the Armenian identity and to humanity. “Father Land” not only is a literal translation of the Armenian word for homeland, but also refers to the paternal relationship between Vahé and Ara, and Ara’s own fatherhood (he became a father four times over during the course of the preparation of this project).

Vahé Oshagan gives the historical background to Karabagh that can, to a degree, help contextualize his son’s photos. As a paradigmatically transient diasporan, Vahé romanticized what he terms “this ancient, ancestral, magical soil, with the riddle and the secret power of Armenianness.” The Armenian fighters of Karabagh are greater than those elsewhere because of their ties to the land: “What counts, in their case, as the bare minimum of fortitude and audacity is already more than can be reasonably demanded of any other soldier.” “There is no dying in the fatherland,” because you are not alone — your land, family and people perpetuate you. As Vahé describes his travel through Karabagh, both through its history and its present reality, the beauty of the natural landscapes and the churches built by the Armenians impress Vahé as sublime. He sought the secret to the Armenians’ survival in Karabagh in the warlike cruelty of the people, as well as the culture and the tie to the land.

Ara Oshagan explained recently his father was “trying to understand what man is — what is the linkage between history, humanity and soul, these larger issues, through Karabagh.”

Ara Oshagan and his father deliberately did not illustrate one another. He declared, “We did not want one or the other medium to be subservient. We wanted to create a piece of art about this place, allowing the reader to find — or not find — connections.”

Ara’s task was different from that of his father: “In a direct sense, photography is about the present, so it doesn’t deal with history in the same way. My approach was to look at the relationship I have to this place. Even though I’m Armenian and this is part of my distant homeland, I was 38 years old, and I had never been there before.”

The way he explored that relationship was “through having a particular viewpoint in my photographs, a very specific way of seeing, and that is what defines my relationship in visual terms to the place. Looking at the world, I’m very keenly aware of my own place in it, and in terms of my own eyes, I am trying to develop a type of visual vocabulary about how I see the world. Karabagh was seen through that visual vocabulary.”

All the photographs were taken in black and white, on film. Ara Oshagan said, “My viewpoint —my visual vocabulary — seems to translate itself better in black and white than in color. I’ve tried both, but black and white seems to be the way I see the world. It is obviously a more stark way of seeing. Color will bring in more emotional content. Black and white tends to be more about structure and shape, and form, at least for it to be successful, while that is not always true for color.”

The photographs are all uncropped. In Ara’s approach, he said, “A lot of things repeat in my photos, not all of them obviously. There is a sort of layering. There are oftentimes multiple things going on. Things are outside the frame — in the foreground or background, or out of focus. These sorts of things are the alphabet. It is like a novel, with a clear viewpoint at times, and other times passages that are not that clear.”

Ara Oshagan continued to travel to Karabagh after his father passed away: “I wandered and photographed and connected to whatever I could. I really, really wanted to photograph the army, so I spent three days at an army base. That was very specific — trying to get a specific image in a specific context. In general, I just went where I felt there was a deep connection. I spent a lot of time only in a few places, though I traveled all over this country.”

What is amazing is that Ara Oshagan was able to photograph very intimate moments in people’s lives, sometimes in the very bosom of a family. He explained how this was accomplished: “I spend a lot of time with people so they become really comfortable with your presence and what you are doing. My presence is always there. They have to ignore my camera, so that they don’t even notice that action and process. They may even continue speaking to me as if there is no camera between us.”

He sometimes gets what he seeks in one shot. Other times, “I may take many frames. I will not know whether I have made a good image or not. Sometimes I think I made a great image, but it is not really good, or the opposite can happen. When I’m actually making the image it is instinctual.” Afterwards, the advice of a good editor with some distance from the work can be helpful.

Ara Oshagan never formally studied photography. He works as a geophysicist during the day, but has a flexible work schedule and tries to work on his photography as much as possible. He grew up as a child in the Armenian environment of Beirut and when he came to the US with his family, he moved around a lot, living in places like Madison, Wis. or Memphis, Tenn., without much contact with Armenian communities. He feels this made him understand marginalization and gave him an identity with several dimensions. He declared, “A diasporan identity is about not just being Armenian, but something else too: between languages, between Armenian and English, between different ways of thinking. The diaspora exists in a middle space.”

With a father and a grandfather (Hagop Oshagan) who were famous writers, Ara Oshagan initially attempted to express himself through writing, though he studied physics in order to have a practical profession to support his artistry. Then, something changed, he said: “At some point I stumbled onto photography and I realized that it is a better medium for me. I was able to connect with the medium very quickly and easily and make pictures that were significant for me, much more easily than writing. It took me a while: there was a struggle for a while between writing and photography, but I realized that it was not the medium but what you are trying to do through the medium. I went into photography as my art — my life.”

Ara Oshagan felt that coming from a lineage of writers is a double-edged sword: “On the one hand, you have this momentum — two generations of authors and artists giving you a push forward into certain ways of thinking and creating and appreciating art. You have all these things you know firsthand and intuitively that other people perhaps must struggle to obtain. On the other hand, there is the issue of coming out of the shadow. People like my father and grandfather cast long and heavy shadows.”

Vahé Oshagan in a way became a poet to distinguish himself from his famous novelist father. When Ara Oshagan still thought of becoming a novelist, he wanted to write in English instead of Armenian, but then went into the totally different medium of photography. He added, “I think that one of the results of having artists in previous generations is that your maturation seems to take longer. My father did not publish his first book until he was in his 30s; I’m 46 now with my first book out.”

Some things appear to have been passed down through three generations, Ara Oshagan found: “There is a spirit of breaking rules that came from my grandfather. My father took that spirit, and introduced curse words and conversational language into Armenian poetry for the first time. In a way, my style of photography also tends to break a lot of rules, in terms of images being very easily understood….I did not do that very consciously, but when I first started taking pictures, I was doing it in that way. I realized I was doing it and developed it further later.” A second shared element is being open-minded and accepting of everything that comes your way.

Most of Ara Oshagan’s work concerns Armenians. He attempts to avoid an overt nationalistic agenda, as he is exploring his own community in order to talk about people in general. Oshagan said, “I think the bad part of nationalism or the thing that subverts art is to have an agenda, when you are trying to pursue a nationalistic cause through your art. But you can love your nation and do projects about Armenians, and choose to do it through an active witnessing through photography, exploring without a particular agenda, as in Karabagh, I don’t see a contradiction.” He added that “visual language is very different from written — it can distance you from obvious, clear nationalistic elements.”

As a Diasporan-Armenian now living in Glendale, Ara Oshagan has done photography projects about survivors of the Armenian Genocide and Los Angeles-area Armenians, and still, he says, “there is a constant idea or need for return within me. One of my grand projects is to document, through a self- reflective project, the Armenian Diaspora, not only in LA, but in Beirut, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Kessab, the faces of the diaspora — the face of our transnational nation which will reveal itself somehow. I would be able to explore that aspect of my identity. It is about looking at myself, my own community, the diaspora. What does it mean to be a transnational people? What I want to address is humanity, and issues about community and memory, through my work and through the Armenian community.”

Ara Oshagan has four more photography books ready to be published and samples of his work can be viewed in the permanent collections of the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Fla., the Downey Museum of Art in Downey, Calif. and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Yerevan. To find out more, visit http://araoshagan.com/.