Presence of Absence: Photographing Loss and Violence


Prof. Armen Marsoobian and Varun Soni

Prof. Armen Marsoobian and Varun Soni

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Armen Marsoobian, chairman of the Philosophy Department at Southern Connecticut State University and author of Fragments of a Lost Homeland — Remembering Armenia, was the guest at a lunchtime conversation organized by the University of Southern California (USC) Institute of Armenian Studies. The event took place on September 16 at USC Ground Zero Coffeehouse. Marsoobian was In Conversation with Varun Soni, dean of Religious Life at USC.

The USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Studies co-sponsored the event.

Marsoobian, a grandchild of Genocide survivors, has devoted the past few years of his life to presenting exhibitions in Turkey of a photograph archive collected by his extended family, who were all photographers and thus saved by the Ottoman governors because they were needed. Whereas most Armenian families don’t have a single picture of their families, Marsoobian has hundreds.

“These photographs are a form of bearing witness to the identities of Armenians in the most difficult times of the Armenian Genocide. They document a life and culture that was erased, and about which little is known by the new generation in Turkey,” said Marsoobian.

Once Marsoobian began the process of archiving and exhibiting what was left to him by his family of photographers, it became a personal and emotional journey in addition to an academic one. He spoke about his trips to Anatolia and the importance of walking on the ground, and seeing the exact places that was the birthplace of Armenian culture.

Marsoobian’s family story is one of prosperity, vibrant culture, and sudden loss. During the conversation, he recounted an argument between his grandparents in the summer of 1915. After they lost police protection, the family was forced to choose between joining the death marches with the rest of the exiled or convert and live as Islamized Armenians. They chose the latter, changed their names, and became hidden Armenians.

“As the generation that somehow survived by either voluntarily or involuntarily converting passes on, they are sharing their life secrets with their families. Suddenly, tens of thousands of citizens of Turkey are discovering their Armenian roots. This, in a country, where being Armenian has been reviled. We are headed for a very interesting and difficult period in Armenian-Turkish relations, and Armen Marsoobian’s family treasure helps everyone better understand the past, and perhaps the future,” said Salpi Ghazarian, the director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies.

Marsoobian will continue to present his exhibitions in Turkey and around the world. He is certain that sharing such photos is important for the small Armenian community remaining in Istanbul and the rest of the Armenians – whether rediscovered, or still hidden.

The full video of the discussion is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rN0aGtkEEGQ.