“My work is about identity, memory and community and a certain obsession with the margins of society.”
Ara Oshagan (born 1964) is a photojournalist currently based in Los Angeles, USA. He’s a self-taught photographer.
Interview with Ara Oshagan
Ara, why did you become a photographer? And why photojournalism?
I always wanted to be a writer.
My grandfather is a celebrated novelist, my father a celebrated poet. Both in the Armenian language.
One of my majors in college was English literature (the other was physics!). I had a lot of interest in that and my overarching topic was my life and identity – who am I, why am I here and that took me back to my being Armenian and also being American – my hybrid, diaporic identity.
I have deep Armenian roots but was born in an Arab country, had a French-Armenian education and then came of age in the US.
What does it mean to be a person with all these diverse and often competing cultures within you?
Cultures, languages, ways of life, perceptions of the world that each culture affords. In short, to live and breathe in a diaspora – to come from a three-thousand year history but physically move in a space that has no connection to that history.
This dichotomy is what drove my artistic interest, my explorations.
From the first day. And still today.
It is not a state that can be ever fully explored because it is in constant flux. Since I came of age in the US and English had become my primary language of writing I wanted to write in English – to continue in the family tradition, but also to differentiate myself.
So, I was writing these very short pieces of fiction – on the edge of fiction and non-fiction and I wanted to have photographs associated with them.
“As much as writing requires hours of sitting and isolation, photography requires the exact opposite.”
Not sure why but I think because these pieces were so short, they resembled in a way photographs – moments captured in the imagination, moments from real life.
I did not even own a camera then. I asked some friends to take photos but I did not like the photos they took – in terms of connecting to my fiction. So, I borrowed my friend’s camera and started taking pictures myself.
It was kind of revelation – as much as writing requires hours of sitting and isolation, photography requires the exact opposite – constant movement and interaction (at least my brand of documentary photography does).
This seemed to be much better fit for my character—I had always been in motion as a kid, very active. I was even close to playing pro soccer right after high school.
So, I started doing photography more and more but it still took me a long time to convince myself that the medium is not the critical thing – that is, whether you write or draw or build or take photos is not the important thing.
What you have to say, what ideas and concepts are you constructing – this is the critical thing. Once I realized that, photography became my primary medium. But I still write. On and off. I have 2-3 novels bouncing around in my head which will one day find themselves on paper.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
Not sure if I have one – each project has its own special moment. And sometimes that is revealed while taking photos and sometimes afterwards.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
I am not very worried about the overabundance of images in today’s society.
“I am photographing with the most honesty and depth that I can muster.”
The vast majority of these photos are snapshots whose lifespan is very short – a few minutes or less. Like a mosquito.
They are shot, shown and almost immediately die, forgotten.
These photos resemble a conversation, rather than an actual process by which a visual archive is made. I am interested in creating a visual archive that is also a reflection of my own person, who I am in this age and time and the people and place I am photographing with the most honesty and depth that I can muster.
And that does not come from a snapshot. It requires a lot of time and immersion and connectivity.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
When I first saw the work of Nikos Economopoulos, I was astounded.
That a series of photographs could reach so far inward (that is be so much about the photographer himself) as well as outward (about the place and people he was photographing).
His work was a sort of a guiding light for me while doing “Father Land.” Nubar Alexanian was also an early influence who then became my first editor and mentor.
I also admire the black and white work of Ernesto Bazan and, of course, the first post-modern photographer, Gilles Peress. Nikki Lee is also a favorite artist. As well as Jim Goldberg – his book “Open See” is profound and tries to expand the horizons of visual documentation.
I also like the work of Danny Wilcox Frazier and Matt Black – these are photographers working in their own backyard, looking at the life in their own communities and reflecting on that. I think this is very important to do as a photographer.
Your favorite quote about photography?
I don’t have a favorite quote about photography. But I do have a favorite quote:
“The past is not never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner, of course, said that.
You dedicate great part of your work to photographing and recording the oral histories of survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Why did you decide to take on this subject?
The Armenian genocide is one of those catastrophic earth-shattering events that shapes a nation, a past.
A huge atom-bomb dropped on a whole nation. It will remain in our consciousness and subconscious for generations.
I was born in its aftermath – its effects, its presence, is still very much felt by myself and my generation.
“Photos, portraits alone would not tell the story.”
The past is not past. And it is an open wound for us because Turkey still denies it was responsible.
As an artist a bit obsessed with identity, the Genocide is perhaps the very first topic one wants to address, is compelled to address. There are so many first-time novels by Armenian authors that are about the Genocide.
So, I decided to address it. But I also realized early on in that project that photos, portraits alone would not tell the story.
I needed the actual stories, as told by the eyewitnesses. The two together, in this kind of stillness, tell the story. I have been working on that for over 15 years now.
Your project “Father Land” turned into a book. What is it about?
On a whim my father and I decided to do a book about this small and remote region that is now controlled by Armenians, but technically it is an unrecognized region.
“I became a father several times and I lost my father…”
He was an author and he wrote and I took photos. And it ended-up being not only about this region and this people but also about this father-son relationship, this generational thing.
The place, Nagorno-Karabagh, is part of my ancestral fatherland, so it is inherently about the father, and land. Also, during the process of making this book, I became a father several times and I lost my father…
All these issues live in the folds of this book, in the images, in the text. It may be about this obscure and remote region, but it addresses universal human themes.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
I actually had very little in mind when I started “Father Land”. We decided upon the boundaries – that is, the political boundaries of the Nagorno-Karabagh region and I said I am going to work within these boundaries.
All the images I make will be within these boundaries. But why photograph in Nagorno-Karabagh as opposed to a million other places in the world? That had to do with history. There was a recent war for independence in that region where Armenians were actually able to gain independence.
Armenian history is a sad, bloody and tumultuous one.
For over 1000 years we have been a conquered nation, occupied, second-class citizens on our own soil, killed and murdered simply for being Armenian. Armenia is also the battle ground of major East-West wars. Then a Genocide that wiped out nearly 75 percent of the Western Armenian nation.
“It is a mystery – our existence as a nation makes no sense.”
And after that throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st (Syria) Armenians are constantly fleeing wars, earthquakes, sudden economic ruin and death. It is kind of a miracle that we are still actually here as a people.
At the beginning of our book, my father lists a litany of nations who used to exist on these lands but no longer do. Why have the Armenians remained, survived? This is in fact my father’s overarching question in our book. It is a mystery – our existence as a nation makes no sense.
So, the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabagh single-handedly reversed this 1000 years of brutal occupation and death. At least for a small part of the homeland. So, there was something very compelling there for me—how did they do it?
And tough on the surface, it may look like a nationalistic question, it is not.
“David against the Goliath—how did David do it?”
It is about human survival against all odds, David against the Goliath—how did David do it? This is the question. And the question’s layers, its folds, its emanations, are to be found in that region. Notice that there are no answers here to be gotten.
It is really about posing the question properly or figuring out the structure of the question.
And that had to come from the images themselves. The images had to show me the way. Perhaps this is a tall order for photography – to find that kind of attitude that could address 1000 years of history from images taken from the immediate present.
I am not sure if I succeeded in posing the question, or rather in posing it in such a way that some one else can actually connect to it.
I am not sure what I learned during the project. Perhaps how photography is really about a certain attitude.
How would you describe your photographic voice and way of working? How do you plan and execute a project?
My kind of photography requires time. So, I will not start a project, unless I have the ability to spend time on it. I just started another project about the Armenians of Lebanon.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically (color treatment, framing, lens use, etc.) and conceptually?
A lot of my work is about structure—form and attitude in that form. Also, of emotion, internal and external.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
Except for working photojournalists (which are becoming a rare breed) I think the era of the photograph as witness is over.
There is nothing that anyone can photograph, as a subject matter, that we have not seen.
From the ends of antarctica to the depths of despair of war and poverty. So the only thing left is the “how”. That is, how is the subject seen, how is it photographed, how the photographer can place his/her vision in the photo or the photo series.
“…like one sentence cannot make a novel.”
Not in the physical sense, but in terms of vision. A photograph or a series (because one photograph is too fragmentary to add up to a vision, like one sentence cannot make a novel) is not interesting unless I feel the photographer’s presence, unless I feel he/she is trying to tell me something in the way it is photographed.
The way it is told is as important as what is told.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Literature. I always read the authors I love when I working on a project.
This allows my mind to imagine and allows me to connect to subject matter more deeply.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I love and still use Olympus OM1s. I own about half-dozen. I was just in Beirut shooting with my OMs on film and it really surprised people out.
They are convinced film is dead. I have a digital camera and I use it sometimes but for any real long-term project, I use OM1s. I love the instrument.
I also have a 2 ¼ medium format film camera that I have been using on my project in the Central Valley of California.
What book about photography would you recommend? Why? Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
I think books about photography are pretty useless (except technical ones, sometimes). At least for me.
Photography must come from the heart, from the guts or else it makes no sense.
One must work to develop your own vision of life – and that cannot be gotten from reading books about photography.
“I recommend reading literature to take better photographs.”
I am not talking about commercial work where a client wants a kind of image and you perform it and it is done. I mean in the sense that photography is a reflection of your life and your deepest issues.
In fact, books about photography are detrimental to developing that personal vision, that unique way of seeing the world. I recommend reading literature to take better photographs.
Because literature will engage your imagination, give you flight. And, of course, look at photographs, look at the books of some of the photographers I listed above.
This is critical – to see what has been done and what is being done. They are the jumping-off point for a photographer.