Antonella Monzoni: Armenian Wound

This is the second part of Antonella Monzoni’s interview, where she opens up about her love for Armenia, the Caucasus Country with a dramatic history and vital people, and how she decided to portray them. You can read the first part of our interview with Antonella about her work here on the Leica blog.

Q: What drove your interest to Armenia and made you decide to go there with your camera? In general, how do you chose your  subjects? For example, on your website there are pictures of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ukraine, Burma and of subjects much closer to you, geographically speaking, like the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. What’s the common thread of all of your photographic research?

A: In 2006, I decided to visit part of Caucasus: Armenia, Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh. I had always been fascinated by Eastern Europe, especially after my experience in a small village in Northern Russia and in the “nuclear” city of Neteshin, Ukraine. Caucasus is further South and it’s obviously different (from the rest of the region), yet I was very interested in it. The very name “Caucasus” sounds very musical and intriguing to my ears! The real discovery for me was Armenia, with its open wounds and its history, its bittersweet land, its proud, open and vital people. I felt as if Armenia asked me to go back, in a certain way, and I did for the following three years. I normally choose the subjects of my pictures depending on my curiosity regarding what I read or how I feel about the country and  according to the networking I can do on the spot: what I love is not the trip per se, but getting to know people, feeling my “being” there. The photographic work at the Abbey of Sant’Antimo has been a deep and essential experience for me. As a woman, I felt that being accepted by the community of monks as the only photographer allowed to take pictures of their ceremonies, was an instructive experience, something that taught me a lot, most of all loving. In short, the common thread is to things: curiosity and love, in the broad sense of the term, clearly.

Q: Armenian Wound, the title you chose for your work, seems to anticipate a painful event. How did you approach modern Armenia so that you could eventually translate it into photography?

A: I traveled the whole country, walked around, met people who were willing to share their stories. I soon found out that everybody there, even youngsters, are open and willing to share with you the deepest wound of their people, which was inflicted some 95 years ago, and this is because their parents, their grandparents, even their great-grandparents spent their lives telling them about it, among the family, which is the one of the most engrained and alive Armenian aspects. This wound is the genocide or Yeghèrn Metz (the great evil), in which over one and a half million Armenians were exterminated at the hands of the Young Turkish government; it is a little-known genocide on a world-wide level and has never been recognized by Turkey.

Q: In the first part of this interview, which focused on your work and was published on the Leica blog on March 2, you wrote, ”I’ve been very interested in cultural production about memory. I’m constantly in search of symbols, stories and signs that reveal these things”. In your opinion, in what way does such research come out in your work on Armenia?

A: First of all, I think my search shows through the symbols that define the Armenian culture, like the carved sepulchral stones, called khatchkar, which can be found in the cemeteries and next to the ancient monasteries or the engravings inside the medieval churches. Such engravings are written in the Armenian alphabet, which is probably one of the most ancient aspects of the union of the entire Armenian community. There’s also the Eternal Flame Memorial in Yerevan, where every year on the 24th of April (Memorial Day), Armenians gather from all over the world, bringing a flower in memory of the genocide inflicted on their people. It’s a long and silent pilgrimage that takes place from the dawn until the middle of the night. I can’t forget all the graves I saw that would bring me back to the civil war with Azerbaijan (1989-1993) when some 30,000 people lost their lives. And there were the trophies of war, as I call them, like the Azerbaijani wall of license plates: they remind us that in one night, by foot, thousands of families had to abandon their home to flee the Armenian revenge against the constant raids, pogroms. Also, I remember decaying buildings next to the remains of Stalin statues, heritage of another chapter of Armenian history, the to Russia, which lasted over 70 years and left the country financially in pieces. My pictures focus on another Armenian wound: the dramatic magnitude-9 earthquake on the Richter scale that shook and destroyed Northern Armenia in 1988, leaving 25,000 dead and 500,000 people homeless. I also photographed something that, in my view, is the most important cultural symbol of Armenia: the Arat Mountain, which is now in the territory of Turkey, adding insult to injury.

Q: You photograph both in color and in black and white. Why did you decide to go black and white for this series? Was it a way to tell the long story of this people and at the same time to create a sort of distance from a raw reality?

A: As soon as I arrived I felt I had to use black and white, even though I had plenty of color film rolls with me. It was a clear, strong and crucial feeling.

Q: A good portion of the Armenian people fled their country, as the lines that go along the pictures on your website have it. Have you already thought about working on the Armenian Diaspora or on its footmarks?

A: For over a year I’ve been collaborating with Antonia Arslan, an Italian writer of Armenian origins (she lives in Padua, Italy), author of “The Lark Farm”. The book, which tells the genocide of her family in Armenia, was translated into many languages, published all over the world and became a movie directed by the Taviani brothers. I had heard about her on my very first trip to Armenia (life works in such mysterious ways) and contacted her as soon as I got back, asking her permission to show her my first pictures. Through her I’m getting to know many little Armenian communities which are not as numerous as those in France, USA or Russia. It is possible that this could be a good starting point.

-Leica Internet Team

You can also read the original interview conducted by Marian Nur Goni in Italian. You can see more of Antonella’s work on her website http://www.antonellamonzoni.it/.