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Ara Oshagan


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My father died in June 2000.

A few years before that, he and I decided to embark on a project about Karabagh: a remote mountainous area next to Armenia. A region where the Armenians fought and won a fierce war of independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A region still with militarized borders and no political recognition. A place in transformation: the people, the land, the very way of life in political, social, existential upheaval. A place that is part of our distant homeland.

Until the nineties, neither one of us had stepped foot in that part of the Armenian homeland. Both our generations were born and came of age in the sprawling cities of the Armenian Diaspora: in Jerusalem, Paris, Beirut, Philadelphia, Los Angeles.

Before his passing, my father and I made one trip to Karabagh together, in 1999. It coincided with the birth of my first son. After his passing, I continued work on our project for another six years. And my every trip back marked a new birth for my family and I. The project spanned four births in all. And one death.

And so this project took on a further meaning. Upon that land of our forefathers—there for over three millennia—from within the people who were living that history, came a quest to find the father. Through the eyes and senses of the emerging father.

Father:Land is a project about origins and identity. A project about a place and a people emerging out of a dark history, transforming, forging a new identity, searching for themselves and a new way of life. And also about a very personal becoming, an emergence.



Ara Oshagan’s work revolves around the themes of identity, community and aftermath.

Since 1995, he has been photographing survivors of the Armenian Genocide, a project that includes oral history and is called The Genocide Project. Working with photographer Levon Parian and a team of oral historians, this work was exhibited at the Downey Museum of Art in 1999 and attracted national attention, being the main feature in an NPR Morning Edition story.

Oshagan has also been photographing extensively in Nagorno-Karabagh for a book project with his father, well-known author, Vahe Oshagan. This work was featured in Photo District News and was awarded third place in the prestigious Visions 2001 National Photographic Project Competition sponsored by the Santa Fe Center for the Visual Arts (now known as “Center”).

Working with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, Oshagan received a California Council on the Humanities Major Grant in 2001 to photograph the Armenian experience of Los Angeles. This work, called Traces of Identity, was exhibited at the LA Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park from September to December 2004 and in 2005 at the Downey Museum of Art. The exhibit was reviewed in Art Papers, artcircles.com and featured in the LA Times, LA Weekly and LA Magazine’s “Top 10 Things to do in LA” in December 2004.

Oshagan has also been working in collaboration with Leslie Neale of Chance Films on a project to document high-risk juvenile offenders being tried as adults in California.

Oshagan’s work is in the permanent collection of the South East Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida, the Downey Museum of Art in Downey, California and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Yerevan, Armenia.


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Ara Oshagan


Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

54 thoughts on “ara oshagan – father:land”

  1. Ara – congratulations.
    I have no words. This is too sentimental for me to be able to express. I can feel the scent or father land in your photos.

    We yet have to get out for that coffee :).

  2. Although I’m not particularly inspired by Ara’s somewhat partial viewpoint regarding the status of Nargono Karabakh, I do like the photographs. Well done.

  3. this is one essay here in burn i like a lot. not necessarily the topic but how personal angst or say perspective is delivered to me, the reader/viewer.

    the photographer is consistent with both his statement and the flow of the essay as well as each of the pictures. find the father – forefathers imaged in the eyes of an emerging father. this message is delivered quite clearly.

    the pictures pull me in and bring me there… a lot of layers, playing with perspective and humor. many many thoughtful images with thoughtful composition that is just pleasing to my eyes.

    i am finding myself grabbing my notebook and sketching…

    thank you thank you

  4. real echoes of jindrich streit here. Many of these shots are (in my humble veiw) exceptional. number 2 kills me. A lot of people think this type of photography is cliched and doomed. i tend to think good work, in ANY style, wiill always be good work.
    I am a little angry though as i have been in the darkroom all evening and i thought i had made a couple of good prints..now after seeing these they have to go in the also ran box. THANKS. :)

  5. Absolutely amazing Ara, I am also speechless. To me, this is probably the most personal work I have seen here.
    This is the second great essay I discover today, so my tired eyes (2:25 am in Spain as I write this) can go to sleep…


  6. Great stuff! I love it when an essay gets you flicking through like this—excited about what you will find in the next image as it is always something new. This had me guessing all the way! Eager to see more and more. 13 and 22 just awesome!

  7. Ara, I am left speechless by this work. After watching it once, I turned right around to watch it again. After writing this, I will watch it a third time. And I know I will come back to it time and time again. It is a photographic masterpiece. Each shot stands alone. But taken together, something happens that is hard to describe. I think of my own father and miss him. I see a people who have suffered yet never lost their sense of who they are and where they belong. I see you and your father in their faces.

    I feel like I’m dithering on here, but dammit that’s because you have touched me so deeply. I can only say, don’t stop! Please continue to explore your Armenian heritage with your camera. You are opening doors and windows that many of us didn’t even know existed. Thank you.


  8. Wow. Stunning images. I too am Armenian, so reading your story and soaking in these images was particularly moving for me. Thank you for sharing your work and exposing your heart.

  9. shafts of light…
    filled the frame
    cinematic feel….
    loved the way your images pulled
    me in,
    to search your frames…
    to study
    dee lish!!!!

    i wish your father well on his journey….. and you too….

    *** *** *** *** *

  10. Stunning! Beautiful body of work. Stellar compositions, nice grain used with the black and white. Moving, tells a very deep story, many emotions. It touched me.

    You’re talented!

  11. The best thing for me is that a lot of what you’re saying in the artist statement shines through the essay. #10 in particular seems to be what this project is all about. Father. Origin.

    I like how you’ve got access to the houses and the families living inside them, it lets the essay breathe when you have some photographs indoors as well. This has inspired me to work more and left me with an urge to travel to another place and capture stories.

    Thanks for sharing!


  12. I read the accompanying words first and I felt that you set yourself up to fail; what you wrote was very heartfelt, sincere, intimate and strong and I assumed that the images wouldn’t match the passion. I was wrong. You completely WON with this work and I felt the words and images were a tight fit.
    The strongest images for me personally were 2, 20 and 22. Remarkable stuff!
    Though I did think the grain took away from some of the images in places- I saw myself observing how much grain was there first, and then the images subject second. Also, a number of images had ‘wonky horizons’ which I didn’t think was totally necessary. These are very much minor quibbles though!

  13. a beautiful, heart-felt, uncanny story of sublime photographs tethered by the need to tell stories….

    what i love about the essay, as a whole, is it’s fearlessness, it’s large gesturing of story telling. The story, and individual pictures, are full of sentiment and feeling without in the least being mawkish or sentimental. One of the things that often discourages me about photographers photographing countries and places that are not ‘theirs’ (in otherwords, places which are ‘other’) is that the photographers are tended to either exoticize or romanticize or catergorize the place and people. Here, Aga has given us a very full rendering of the place, both it’s beauty and it’s harshness, it’s humour and it’s fear, it’s brutality (in the sense of living/nature) and it’s gentleness: the same is true of both the moments and the people and situations depicted. It’s as if he’d lived there is whole life…then again, this is often the thread that binds us to our fathers and grandfathers (and mothers and grandmothers) and our origins…

    As photographs, the pictures are dense and complex. What i love about the pictures themselves is that in nearly every frame there is a great deal of secondary and ancellary complexity happening. In nearly all of the photographs there is a powerful primary subject or visual element that makes us go “wow, that’s a great moment” and then upon repeated viewings, the frame (and the actually moment) becomes even more complex as we see secondary elements that we’d missed on the first viewing: that is great visual complexity. for example, in the magesterial PHoto #2, we’re stunned by the boy and his expression and his posture on the stairs as well as this ominous lightbulb, and then upon repeated viewings we see the photo of the woman (mom?) on the tv, as if he is in fact grieving…in the picture of the grandmother sunning herself with the metal place (pic #6), i was stunned by both the light upon her face from the reflected sun and her expression, only later did i notice the child hunting for something fallen, or the chicen overlooking both of them, or in the photo with the dog, only later did i notice the black silhouetted man in the background, or the same character who pops up in the final distance, for at first i’d noticed the 2 mules and the church….

    time after time after time, the images contain mini films and are extraordinarily cinematic. The totality of the story immediately reminded me of Bella Tarr’s extraordinary films, and in particular “Satantango”…but here to are the films of Sergei Parajanov, in particularly Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors….there is so much visual information and subtlety at play in these images, that each one, in fact, is a small miracle of cinema….whether ominous (the girl in the doorway with the shadowfigure and mirror in the foreground) or ghostly (the double reflection of the man walking toward the window) or spiritual….Aga’s photographs are not only visually and technically powerfully, but work the great complexity of iconography that makes the most powerful photography exciting….to play with the rules of photographers (shooting into sunlight, allowing a frame to be burned by shadow, pushing film, etc), as a way to fight against the tendency to sentimentalize…

    for me, this essay is as much about the long, beautiful tradition of Armenian poetry and film and spirituality (the oldest extant books on christianity reside in Armenia), then about Aga’s family. and yet, is there any other way to make ties with the past, to come to terms with one’s own heritage and lineage, one’s own family, but through the miasima of memory and film…of poetry and longing, of cloudy dreams and distance shadows…in truth, for me, it is the only way to get to the pulpy heart of our place in this world, one that is both ellusive and stalwart….

    and one last cinematic interest. the great filmmaker Atom Egoyan has made a number of great films about Armenia and his own heritage. While i found some of these ponderous and lopsided (his later work), there is one film that I wish to recommend to Aga and that is Egoyan’s CALENDAR…the story of a photographer and his wife who return to Armenia to photograph churches and landscapes….filled with heart-felt sadness and strength….i think you will enjoy it….

    thanks so much for sharing with us your magisterial and powerful work….it was a great pleasure to look at (a bunch of times)…

    what still holds best about photography…



  14. Few years ago I would have been fan of this work, but today it’s different.

    Strong images and personnal story behind, even I don’t find real intimacy inside but more dynamic, sensitiv frames .. I had watch it few times, I like the images but I cannot stop thinking of Nikos Economopoulos, I cannot get out from all the works I saw from all that country all around the Black Sea, as it would have no link with Armenian genocide but about an area that bring that kind of images, that kind of “sentiment”….strange feeling of Déja vu…even I really like the classical writing…
    Also it just push me to write a name on Google, also an Armenian photographer, living in France, a photographer that was my b&w printer years ago… just go and see:


  15. Excellent, provocative images Ara. I really appreciated the sense you provide of bringing the viewer into your images – they contain us as part of the context – it feels like we are there – interpreting the unfolding scenario alongside you and your camera.

    Like many of the contributors to this conversation I enjoyed replaying the images – each time finding more to look at and new questions to ask.

    Thanks for sharing your work with us,


  16. Beautiful images, really well done! I can really feel emotion in your subjects, the mood, feeling, and sense of place is very strong. The emotion captured inspires me to dig deeper, work harder, think and feel in order to create something more complex, more meaningful and lasting. Thanks for sharing.

  17. john Stratoudakis

    Dear Ara, some of your pictures are very good. if in some of them you had used the right depth of field they would be exceptional!

  18. Haik, panos, Thomas, Reimar, David, Richard, pete, Gracie, john, Ramos, James, AndreaC, Patricia, Stepahine, wendy, gaetano, jasmine, srinivaskuruganti, Bjarte, herve, pomara, jonathan, bob, marc, OZ, eva, Steve M, Jeremy, Gordon, david: thank you, thank you all for your comments!!! I am bit overwhelmed as I did not expect this… I always struggle with my work and never know if it is going to have any impact beyond the confines of my own head…

    Richard: yes my viewpoint is very partial and being who I am–an Armenian-I am not sure if I could be any other way, even if I wanted to…

    john: I did not know about jindrich streit. Thanks for that.

    bob black: thanks for your extended post and insights! I know Egoyan’s work well and I would agree with you that Calendar is perhaps his most hear-felt. His later work is amazing on an intellectual, dazzlingly inter-connected way, but it does not have the same emotional strength. Certainly that emotional element is an important of my life.

    OZ: Nikos Economopoulos is one of my inspirations. I have flipped through “In the balkans” more times than I can count–one of the best books ever on the region. And if you see his work in mine, that means I have more work to do, to keep developing. Also, I know Antoine Agoudjian–he published one of the few photography book about Armenia perhaps a decade ago in France.

    Thank you all again!!!

  19. While I think this is a good essay and some of the individual photos are truly great, I am apparently less overwhelmed than many other commentators. I’m asking myself why… is it because I see a lack of consistency in style, with the very noisy pictures taken in low light mixed in with the exterior shots? Is it because the stunning quality of a few photos (especially #2,3,14, and 17) is so high that they create a level of photographic expectation that the other photos don’t quite live up to? Other photos that I liked were 6,8,10,18, and 22…not quite as stunning as the top 4, but still maintaining a high level and contributing to the essay’s “momentum of excellence.” But some others felt like ‘filler’ to me. And although some of the other photos may be OK, even good, photojournalism, I had the feeling I’d seen the compositions and subject treatment before in many other places. I didn’t read the artist’s statement ahead of time, but just reacted to the photos I was seeing as photographs… after seeing nos. 2 and 3, I kept looking for more that were up to that level… and when that expectation was only partially met, I guess I felt disappointed. But obviously this is a photographer with great talent.

  20. Thoughts in my mind after looking at “Ara’s”:https://www.burnmagazine.org/essays/2009/08/ara-oshagan-fatherland/ photographs:

    Identity, whether it is associated with a father- or homeland, political movement or organized religion is the cause of the genocides that continue on.

    Ideas themselves, the mind, thought, are generators of identity.

    Identifying with something often means you are not observing anymore. It is the beginning of the fall.

    If we can only observe, without judgment, if we can be aware without choosing, maybe something beyond time can be found…Time, the division of the past and the future from the present is another cause of genocides…Looking, observing, from moment to moment, instantly, without time…if we could do this, would genocides still happen?

    I like photographs because when I look at the shapes and values I am aware of the thoughts forming in my brain more easily than when reading.

    “The observer is the observed”:http://www.freeweb.hu/tchl/freedom_from_the_known/1968-00-00_freedom_from_the_known_chapter_13.html.

  21. Not that I value his opinion any more than any other, but I can’t wait to read his opinion…..Jim??

  22. Exquisite work that has me coming back again and again; beautifully layered… the whole essay feels like an epic tapestry of memory and experience, both real and imagined.

  23. I loved it.
    Excellent work, approached with sensitivity and honesty.

    Congratulations and good luck for the future..

  24. very good essay, powerful, sentimental and iconographically varied. The style is classic, the pictures carefully composed. A pleasure to the eye.

  25. Impressive story :)
    The sprinkling of western products helps illustrate the transition these people are experience.
    The trench in 15 – reminds me of stories of trench warfare in WWI and how bloody that was. It helps the audience understand the depth of their struggles.

    I was confused a bit by 19. too dark/noisy… what is it’s significance? is it a religious incense burner? how does it tie in with the rest of the story?
    And 21 feels like a filler shot. again dark and noisy, I can’t really tell what I’m seeing.

    But great story! Are you going to take your children there someday? Maybe give them each their own copy of this story bound in a book maybe with some notes from your father and his family, if you have any?

  26. Jason,

    I tried to structure my essay with the same structure of the book I am working on. I would agree that some images when showing 28 don’t work that well, but work better when you are showing 50 or 60. It seems that a better edit is always just around the corner…

    I will defintely take ALL my kids there one day. It is a significant place from an Armenian perspective as well for us from a familial one, obviously. I have my father’s essay about the place that will be part of the book–this they will see.

    Thanks for the post.

  27. I admire the powerful vision you shared here. Really touching.
    Such a dense B&W is a faithful companion for conveying feelings of “amarcord”, even for people who’ve never experienced these places and their history.

  28. Simon,

    Asking for a photo that is “beyond time” from an already fallen world, already fallen photographers, is a tall order.Our biases, perceptions, our history, our failings, we carry with us all the time. The past is not over, it is not even past. We are all gropping for a sense of place and time, to make sense of our world. So I am not sure that this search for identity can be the root cause of genocides… Perhaps a solidified identity which rejects the other can be…

  29. Ara,

    I think many of your photos *are* beyond time, they are beautiful…and I agree with your last point, though I think it is very important to search within yourself, which I personally find photography so good for…I struggle with all this too…my mom gets mad at me when I tell her I am not Brazilian!

  30. Simon,

    Thanks for your kind words. I am Armenian yes but I am also American, having lived in the states since I was 11… I was not even born in Armenia–I was born in Beirut and had a French education…. So what am I? God only knows… And perhaps that search for identity is a bit more urgent for people like me, displaced and living between cultures. It is also perhaps a certain nostalgia for that lost purity that also drove me to such a remote region as Karabagh. Trying to connect to a people so close to the land and so perhaps by extension so close to a shared history. I am not sure what I found there but I do feel I connected.

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  32. What a great example of the power of the photographic image. I especially love the gritty feel of the images (reminiscent of HP5 pushed to 1600) and no attempt to technically enhance the pictures, leaving the viewer to experience what it must feel like to actually be there witnessing these peoples’s lives.

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