It’s the spring of 2018. I’m in a sea of over 100,000 protesters in Republic Square in Yerevan, Armenia. I’ve lost count of how many days it’s been since this countrywide strike and the demonstrations against the oligarchy began. What started as a few people camping out in France Square right near my apartment had swelled into a national sea change. Peaceful protestors, from the elderly poor of villages to wealthy, urban professionals and students had shut down almost every public square and major boulevard in the country.
I had moved to Yerevan in early 2014 after accepting a faculty job at the American University of Armenia. I had never visited the country before. But from day one, the wide streets, vast public spaces, and ornamental sandstone buildings seemed uncannily familiar to me, like I was somehow observing an old photograph, something ghostly.
Now, I’d been given a press pass and was taking photographs of my own all over Yerevan and other parts of Armenia to witness and process what seemed unreal. As dusk set in and the sky purpled, the lights on the monumental buildings around the immense square came on, further electrifying the unified atmosphere and spirit of the endless wave of people all chanting for change and better governance.
Alfred Stieglitz, one of modern photography’s early pioneers, claimed that “photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” For centuries, Armenians have had to wrestle with their reality being questioned. From the Ottoman Empire, whose discriminatory policies led to the genocide of 1915; to Stalin, who in 1921, unilaterally cut off the historically Armenian region of Artsakh and gave it to Azerbaijan; to the West, where Armenians were both “white” and the other; to the post-Soviet disconnect between oligarchic rule and the realities of everyday Armenians, both in Armenia and the diaspora, Armenians have had to make and remake themselves in a sort of liminal, tenuous space.
Photography became a potent tool and language to render so much uncertainty into sharp patterns. The participatory, ritualistic nature of taking and appearing in photographs creates a sense of agency for both photographer and subject. Both become part of the truth manifested in an image. The photographer bears witness, and, of course, this power of perspective can be used responsibly or irresponsibly—think documentary photographer Robert Frank vs. Adolph Hitler’s official photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.
This responsibility to bear witness sits at the core of Project Save Armenian Photograph Archives’ mission. As the oldest, largest archive solely dedicated to photographs from the Armenian world, Project Save (founded in 1975) has been championing photography as the ultimate witness to and proof of global Armenian realities from the mid-nineteenth century to today. With over 80,000 hard-copy photographs, the collection spans continents and historical periods, each image a contribution to the diverse, vast narrative of the Armenian experience.
With such an immense collection of images from around the world, the archives itself has the potential to be an agent of change, connecting the fragmented voices of tens of thousands of Armenians to the larger mosaic of the global immigrant experience, various social histories, and the human spirit of survival.
Children hear many stories while growing up. Stories of how their dad almost became a baseball player instead of a realtor or how their grandmother became a successful business owner back when that just wasn’t done.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts, hearing stories of how my mother was sexually harassed as a teenager by an apparatchik (Communist party member) in Soviet Armenia; how my grandfather was interrogated by the KGB, not once, but several times; how they saw neighbors and friends being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night; how they fended off wolves and drank their water from communal wells. This wasn’t on the outskirts of town or a remote village. This was in Yerevan, the capital, in the 1940s.
Somehow, they made it to South Boston in the 1960s. When the USSR was falling apart in the 1980s, they were glued to the news in disbelief. Even in the ’90s, after Armenians had gained their independence, they would admonish me when I would tell them to go back and visit. Not yet. You never know. They can come back. It’s not the time. Other than my mother and my uncle, none of them saw Armenia again.
What they did see were a few salvaged photographs from the 1950s they had brought to the United States. Often, they were black-and-white images of my mom with her sisters or friends in a public space—Opera Square, in one of Yerevan’s large parks, or Lenin Square. Those few photographs helped ground their experience in Boston, in times when they felt the blunt edge of the immigrant experience in the 1960s and early ’70s. Photographs can remind us of who we are, where we come from, and what our purpose might be. This is amplified significantly for immigrant communities.
Armenia is known for many things, but three are particularly defining: being the first Christian nation (301 CE); suffering the first genocide of the twentieth century (1915); and daring to be one of the first Soviet republics to break from Moscow (1990–91). Since its independence, there are a few other things Armenia has been known for: questions of corruption; from many, a lack of trust in government and elections; and generally dysfunctional institutions. Throw in the massive earthquake of 1988, a prolonged, exhausting war over Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh with neighboring Azerbaijan, and the fact that each year more people move out of Armenia than into it, and you have a pretty long, bleak thirty years.
Over that time, the population’s frustration, pain, and grief, which had no genuine institutional outlet or governmental recourse, were mostly played out in the large Soviet public squares in Yerevan. Where once statues or massive banners of Lenin or Stalin kept a watchful eye on Soviet Armenians marching on May Day, these vast, monumental public spaces now became the only way to collectively vent, mourn, question, and demand.
Yerevan goes back thousands of years, but it wasn’t until World War I that it became Armenia’s capital. Until then, it had been a muddy backwater compared to Gyumri (Alexanderpol), which was a center of cultural and political activity and is now Armenia’s second largest city. When Armenia’s short-lived independence crumbled in 1920, it was forced to join the Soviet Union, mostly for the sake of survival. Afterall, Armenia had all but been a Russian colony for many years before WWI. As Stalin imposed a brutal push for rapid modernization throughout the USSR, Yerevan’s city center was transformed over the next few decades into a gridded gem of wide avenues, connected parks full of monuments and spring-fed drinking fountains, and immense public squares guarded by massive, ornamental buildings—the full Soviet makeover.
For seventy years, these spaces were sites of mostly performative Soviet acts: marching in support of the Chinese revolution and dutifully holding parades for May Day, Victory Day, or October Revolution Day. But in 1965, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, hundreds of thousands gathered in Republic Square (called Lenin Square until 1990) to commemorate and demand justice, in defiance of Moscow. Under shouts of “our land, our lands,” those same public spaces gave a hint at alternative uses, alternative possibilities.
That spark lay dormant until the late 1980s, when a perfect storm of events left people in a paradoxical, intense mixture of frustration, pain, and joy, without the only way of life and government they had known since 1920. Rudderless, they found collective strength and hope in the vast public squares, inverting them from performative spaces to arenas of open dialogue and agency, even though, like all the peoples of the Soviet Union, they didn’t really know what that was supposed to mean or how to implement it.
This phase of newfound freedom to gather and demonstrate was haunted by the ghost of the USSR. It was a generation that grew up completely enmeshed in Soviet culture and thinking. When looking at photos from the 1980s through 2000, one senses an in-betweenness. The yearning might be democratic, but it’s muddled by echoes of a Soviet mindset and demeanor. There’s a dour, heavy atmosphere in the faces—hope shadowed by confusion and trepidation.
The demolition of the Berlin Wall began in 1990. Indeed, it didn’t take long for Armenia to go from Soviet oppression to being suffocated by newfound oligarchs who quickly sold off the infrastructure (mostly to Russia) and colluded with politicians (who were some of those same oligarchs). And with that, those public spaces went from being ones of Soviet intimidation to oligarchic intimidation.
It makes sense then that the photos of the rallies at that time often have a certain composition: generally dramatic, officious, and in black and white. They’re not staged per se, but they’re also generally not devoid of self-awareness. And there’s usually a lack of whimsy or humor.
Starting in the mid- to late ’90s there were certain investments and improvements in the country, but that wasn’t saying much. Afterall, one could only move up from cutting down trees to use for heat. With the 2000s, money from the diaspora and the Armenian government started being invested into sectors like IT, wineries, and tourism. This gave the middle and upper classes, mostly concentrated in Yerevan, the sense that things were improving.
But there was no deeper impact on the wider population, societal dysfunctions, or lack of healthy institutions. It gave a tiny elite (in an already tiny country of 2 to 3 million people mostly living in poverty) a false sense of change. A segment of that elite was genuine in its efforts for change, but a disconnect had carried over from the Soviet period, mingled with a romantic, idealized notion of Armenia. For all the slight improvements and hints of change, most people forgot what was needed most: a healthy, honest discourse that has broader imagination and lacks excuse-making.
At the same time, public spaces became sites of pushback from a new generation, many of whom had been born into an independent, post-Soviet Armenia and thus had much less baggage than their parents, had traveled, and were connected to the world via the internet. They reinvented these spaces as sites of high-energy rallies to save parks and historic buildings, to keep the cost of public transportation low and utility bills down. This generation brought a sense of playfulness, humor, thoughtfulness, and inclusivity with their rallies, thus further reimagining formerly static Soviet spaces. Due to the refreshing approaches used, rallies and protests in the 2000s began gaining wider traction.
More recent photographs reflect this change. Many of these images have a handheld or on-the-go sense of urgency. Digital photography and the ubiquity of smartphones allowed a whole new segment to photograph demonstrations. It often meant they were both documenting and participating at the same time. This gives photographs in the 2000s a much more direct, unfiltered perspective, often from within the crowds rather than a more formal shot from a distance.
This generational change in mindset became a spatial transformation with the “Velvet Revolution” of 2018. The gruff, Sovietesque, melancholy protests of the 1990s were replaced by colorful expressions of hope, unprecedented unity, determination across class, gender, and status, and, most importantly, youth. Former sites of pain and mourning now were sites of genuine empowerment. Even that April’s annual march to the Genocide Memorial was transformative. Hundreds of thousands came together to grieve for their ancestors, but this time with a newfound hope and sense of control over their own country. It was as if the nearly three decades of exhaustion, corruption, and inequality had loosened its stranglehold, perhaps for good this time.
Five years later, those spaces and squares of collective memory and action have again morphed into a new role. The “revolution” unfortunately squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to genuinely reimagine and heal a government and society that had all come together, unified around a desire for change. It turned out that both the protest leaders (now the government) and much of the people were still haunted and affected by a Soviet mindset—desire for revenge instead of legal justice, blaming others instead of taking accountability, and tribalism instead of cooperation for the greater good. Adding fuel to the fire, the brutal second Karabakh War launched by Azerbaijan in 2020 took thousands of lives and left many homeless. Since December 2022, the 120,000 Armenians in Karabakh have been under siege, cut off by an Azeri closure of the only road in or out.
So now those majestic squares and boulevards in Yerevan and elsewhere in the country are sites of a tragic combination of apathy, conspicuous consumption, and a smattering of poorly attended opposition rallies. Back in the United States since 2020, I can at least savor the memories of those spring days in 2018, when, for a brief moment, I was humbled by the unreal power of a whole citizenry standing up for itself. Not only was Armenian history almost made, but it was also on the verge of being made better, finally.
The public spaces in Yerevan that I found myself in between 2014 and 2020, where generation after generation had rejoiced and struggled, are refracted within the frames of photographs. Each photograph is its own public/private space. Something is spoken each time one looks at a photograph. It’s only in a photograph that something changes but stays the same, simultaneously.
The art critic and writer John Berger suggests, “It is possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved.” Considering Armenia’s melancholy and challenging history, this idea is particularly poignant and relevant. The urgency and value of archiving and sharing photographs is partly due to what exists outside the frame. Photographs capture a moment in time, but what they leave out is just as important. The combination of what’s contained within a photograph and what’s left out is where hope, mystery, and possibility exist together, waiting.
Arto Vaun is a poet, songwriter, and executive director of Project Save Armenian Photograph Archives in Boston. He was the founder and director of the Center for Creative Writing and former chair of the English and Communications BA program at the American University of Armenia.