A documentary exhibition of the film “i witness” which shows portraits and oral stories of survivors from the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1923, is a photographic project directed to provide programs that will show educators and teachers how to teach facts about the Armenian Genocide in schools.
The exhibit is part of the Armenian Genocide Project, which was designed to give the public an idea of what the genocide was like and an idea about the lifestyles of many Armenians back then, said CSUN art Professor Levon Parian, who worked in collaboration with Ara Oshagan, a freelance photographer.
Oshagan started the project in 1995 after being inspired by a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, organized by 80 genocide survivors who brought it to their community.
“I was very moved to see (the event),” Oshagan said. “There were the last set of survivors. This is the time to take photos, I have to do the project right now.”
Oshagan started the project first, and in 1996 he met Parian who also had similar ideas. This was the beginning of the project when they started to combine their ideas, Parian said.
There were other reasons to do this project, Parian said. He said they wanted to record the survivors’ information for history because the Turkish government keeps the Armenian genocide was genocide, and said it was a war.
“We lost family members, we carried the memory of the genocide but it still very much really (affects) our lives,” Oshagan said.
He felt needed to tell their story with art.
“Armenians never had their story told,” Oshagan said. “We realized that there were witnesses (still able) to tell their history.”
They witnessed the genocide with their own eyes, Parian said.
Parian said he always wanted to use his photographic experience to show that the Armenian Genocide did happen.
Organizing the project was Oshagan’s responsibility. Parian’s responsibility was visual interpretation.
Oshagan said about 100 survivors have participated in the project since 1995.
Parian said the witnesses had mixed reviews after seeing portraits of themselves. The witnesses had hoped to look good but the photos focused on the their faces and hands to show their aging and stress they had gone through.
“The hands say as much about a person as a face,” Parian said. “The identity of a person is revealed by their eyes and their hands. You can tell a lot about a person by their hands, especially the gestures of their hands.”
The Armenian Genocide was part of him, Parian said. He grew up listening to family stories about how they had survived the genocide.
“My father lived in Urfa, a community in Armenia and he helped 4,000 Armenians to cross the desert to get away from the genocide,” Parian said. “Then he went back and found orphans and brought hundreds to orphanages to (what) at that time was Syria,”
Parian’s wife’s grandmother, Kristine Hagopian, was the only family member who participated in the project.
Hagopian was 9 years old when she witnessed many atrocities: her friend was raped by Turks after being raped in the bushes and later shot in front of her. Maro Parian said her father was raped by Turk soldiers in front of her and her family.
“For many years she would tell her story, (but) every time she would come to a point where she would (have to) stop and not go any further,” Maro Parian said.
Hagopian was happy with the genocide project, although it was hard to tell her story. She was happy that the stories were not going to be lost and their stories were going to be told, Maro Parian said. It was a sense of satisfaction for Hagopian.
“She would see pictures and turned her face away” Maro said. “(She) experienced her pain (all over again).”
“The stories are shocking,” Parian said, as he told of how Sam Kadorian survived the genocide.
Kadorian survived by pretending he was dead when he was thrown on the floor in a pile of death bodies of boys between the ages of five to 10.
As they began with the first exhibition in 1996, more witnesses kept coming to the exhibitions, more survivors wanted to tell their stories, Parian said.
The exhibition has been showed at UCLA, and a few parts have been showed at CSUN.
But there is a possibility to exhibit the whole project at CSUN, Parian said.
Some survivors had blocked out their memories about the genocide while others spoke freely, he said.
“i witness” was first displayed to the public Los Angeles city hall in 1997 at the Del Rio Bridge Gallery. Since then, it has been exhibited in major state capital buildings and museums and the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
The exhibition is on display for the second time in Los Angeles City Hall. It is on display through the month of April in Los Angeles City Hall as part of the Armenian Genocide Project.
Gabriela Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.