In an earlier version of this article, the caption of a photo of a tank being used as a monument incorrectly used the terms “liberated” and “occupied” to refer to the battle for control of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, the subject of a decades-old conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The caption also referred to the disputed city as an Armenian cultural center. The caption has been corrected to remove the two terms and the description of the city.
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is older than many of the soldiers fighting it.
It’s this palimpsest of strife — layer upon layer of war, then hope, then war again for more than 30 years — that drew the lens of Paris-based photographer and filmmaker Alexis Pazoumian, who began an ongoing documentary project in the mostly ethnic Armenian enclave in 2019.
His images — from front-line redoubts to the quiet domesticity of a family portrait — seek to “paint a portrait of the men and women caught in this limbo of an endless war,” he wrote.
Nagorno-Karabakh, deep in the folds of the southern Caucasus Mountains, became a flash point within the Soviet Union in 1988 as a legacy of the internal borders drawn generations before. Nagorno-Karabakh sought to unite with the then-Soviet republic of Armenia and declared independence from Azerbaijan, another Soviet republic.
In the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, war broke out between the two newly independent countries. Nagorno-Karabakh remains caught in the middle: Within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan but controlled by political factions linked to Armenia. Fighting flared again in July, and various attempts at cease-fires have failed to take hold.
For Pazoumian, 32, the area and its history resonate deeply. His Armenian great-grandparents fled to Europe in 1915 from the chaos of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, including a genocide waged against Armenians that claimed as many as 1½ million lives by some estimates. Turkey strongly denies the historical records of a mass slaughter.
“So I have been rocked since my childhood in this culture,” Pazoumian wrote.
Pazoumian first visited Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016 a few weeks after a series of clashes known as the Four-Day War. He returned in 2019 to begin a project of photos and film he called “Black Garden,” the meaning of the name Karabakh from the Turkic word kara (black) and the Persian bagh (garden).
The initial idea was to examine the “military culture” in the villages close to the areas controlled by Azerbaijan. “But I also became interested in the notion of resistance,” he wrote, “the attachment to one’s territory, to one’s land. … What must be understood, for the majority of Armenians, living in this region is really an act of resistance.”
Pazoumian works almost exclusively with film cameras: a Mamiya 7 and a vintage Minolta that was owned by his father. Only two of the images for “Black Garden” were taken with a digital camera. The rest were made with the Mamiya.
Most of the men he photographed last year are now involved in the fighting. He hopes to track them down on his next trip to the region.
“All the men are at the front,” he wrote. “I would like to understand what they felt, what they feel. That’s why I have to go. To show it.”
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