Anush Babajanyan: Closed Armenian-Turkish border urges me to take action for dialogue
Meltem Naz Kaşo
Today’s Zaman Sunday’s
Anush Babajanyan, a 31-year-old Armenian photojournalist whose work focuses on cross-cultural relations between Armenia and Turkey, met with me to explain what motivates her work and why she endures in doing it despite criticism.
Three minutes before our scheduled appointment, I see Anush on the other side of Abovyan Street. Her trademark look — beige boots, light olive green winter jacket and skinny jeans — makes her easily identifiable. I remove my headphones to silence the Turkish rhythm that is emanating from them, raise my hand and shout, “Barev, Anush jan!”
Apart from being a part-time project coordinator at the Hrant Dink Foundation, a nongovernmental organization based in İstanbul founded in the memory of assassinated Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Babajanyan is a prominent and promising figure in modern Armenian photography. One of her focuses is on cross-cultural projects between Armenia and Turkey.
We enter into the Chinese-style teahouse, pass the counters and take a seat. “Je veux” from Zaz is playing in the background. I order ginger tea. Anush goes for an Earl Gray. Our location has been chosen for convenience — Anush only has an hour, so we dive straight into her story.
Anush was 23 when she started photojournalism. Back then, she was a student of journalism and mass communications at the American University in Bulgaria and took classes on the subject. Six years ago, Anush took part in the “Merhabarev” project — a joint collaboration between Armenian and Turkish photographers to build a bridge of understanding between these two divided nations — organized by her deceased mentor Ruben Mangasaryan. In 2011, Anush applied to the Hrant Dink Foundation for the “Beyond Waiting” Multimedia for Dialogue project, again to contribute to dialogue between Armenia and Turkey and experiment with new forms of storytelling. Currently, she is documenting the lives of two female labor migrants from Armenia who are domestic workers in Turkey. In her words, this project is about these migrants’ work, their dreams and aims to help us understand why exactly they left their families in Armenia to live and work alone in Turkey.
“Do you face any discrimination from your people because of your work?” I ask before sipping my tea. Many say that until recently, the word “Turk” was often used in Armenia to mean a hostile enemy. Conducting cross-cultural work with Turks, by definition, might still not be welcome among Armenians.
Anush’s face creases into a mixed look, both puzzled and defensive. She says no, never. Only after repeating the same question five times, using different words, do I receive an answer, “Now that you mention it, I remember that I faced some discrimination for working on cross-cultural projects between Armenia and Turkey.” Anush laughs, “In general, I don’t really remember bad stuff.”
She admits that before the Yerevan exhibition for the “Beyond Waiting” project, she had an interview with CivilNet, an advocacy news and journalism agency from Armenia. Her video was posted on YouTube and it received harsh comments, causing it to be removed by CivilNet.
“And how do you explain that?” I inquire.
“Well, let me tell you,” Anush says, pressing her fingers into the sugar cubes that came with our Chinese teapots. “Because Armenia and Turkey are in conflict, the borders are closed and the genocide has not been recognized, many Armenians would be against running any projects together with people from Turkey.”
It strikes me that she speaks calmly about what remains an irresolvable national conflict that surrounds her work. Anush explains to me, like a loving father teaching his child how to fish, that dialogue and conflict resolution take time. “One day, the border will open. People from both sides will get to know each other. When you are far, when the border is closed and there is no communication, Armenians think that every single person in Turkey is in denial about the [genocide] issue. But this is changing! People from both sides are taking steps towards learning about each other.”
She is of the opinion that Armenians shouldn’t blindly demand the recognition of the genocide, either. “Armenians should also learn about the variety of people living in Turkey and understand that there are just so many different people — there are those who totally understand, others who don’t recognize.”
Looking into Anush’s large almond-shaped green eyes, I ask if the Armenian-Turkish conflict is something that inspires her work or hinders it. Before giving her answer, she clarifies that she is more of a journalist than an artist, although she accepts that the line between the two is blurry.
“I try to feel my characters’ stories. I don’t simply make my pieces informative, but rather informative of my subjects’ feelings, their mood and their perception of life.”
We ask for the bill; our time is up. As we put on our winter jackets, she makes one last comment:
“But of course, there is a lot of pain that lasted for a long time. It urges me to take action towards dialogue and conflict resolution between Armenia and Turkey.”
Anush Babajanyan: www.anushbabajanyan.net