Genocides Repeat Themselves: Photojournalist Seeks to Raise Awareness of Nearly 1.5M Armenian Deaths

Photojournalist and Historian Ara Oshagan

Who now remembers the Armenian genocide?

Those were Adolph Hitler’s words in 1942, when his general protested that the Nazis would never get away with exterminating the Polish Jews.

Ara Oshagan hopes that his work of documenting the lives and stories of Armenian genocide survivors will help to prove Hitler wrong.

"Genocides repeat themselves," said Oshagan, 44, on Wednesday. "Knowing about and remembering them are very important parts of ending genocides, if there can be any hope of prevention."

Oshagan presented his virtual documentation called " i witness" on Wednesday night at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Jackson. The presentation is part of a series called "And Cain Rose Up … A Study of Modern Genocides" presented by the Lambuth-B’nai Israel Center for Jewish Studies.

Since 1995, Oshagan has been photographing survivors of the Armenian genocide, in a project called "The Genocide Project" that includes oral history given by the survivors.

The Armenian genocide began in 1915 when the Turkish army and government forced around two million Armenia’s on death marches through present day Syria. Almost 1.5 million Armenia’s died in the next 18 months.

His interest in the project was sparked after an 80th commemoration of the genocide in Los Angeles, Oshagan said.

"I met 80 survivors from the genocide, and I realized their stories had to be told," said Oshagan, who is an avid photographer. "The story is not as well known as the Holocaust so we started to organize an oral history program to tell their stories."

Oshagan, who is a research scientist, was born in Beirut, Lebanon.

"There are Armenian diasporic communities all over the world because the survivors were spread after the genocide," Oshagan said. "The genocide is very much a part of our community and our psyche."

Oshagan said he grew up hearing stories about the genocide and it had always moved him deeply. But the stories never included the terrible details he heard when he began interviewing the survivors of the genocide.

"They were just kids at the time," Oshagan said. "But it was horrible and shocking; how they could have lived through those things is unimaginable."

Oshagan said his work has many components: it is art and history, but it also has a huge political component. He has displayed his work in Washington and state capitols to help raise awareness.

"The Turkish government has not accepted responsibility and acknowledged the genocide, so it remains an unfinished part of the Armenian people," Oshagan said. "We are trying to confront denial and reverse it."

Since 1922, the Turkish government has consistently denied the genocide, saying the Armenia’s died as part of World War I, Oshagan said.

David Dietrich, an associate professor of psychology at Lambuth University, said he played soccer with Oshagan when they were high school students in Memphis.

When Lambuth began planning their genocide series, Dietrich immediately thought about his friend.

"I knew he would bring a sense of passion and knowledge to the project," Dietrich said.

Attendants of the programs on Wednesday night said they came hoping to learn something new.

"I love history and this caught my attention," said Carolyn Lawhorn, 52, of Jackson. "I am hoping to learn something new to influence my own writing."

Jacob Vandiver, 21, a senior ethics major at Union University, said he came because he tries to keep up with current ethical issues.

"I don’t know anything about the Armenian genocide so I am looking forward to learning more," Vandiver said.

Photojournalist and oral historian Ara Oshagan discusses the Armenian genocide Wednesday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Jackson. The event is part of The Lambuth B’Nai Israel Center for Jewish Studies’ series ‘And Cain Rose Up … A Study of Modern Genocides’ to raise awareness about world genocides.

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