This is… How We Live

BY LARA GARIBIAN
Asbarez Contributor

I had the pleasure of meeting Sara Anjargolian for breakfast recently to discuss her upcoming photography exhibit and book release called “How We Live,” which documents life on the margins in Armenia. When I met with Sara, I didn’t know very much about the project other than it involved photography and an upcoming event. What I thought would be an interview with an artist, turned out to be an interview with a humanitarian who has elevated peoples’ lives, art, and social service to a new level.

After graduating summa cum laude from UCLA with a BA in political science and public policy, Sara went on to pursue a law degree and received her Juris Doctorate at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall in 2000. To unwind from the daily grind of law school, Sara started taking classes in photography. Little did she know that she was laying the groundwork for an incredible body of work that would touch so many peoples’ lives.  

After passing the California bar and working as a trial attorney for two years at the Justice Department in Washington D.C., Sara realized she wanted more. As grateful as she was for her strong educational background and opportunities, she was craving an adventure.

Adventure is just what she got. She received a Fulbright scholarship in 2002 to live and work in Armenia. Although the grant was for a term of ten months, Sara lived in Armenia for two and a half years.  She worked with Bars Media, a well-known documentary film studio in Yerevan, and produced several documentaries about contemporary issues in Armenia. She also learned a great deal about visual storytelling and photography.  In the years she lived in Armenia, she was able to experience and document the country from a viewpoint most people never see. She also put her law degree to good use during her last year in Armenia when Sara served as an Associate Professor and Assistant Dean at the American University of Armenia’s law department. In late 2004, Sara decided to return to California. Since then, she has been working as an attorney with the City of Los Angeles.

After she returned to Los Angeles, Sara continued to pursue social impact documentary photography projects and would take every opportunity to travel back to Armenia. A project she has been working on for the last two years, called “Not Here,” documents the global story of labor migration through the stories of nine separated families living between Los Angeles and Yerevan.

Sara met, interviewed, and photographed men and women who had immigrated to Los Angeles, some illegally, and were working in the shadows to be able to support their families back home in Armenia. She found that despite the difficult circumstances of their lives, the migrants in Los Angeles and their families back home in Armenia, had a strong yearning to be heard and to tell their stories. She also realized that she was the only link some of these families had to each other. When asked about how the families felt about their lives being so intimately captured by her camera, Sara said: “They wanted to be heard, they wanted to tell me the details of their lives. Many of the labor migrants I met live their lives daily within the confines of the same four walls. This gave them a validity they lacked within their day-to-day life.”

It was during this process when Antranig Kasbarian, Executive Director of the Tufenkian Foundation, approached Sara in 2009 and proposed a new project. The Tufenkian Foundation, which has been working in Armenia for over a decade promoting social justice and serving vulnerable families, noticed a rapid rise in poverty in Armenia. The World Bank reported in 2009 that for the first time in over a decade, poverty was on the rise in Armenia, with 28% of the population living in circumstances of extreme poverty. The Foundation wanted to raise awareness about the situation and wanted to do it through photography and visual storytelling.  

Sara accepted the opportunity, went back to Armenia in July of 2009 for a period of three weeks, and documented the lives of fifteen families living along society’s margins in Armenia.

It’s no surprise that the photos she returned with speak volumes. She has managed to capture images that come to life in color and detail.  They jump out at you from the page, bringing humanity and life to the person who is living this story. She went beyond the darkness that generally represents poverty – families unable to meet basic food, shelter, and healthcare needs. Sara’s goal was to show that the people she photographed were as human as we are. And that is how the title “How We Live” came into being. While Sara captured poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, malnutrition and the barest form of survival, she had a much larger plan in mind. Her goal for this project is to eliminate the separation people feel when introduced to the lives of people who are different, less fortunate, and far away. It is the feeling of “us” and “them” she hopes to eradicate with the upcoming art exhibit and book release.

Sara also had the privilege of working with three other amazing people on this project. Narineh Mizaeian is a Los Angeles based designer who has received her degree in Architecture. She is currently an Associate at Frank Gehry’s firm where she is working on a number of projects that extend as far as Abu Dhabi. Narineh is the designer and curator of the “How We Live” exhibit and she has designed something incredibly original and cutting-edge. The exhibit features over 40 large prints, measuring 5×7 feet, suspended by an intricate tensile network which draw the viewer into the lives of the people depicted and which represent the larger issues of societal connectedness or increasing disconnect. The “How We Live” exhibit design is conceived as an experience, demanding the viewer to delve into the lives of those photographed. The people and places captured in the photographs are emphasized, employing the same gravity as the exhibit viewer and occupying the same place and time.

Karlo Gharabegian, who is a four-time Emmy winner currently with CBS, is also involved in bringing “How We Live” to life. He is creating a short documentary that incorporates Sara’s photographs and the raw video interviews she shot with the families, to tell the story of the current poverty crisis in Armenia, and the process of creating “How We Live.”

Mary Minassians designed the “How We Live” book, which is a hardcover book of photography being published by the Tufenkian Foundation, and which features Sara’s photographs and their accompanying stories. Having a strong background in graphic design and having worked on projects for Disney, The Simpsons, and also a documentary called Beyond Commitment, Mary engrossed herself in the “How We Live” project and utilized her extraordinary aesthetic abilities in communicating the experience of living on the margins in Armenia in the pages of what promises to be a beautiful and moving book.

The collaborative efforts of these four talented individuals is highly apparent, not just within the art, but within their hearts. “How We Live” is truly a labor of love, as each has dedicated countless hours to create something beautiful that has brought social impact photography and art to a whole new level. Be sure to look for the upcoming photo essay and behind the scenes coverage about the creation of “How We Live.” Also, mark your calendars for the “How We Live” exhibit opening, Saturday, March 27th, 2010, at 7pm at Casitas Studios, 3229 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90039. For more inform
ation about the exhibit please visit www.HowWeLive.org. You can also visit www.SaraAnjargolian.com to see more of Sara’s photography and work.


Through The Lens:

Photo Story by Sara Anjargolian

Narine Simonian, 40, with the accordion she once played as a young girl. Narine lives with her four children in Arinch, a town located just outside of Yerevan. Narine was married to an abusive alcoholic who raped and beat her throughout their marriage and threatened her life and the lives of their children. With the help of a local non-profit, Narine was able to leave her husband, obtain a legal divorce, and move with her children to a dilapidated house. Now a single mother, Narine tries to make ends meet by buying and selling vegetables.

Arinch, Armenia, 2009.

 


 


Ani, 12, with her favorite doll, and her father Senik Garabedian. Senik, his wife Garine, and their four children live in this two-room tin and wood shack.

During the winter months, when temperatures dip below zero, water freezes inside their home. The lack of heating caused Ani to contract a serious respiratory illness.

She began coughing up blood, and the illness soon spread to her heart. Her parents tried to find a doctor who would perform the surgery Ani needed to get well, but were turned away repeatedly because they could not pay for the surgery.

At one hospital, Ani was put under anesthesia in preparation for surgery, but when the doctor found out that the family could not pay, she was sent home in a semi-conscious state.

A non-profit organization intervened and arranged for Ani’s surgery. She is doing much better now.

Geghard village, Armenia, 2009.

 


 


Gohar, 8, bathes in a discarded old tub. She has a difficult time making friends at school. She is withdrawn, shy and often wets her bed at night. Her mother Narine believes Gohar’s fragile emotional state stems from the break-up of their family and the state of poverty the family is now facing. Gohar’s father was an abusive alcoholic who routinely beat and raped Gohar’s mother Narine. Today, Narine is struggling to feed and clothe Gohar and her three siblings.

Arinch, Armenia, 2009.

 


 

 

Grigor, 29, rummages through a garbage dump in search of metals, plastics, and glass to sell and shoes to burn for fuel. Grigor lives with his wife, three young children, and mother in a shack within walking distance from the garbage dump. He is usually at the dump by 6am, when the trucks arrive with fresh garbage, and stays until 5pm. On good days, Grigor is able to sell what he finds at the dump for three to five dollars, which he uses to buy food for his family. Grigor lives on the outskirts of Etchmiadzin, which is the fourth largest city in Armenia and is located 20 km west of Yerevan.

Etchmiadzin, Armenia, 2009.

 


 

Gohar, 8, bathes in a discarded old tub. She has a difficult time making friends at school. She is withdrawn, shy and often wets her bed at night. Her mother Narine believes Gohar’s fragile emotional state stems from the break-up of their family and the state of poverty the family is now facing. Gohar’s father was an abusive alcoholic who routinely beat and raped Gohar’s mother Narine. Today, Narine is struggling to feed and clothe Gohar and her three siblings.

Arinch, Armenia, 2009.

 

 


 

Christina, 6, lives with her mother and five siblings in a dilapidated two-room house in Armenia’s capital city Yerevan. Six months earlier, Christina was living in a barn. Her father lost his job, began drinking and beating Christina’s mother Armine. Armine fled with her six children and began living in a barn. Armine had no money for food, so she resorted to feeding her children sugar water. Christina and her sister Ani quickly reached advanced stages of malnutrition. The family was discovered by a non-profit organization and the children were rushed to a hospital. Christina and Ani narrowly escaped death.

Yerevan, Armenia, 2009.

 

 


 

 

The People Behind the How We Live
BY LARA GHARIBIAN

Narineh Mirzaeian

Narineh received her professional degree in architecture from USC and her Master of Architecture degree from UCLA. It was in UCLA where her thesis project, which was a collaborative effort with Thom Main, gained a great deal of notoriety and got published as a part of the LA NOW series. Since then Narineh has taught at UCLA and Southern California Institute of Architecture, participated in various film festivals with her animated short film “The Relic” and has been published in Metropolis, Interior Design, Architectural Record, Architecture, and many more. While being a project designer at Graft, she was the reason for the several AIA award winning project and co-principal of GeAr. At GeAr she won second prize at the 2003 Miami Biennale with the project “Trans Tatou.” She was also invited to take part in the Art Center College of Design exhibition.

Prior to working on How We Live, Sara and Narineh were friends for a very long time. One of the strong points in their friendship was the ability to share their concern of social issues. After Sara’s two year stay in Armenia, Narineh was able to see all the photos and hear all the stories and details of Sara’s experience firsthand. She was so moved by her experience and the families Sara encountered she knew they needed to collaborate and bring attention to the severity of the poverty in Armenia. That is when How We Live was created.

For this project, Narineh is the curator. She has created and designed the entire visual experience for How We Live. With the use of Sara’s images, she has put together an exhibit that will really allow audiences to experience the story behind the picture. When asked about what she wanted the design of her exhibit to tell her audience, Narineh said, “In thinking about the exhibit design, I wanted to provide an opportunity where people could see this type of imagery in a different context, engage it more viscerally and hopefully piece together a story that speaks to them personally rather than being fed a preconceived narrative.  For people in the Armenian community this is a delicate issue.  We have a sense of what our ancestral homeland means to each of us and how we’ve reconciled that with our Diasporan identity, but these types of issues call those notions into question. “

One compelling piece of the exhibit is the “hanging tensile network” that hold the 5 x 7 foot images in rows. According to Narineh, “It’s meant to represent the community and social network which binds us together. It’s symbolic of shared collective memory, shared cultural experience, and all that connects us.  In piecing together the particular stories of the individuals depicted one begins to get an overall sense of the commonalities amidst their stories that surface revealing the universal narrative of poverty and how even though many of us have never faced these types of challenges there are aspects of the stories told that resonate deeply.”

The work that went into bringing the exhibit to life was tedious and time consuming. However, the long hours were well worth it. Everything for the exhibit was highly customized and very hands on. They were fortunate to have a great number of people who volunteered to dedicate their time to making this a reality. Narineh explained, “We couldn’t really go to the store and buy an off the shelf solution for putting the installation up and that’s not how I’d envisioned it. From designing and choreographing the exhibit layout in a digital model, to printing the images as 5’x7’ translucent screens, to custom cutting and suspending the intricate patterned network of ropes, to lighting each image expressly, this has been an involved process.” They have used 46 prints on polynylon, 60 hitching loops, 304 snap hooks, 368 bowline knots and 4327 linear feet of solid weave polypropylene rope and up to 12 volunteers prepping and hanging the installation.

However, besides the artistic impact of How We Live this project has impacted Narineh very deeply. She said, “The project has impacted me personally on various levels.  Firstly, it’s been an honor to work on behalf of the Tufenkian Foundation and as an extension, the families who are directly impacted by these circumstances.  It’s made me feel as though I’m making a small contribution to one of the most worthwhile causes I’ve come across and that amounts to personal fulfillment one doesn’t find easily.  Plus it’s been absolutely inspiring to work with so many smart, talented individuals in putting the exhibit together.  I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to work so closely with everyone.”

Karlo Gharabegian

Karlo is a Los Angeles based full time editor for Entertainment Tonight. Having been in the entertainment industry for twelve years now, Karlo has won four Emmy Awards, the “Outstanding TV Journalism” GLAAD award, has worked on countless projects for FOX, CBS, NFL Network, ESPN, and TLC, and has worked on a great deal of projects for nonprofit organizations, such as Heal The bay.

Karlo was initially brought on to the How We Live project through his long time friend of 20 years, Narineh Mirzaeian. She introduced the idea of the video for the exhibit and since this was Karlo’s first time working on a project related to such a serious issue in Armenia, he jumped on board immediately. He knew the work that would go into creating this video would be important as well as immense. His contribution to How We Live has been by compiling the footage, pictures, and interviews Sara had taken in the two years she spent in Armenia and creating a mini documentary that would be presented at the exhibit. Even video footage that was shot by Bars Media in Armenia was incorporated into the 15 minute mini documentary that would tell people about the present day conditions that Armenia faces. His goal is to get the audience to see in a short time just how sever the poverty in Armenia is and how we need to be proactive in making a difference. He said, “I wanted this film to capture the feelings and emotions of these families through their interviews, their pictures, and Sara’s stories. She had some very intimate stories about these families. They let her into their homes and allowed her to document their trials and tribulations.”

Luckily the only real challenge Karlo faced in the making of the How We Live documentary was time. He expressed, “I think all of the contributors have the same challenge. It just really has a much bigger and different type of pay off when doing a project so important and so close to home.” However, Karlo doesn’t hide the fact that this has been an incredible experience for him. He was especially amazed at being able to see Gor Mkhitarian in the recording studio record an original song for this film. Not only was he impressed with Gor’s immediate willingness to do the project, he was also grateful to gain a better understanding and appreciation for working on a project of such prestige and caliber.

 

Mary Minassians

Mary graduated from Art Center College of Design in 1992 and became a well known freelance graphic designer. She started her career at Bass/Yager and Associates, which is a design firm, and had the opportunity to develop and re-design the new logo and signage system for The Getty Center Museum, along with the architectural offices of Richard Meier. At Bass/Yeger and Associates, Mary also got to work on designs for Lawry’s Food Inc., Japan Energy Corporation, and Kia Motor Corporation. After Bass/Yeger and Associates, she moved on to be a full time freelance graphic designer at Disney in the Standard Characters division. After working on a number of popular shows, she entered into a contract with 20th Century Fox in the licensing and merchandising division. Aside from graphic design, Mary worked with her husband Serj Minassians in producing the documentary Beyond Commitment.

Mary met Sara Anjargolian through her good friend Narineh Mirzaeian.  She was compelled to become part of the project by the gripping photographs of the families she was shown as well as the opportunity to work with an array of talented individuals. Mary’s contribution to how we live was by designing the book of all the photographs that Sara had collected. The message she wanted to convey through the book was simply to tell the stories of the families that were a big part of Sara’s life. She wanted to make sure the book represented a simplicity that would allow the photographs to speak for themselves. The majority of the work was by going through hundreds of photographs with Sara and Eric Grigorian and narrowing them down to the most compelling ones. After the photographs had been chosen, she had to arrange them sequentially to tell a story. The only challenge she faced in putting the book together was lack of time. Fortunately, she was very happy with how smoothly everything went due to a great working relationship with Sara and Eric.

When asked how the project has impacted her Mary replied, “This project has impacted not only me, but also my husband and two kids. They have seen from start to finish the editing of the photography how these images took over the walls of our living room for a month. It really made us see how these families live and the conditions that they are in. Having been to Armenia many times throughout the years, especially with the Land and Culture Organization, I have spent some time in the villages in the 1990’s and witnessed the unfortunate conditions Armenian families endured due to the result of the earthquake.  But having gone back most recently as a tourist with my family to live there for a month I had not observed such conditions, as a result I was surprised and saddened to realize the major discrepancies in living conditions.”

Mary’s major goal with this project was simple; awareness. She feels as though these families are the ghosts of Armenia living on the outskirts. She would be happy knowing that people become aware of what is really happening out in Armenia today. Mary said, “ I feel very proud to be part of this exhibit with such talented artists such as Sara Anjargolian and Narineh Mirzaeian, and Eric Grigorian just to name a few.  I have devoted a short amount of time to this project in the big picture of things but feel very proud to be raising awareness and hopefully making a difference for my people, which is most important to me.”


The Tufenkian Foundation

To help build a great and thriving Armenian homeland, the Tufenkian Foundation pioneers projects that strike at the heart of social, economic and environmental problems facing Armenia. As a rule, the foundation’s projects all either tackle issues that have been long-ignored or else model a new approach to persistent and long-standing issues. The foundation only targets problems that pose long-term consequences, and, as such, only launches solutions designed to make a long-term impact that ripple through multiple layers of Armenia’s society.

Armenia Program

Tufenkian Foundation’s venture philanthropy in Armenia began in 1998. It works hand-in-hand with local Armenians to pioneer new projects that can grow, mature and eventually be spun off to larger benefactors or else become self-sustaining ventures. The foundation has completed more than 50 projects in Armenia to combat poverty, promote education, rehabilitate the natural environment and renew national, civic, cultural and religious values.

Karabakh Program
In 2003, the foundation turned its attention to Nagorno-Karabah, where a hard-fought war had made many thousands into homeless refugees. The region’s borderlands, which serve as Karabahh’s chief link to Armenia, were left especially vulnerable. So, the Tufenkian Foundation began to promote resettlement, infrastructure, health care and rural development in Karabakh by giving the local communities a stake in their own future.

Environmental Program
Current trends indicate that Armenia is on its way to becoming a desert. At a time when less than 10 percent of Armenia’s historic tree-cover remains, the Tufenkian Foundation’s Environmental Program is working to renew rich forests in all five regions of the country while engaging the public in the life of their natural environment.

This challenge is directly tied to other major problems facing Armenia—poverty, corruption, disempowerment, short-term mentalities, and a lack of affordable energy alternatives. Since 2002, the foundation’s Environmental Program has pursued a combination of hands-on reforestation, community initiatives and public advocacy campaigns to help Armenians secure a better environment and better environmental policies.

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3 Comments

  1. Aram Petrosyan said:

    This is not how we live.

    The guy smoking the blue/white boxed cigarette in one of the images should quit doing so and rent an apartment for $100 / month for his family!

  2. Vigen of New Jersey said:

    wow, that one about Grigor having to go thru the garbage dumps really rattled me especially. That’s because I’m a junk collector myself, but just do it to supplement my income and for fun/hobby of being an experienced picker. I cannot imagine having to depend on it for living.

  3. esm said:

    this is a non-issue. you know why? there are poor people in pretty much every country! i guess diasporan armenians are supposed to fork up yet more money for armenia? how ’bout the mafia running the country (along with their kin in glendale) give up their mansions and mercedeses and help out their countrymen? how come we never hear about armenians in iraq for example. in 7 years of operation iraqi freedom/genocide did we hear even one mention of armenians in iraq on the annual telethon? easily a million dead in that country and many more refugees. i wonder why that is. maybe armenians will look too middle-eastern to white people if they try to bring attention to the fact there are armenians in iraq. fitting in is more important than remembering that arabs, who were fighting the turks at the time, took armenians into their countries when they were nearly exterminated from their homeland.

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