Photographer in Love
BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
Sometimes the road to self realization is arduous and full of u-turns. Finding out what it is you love is a lifelong process and few are lucky enough to find their path early in their attempts. Raffi is one such person who found his calling relatively early and the love of his life relatively late.
He is a soft spoken 49 year old with few words and a dry sense of humor, you have to listen hard to see beyond the meagerly doled our words for the wit that resides in them. He was born in Boston but raised in California where the mild climate of the state fits his temperament. He lives alone and freelances as a cameraman. “I got my first camera at eighteen from a mail order house for $125,” he begins, “At sixteen I went camping with a friend in King’s Canyon and borrowed my sister’s 35mm instamatic.” He then showed the photos he took to his family and friends and received many compliments on the composition. “I didn’t know what that was but figured they were right,” he says with a shrug.
A few years later he purchased the camera he would use for the next 27 years. “At 21 I had a job at Lockheed making forty thousand dollars a year and living at home. I decided to buy a nice camera,” he says with a laugh. He finally joined the digital age in 2005 with the purchase of a Nikon point and shoot just before his first trip to Armenia where he fell in love with both the country and with Suzie.
The road to full fledged photography was circuitous. First he was a parts driver at a local BMW dealership but quickly found that it wasn’t his calling. “I got fired,” he says flatly, “I hated it so much it was painfully obvious to everyone involved. So they fired me.”
He then became an entrepreneur based on an idea he got while sitting at the beach. “Two girls set their towel and go into the water. I watch them drift past me and come out to the left of where I was sitting and they were confused. They couldn’t find their towels,” he tells the story. That’s when he conceived the idea of personalized beach towels. A year later he had the product patented and on the market, selling in such diverse places as Alaska, Canada, Yugoslavia and China. “It would have been successful had my business partner not been a drug dealer and not gotten arrested in Vegas,” he says chuckling because he knew the source of the investment capital but chose to ignore it, his youthful enthusiasm overriding his common sense.
Then on to telemarketing where he attempted to sell pencils. He lasted a day – hating it so much he quit.
He returned to working at another dealership but again hated it and got fired. Then another still but hated it and quit again. Then he saw an ad for a position at Glamour Shots, a popular mall-based chain of photography studios. “I did well as a photographer but wasn’t a very good salesman,” he explains. It was a sophisticated set up and, because knew the equipment very well, was promoted to the position of Technical Director. He traveling throughout Southern California, from Bakersfield to Newport Beach, making sure the equipment worked properly and the staff was trained. Then the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake hit the area and most of the stores were shut down or inaccessible. He was demoted and began working at a single location. “I hated it so I quit,” he repeats his famous refrain that already had become the punch line to the joke. “But before I quit I would carpool with the store manager and we used to drive by a cable company. He mentioned that they taught television production.” His interest piqued, he signed up and went in for orientation, “As soon as I walked in (onto the soundstage) I knew this was what I wanted to do throughout every fiber of my body,” he says with an air of contentment. Thus began the education of the future cameraman. After a year he was hired at the studio to work on the public access channels, then to shoot commercials. “That’s how I learned, on the job, to do what I’m doing now.” That was almost twenty years ago.
His claim to fame would be as the Director of Photography for the Discovery Channel’s number one rated show American Hotrod for two years. “Eventually I hated it so I quit,” he says laughing because working six days a week for twelve hours a day carrying a twenty pound camera on his shoulder took its toll on him.
Now he takes on freelance work for Reel Channel, independent projects, music videos and shot his first documentary a couple of years ago. “I love freelance. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Raffi’s love of photography has not faded and his first trip to Armenia was precipitated by his father’s invitation to accompany him. “I had no interest in going but wanted to spend time with him and my cousin,” he explains. “Photographing in Armenia is paradise. Each time I go back I revisit where I’ve been before and take completely different pictures.” He’s interested in not just the historical landmarks but the faces with their penetrating eyes and character lines. “It’s fascinating and intriguing. I love it there but it’s small,” he laments. “You can’t get in your car and go to the beach.”
The first time he noticed people’s eyes in Armenia was as soon as he deplaned at the airport for the first time. “Through the crowd I saw a set of eyes and noticed they were attached to this tiny woman,” he says describing their tour guide, Suzie. He was immediately taken by her. “Each day I’d do what I do best: observe. She’d do her spiel at the sights and I would take pictures and just watch.” Until one day he thought she wasn’t coming and was disappointed. That’s when he realized the feelings he’d developed for her. Raffi returned to Armenia several times to visit Suzie and to indulge passion of photographing Armenia. Returning from one such trip he realized that he had no desire to return to the empty house in which he lived. He was in love and wanted to share his life with the petite tour guide from Armenia. Suzie also loved him but loved her homeland just as much. She cannot bear to leave it and join Raffi in California while he cannot pursue his career in Armenia. Thus is the crux of their situation.
“It took me a long time to grow up but I don’t think I’m grown up,” says Raffi accurately describing his perspective on life, but he does hope to bring his two loves – camera work and Suzie – together in one place one day soon.