Vahe Oshagan in His Own Words and Through Ara Oshagan’s Lens

On November 7, photographer Ara Oshagan unveiled his new book Father Land, a collaboration with his late father, renowned poet, Vahe Oshagan, whose essay serves as a narrative for Ara’s photos. The book is published by powerHouse books.

More than 300 people attended the book inauguration, which took place at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park with an accompanying exhibit of photographs featured in the book. The exhibit is on display until January 9.

Ara Oshagan will be travelling to Brooklyn, NY for a book signing and presentation on December 3 at the powerHouse Arena, where his exhibit will run through December 6. He will also make a presentarion at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan on December 17.

In a 2009 essay called “Ara Oshagan’s Karabakh Album: Fathers and Sons and other Witnesses,” author Christopher Atamian discusses the father and son journey from which Father Land was borne.

“For Ara Oshagan who has in the past photographed Armenian Genocide survivors (“iwitness”), inmates in a Los Angeles prison (“Traces of Identity”) and the L.A. Ethiopian community (“Building Community”) witnessing comes naturally. Yet the act of witnessing is problematic for all sorts of concrete and theoretical reasons—beginning with the fact that photography is a selective process: the shot, the pose, the selection of color and paper, the edit, the presentation; all these aspects of this art form lend a complex history to any given shot, even the most seemingly innocent. A simple digital shot taken in a coffee shop by two friends follows a whole set of conventions, from the smile to the pose, to the ultimate purpose of the shot, i.e. private viewing or perhaps a facebook entry. On a theoretical level—as Marc Nichanian has eloquently pointed out—witnessing, especially within an Armenian context, becomes an almost mad act of trying to prove the unprovable over and over again. Oshagan’s particular brand of photography—the photodocumentary—is in a sense a variant of photojournalism, an art form rich in history dating back to the First World War and to magazines such as Vu and Life,” writes Atamian.

This week we present an excerpt from Vahe Oshgan’s essay and photographs by Ara.
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Here mountains and people are interchangeable realities. The mountains, which stand still and endure, are living human beings, and human beings are living mountains that move about and speak. Human beings may die; the mountains will live on in their stead.

Karabakh is still not far removed from being a spontaneous culture without writing, and the complicity between human and natural things––plants, insects, food, animals, birds, mountains––is so close and intense that it is hard to say where the human ends and nature begins.

To understand how we were able to survive the terrible blow dealt us in 1915, and get back on our feet, and to understand Armenia’s and Artsakh’s victories as well, one has to remember the invisible pillar of strength represented by our culture, which fought alongside us.

Here and there lie the skeletal remains of tanks, witnesses to the war, ghastly, rusty metal reminders of merciless battles in which the mutual hatred was so fierce that taking prisoners was unheard of: you retreated, you died, or you won.

I go into the church to take part in the ceremony. Inside, among the sparse furnishings, the humid semi-obscurity, and the handful of scattered worshippers, my senses are immediately plunged into echoes of times long past and I am cut off from the world outside. Here and there, candles, lamps, a heavy odor of incense, and deep, masculine religious chanting draw my steps toward a low, narrow door, on the other side of which I imagine that the heart of the church begins beating. In the distance stands the elevated altar, veiled in shadows. The chanting of the choristers, right to left, then left to right and back again, is the only outward sign of a living presence, but I know that, in times and places like these, the nation’s millennial history lies waiting to be brought back to life, if only our imaginations afford it the opportunity.

People are rather more inclined to communicate by means of looks or various forms of silence, a nod or a ceremonious pantomime, than by speaking.

Finally, we set out, in a battered old Lada. It’s a magnificent fall day and the sweet, bright freshness of the mountain air fills our lungs. For a while, not a one of us says a word, carried away as we all are by the savage beauty of the natural scene. You can’t think in the midst of such scenery; all you can do is let your gaze rove over the landscape, the billowing meadows, the gentle contours of the low hills. In the background, where the scenery suddenly turns serious, the outlines of a mountain chain swim into view.

I leave the monumental Cathedral. The huge entrance is deserted, except for an old man in a shack a little way off who is selling thin, skinny candles. A vast stillness reigns, heavy with bloody memories and inauspicious thoughts. Karabagh’s whole future is hanging from a thread that can snap at any moment, plunging people and cities into a seething caldron of unimaginable events.

The reality of Artsakh is a concept that it is hard to put down on a map. This is of course true, to begin with, in the political sense. Just yesterday, I paid twenty-five dollars in Yerevan for an entry visa. There is, however, no border between the two countries, no customs authority, and no police. Was the whole thing a joke, or are we all unwitting actors in a theater of the absurd?

We stand there spellbound, looking at the magnificent place of worship that has stood here in all its sublimity for seven hundred years, weathering man’s and nature’s fiercest assaults. Without a doubt, we, too, are being observed and judged by the monastery, to which the local folklore attributes supernatural wisdom and god-like strength.

The peasants, the mountains, the river, and the little houses that have sprung up here and there form a single, indivisible whole, an impenetrable, rough-hewn, petrified human reality in which people live together with forests, in the feeling that they are in the embrace of time immemorial.

Ter Hovhannes, that man a size bigger than most, carved out of religion and life, who, you might think, was planted there in the Middle Ages and has been standing guard over nature, people, and the Monastery ever since.


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One Comment;

  1. Sara Anjargolian said:

    Vahe Oshagan’s words and Ara’s images – in their pursuit of truth, light, and beauty – bear witness to a place, a feeling and a point in time. A powerful tribute to a nation.