BY TOM VARTABEDIAN
If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, imagine what 50 years of intense photography will do.
It goes without saying that Harry L. Koundakjian has remained an impresario in a business where only the very fit survive and the weak diminish. The man has not only captured history, he’s been a component of it after a half century with the Associated Press (AP).
You’ll find him, at age 74, high on the building tops of New York City. If he isn’t shooting, he’s sorting through film as international photo editor, grudgingly.
The office stuff isn’t really his potion. Put him in a desert shooting an uprising or in Monaco capturing royalty, and Koundakjian is inside his element. Photographers like him are a breed apart.
We caught up with the veteran during an exhibit last month at the Armenian Library and Museum of America, commemorating his golden anniversary with 50 of his works chosen indiscriminately.
“They’re the ones that made my heart beat faster, sharing the joy and calamity of world events,” he says.
The milestone event also hooked him up with colleagues Boston Herald photographer Garo Lachinian and Boston Globe editor and investigative reporter Steve Kurkdjian in a panel discussion titled “Image Is Everything: Photography and the World’s Defining Moments.”
Both program and lecture were under the auspices of Project Save and its tireless executive director, Ruth Thomasian, who was amazed by his human-interest focus and boundless energy.
One scene shows Koundakjian drying film over a charcoal fire during his coverage of United States First Lady Pat Nixon’s tour of West Africa; another depicts him accompanied by a British bodyguard while he captured the moment.
“I have an Armenian nose,” brought out Koundakjian, pointing a finger to his face. “I smell. I see. I click a shutter. It’s rather automatic. I feel my subjects and shoot my way.”
You don’t question “Harry the Horse,” as he’s known throughout the industry. The “horse” in him pertains to sense, but he’s been known to buck the system to get his shot–and with the fastest camera this side of anywhere.
Over these 50 years, Koundakjian has captured world leaders, natural disasters, Armenian subjects of every kind, and world-defining moments. Of that tenure, 35 years have been spent with the Associated Press and 15 as a stringer in his native Lebanon.
As the AP’s chief photographer, he’s taken charge of all 13 Arab countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, plus Turkey and Iran. He has had preferential treatment into public and private events, recorded death and destruction, and photographed life at its highest and lowest extremes.
His images tell many a unique and compelling tale. He’s been a target of revolutionaries He has witnessed the human misery of earthquake victims and the shattering actions of assassins.
Admittedly, none of these international disasters can compete with the photo of a Vehapar kissing his mother on the cheek in a quiet moment of affection.
“For me, love in the family is important, regardless of your rank,” said Koundakjian. “I search for unusual elements, tender moments. I look for subjects apart from their normal realm. That’s what separates mediocrity from excellence.”
Koundakjian pulls out a letter specifically addressed to him from Catholicos Aram I, dated November 13, 2004. The religious leader commended him on his milestone and offered some words of praise.
“Your photographs eloquently testify that you are not a sheer photographer in the ordinary sense of the word,” he wrote. “You are an artist par excellence. Through your shots, you have been able to catch the defining moments of people, and discern beyond mere facts and scenes the real message.
“You have fulfilled this vocation with faith, commitment, and vision. You deserve the high esteem and full support of all those who have known you as a humble man and a dedicated photographer.”
To know Koundakjian is to respect his work. Anyone with such a passion for so long needs to truly be admired, especially in a profession of gamble and chance. Had he not been in the right place at a given time, would he have shot the paraplegic taking a fall from his wheelchair in a New York City marathon?
Had it not been for intuition, would he have gotten a cat inside a Greek Orthodox Church during an explosion in Cyprus? A cat? His subject was the only living object in a pile of ruins and lent subtlety to the grim aftermath.
A Lufthansa hijacking in 1977 competes favorably with his cover photo of Peter Balakian for AIM Magazine as “Man of the Year.” Or “Sugar Mary,” a survivor of the Armenian Genocide shown entertaining at a club, and Cyprus-born violin virtuoso Levon Chilingirian.
All have a tender place in Koundakjian’s heart and camera. With some 10,000 pictures and 80,000 negatives in his collection, there seems to be no shortage of memories. Add to that more than 300 magazine covers and 3,000 newspaper prints, and you have yourself one wholesome and fulfilling career.
Being Armenian and neutral in Middle East conflicts, Koundakjian was the only remaining photo editor during and after the Munich Olympic massacre. He’s covered Miss Europe pageants during five years in Beirut and has traveled with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Air Force One during their shuttles to make peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Another assignment revolved around several picture stories of Leila Khaled, the notorious Palestinian woman who hijacked a TWA jetliner to Algiers, and another of a terrorist aiming his pistol at a pilot’s head.
Among other prizes is Pope Paul VI praying, Yasser Arafat embracing refugee children, and a King Hussein wedding. Several have found their way to such publications as “Life” and “Time.”
“It’s not only photography but journalism,” he tells you. “The ultimate goal is to get the picture, no matter what the risk. God had looked out for me.”
So has Aida Poladian, his wife of 49 years, who has tolerated and endured the demands of such vocation.
“I adapted myself to it,” she concedes. “It’s been exciting to meet such personalities like Peter O’Toole. We went to a casino together in a taxi and I was part of that moment. I’m very proud of my husband’s long and distinguished career.”
What transpired was a series of 200 images of the great actor during the filming of “Lawrence of Arabia” over a three-month stretch that found Koundakjian on the set daily in Jordan.
The family also includes son Vicken, 46, a diplomat with the Canadian Department of Commerce, and daughter Lola, 40, a computer analyst. Vicken speaks eight languages, like his father.
It all began as a youngster at age 6, when his mother bought him a camera. Koundakjian took apart the bellows and never put it back together again. Now, nearly seven decades later, he still has the pieces waiting to be reassembled. Two years later, along came a more sophisticated model from his mom, an accomplished photographer.
In 1962 he began working as a stringer for the Associated Press, selling his prints at the going rate and building himself quite the portfolio. And so it went, from one assignment to the next, as AP’s preeminent photographer in the Middle East.
There’s been no end to the adventure, seeing the newsmakers in action, no matter the danger or conflict.
In 1979, Koundakjian was transferred with his family from Beirut to New York City for what was to be a three-year assignment as International Photo Editor.
He keeps asking, “When will the three years end?” No one has yet replied.
He’s rubbed elbows with the best around, including Pulitzer Prize winner Eddie Adams; Ara Guler, a Turkish-Armenian photographer decorated by the French government for his work; and the inimitable Karsh of Ottawa, renowned for his portraitures.
“Karsh had an eye that was peerless,” described Koundakjian. “He was a trailblazer in this profession, proving that we, as Armenians, possess a sense for beauty and personality. Karsh was very approachable and willing to share his ideas. I found his work all-consuming.”
A cat with nine lives, Harry’s been injured by a knife, another time by shrapnel, and caught in the line of fire more times than he cares to admit. A picture shows him on the 11th floor of a Beirut complex in 1975 following another brush with mortality.
A sniper fired a round through a window where he worked, striking a telephone.
“If I didn’t have my eyeglasses, I might have been blinded by the shattering glass,” he recalled. “I’ve lived life on a photographic tightrope–fires, wars, earthquakes, cyclones, and world catastrophes. Nobody said it would be easy.”
Every bit the tradesman he tends to be, Koundakjian still resorts to the basics. He won’t answer to technology or the intrusion of digital photography. A 35mm camera is still preferred, alternating with medium format types. No more assignments, however. He still works independently, paid by commission.
Eighty percent of his work deals with Armenian subjects, and he continues to do his own editing. On the docket will be the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide this April and a book or two compiling his best work. Retirement isn’t in the plan.
“My future is today,” he says. “I’ll always have a camera around my neck, even when I’m buried. It’s been a productive career, one rich in satisfaction and joy. Every day is still a fresh adventure.”