BY RAMELA GRIGORIAN ABBAMONTIAN
Lebanese-Armenian photographer Raffi Hadidian (b. 1972) has had a camera in his hand since the age of 19, but his love of images and his realization of their power in storytelling began many years earlier.
At the age of six, Hadidian arrived in Los Angeles from war-torn Lebanon. Soon thereafter, he was using visual images to reconstruct and make sense of his birthplace. The first time, around age seven, he used Matchbox cars and small paper boxes to create a makeshift city in the sandbox with his brother Ara. As his brother lit a match, Hadidian photographed (using a 110 Kodak camera) the flames of a burning city. This early memory of image-making reveals a desire to understand the city of his origins as well as its conditions. The pictorial series he has created in the last decade reveal a deep-rooted desire to comprehend his current home of Los Angeles, to present a democratic photographic representation of its inhabitants, and ultimately – as I suggest – to transform himself, as well as his viewers, from voyeurs to witnesses and participants.
Like many photographers, Hadidian works serially. The late social art historian Albert Boime suggested, in conversations with the author, that artists work serially because their experiences cannot be captured in a single image. In other words, the very act of creating a series becomes a process through which the artist explores not only his subjects, but himself as well. Hadidian’s series’ subjects are varied and include the following: fellow drivers in nearby cars in “Portraits in Motion” (2005-ongoing), people and places photographed while driving in “Drive By Shootings” (2005-ongoing), street scenes in “Boulevard of (Broken) Dreams” (2005-ongoing), cyclists around town in “Wind in My Face” (2006-ongoing), quiet moments in “Tranquil Stills” (2007-ongoing), architectural stability in “Structures” (2009), nature’s wonders in “Backyard Living – It’s a Jungle Out There” (2008-ongoing), espresso pulls in “Holy Shot!” (2008), and breathtaking scenery in “Yosemite 2011.” (There are sometimes over 400 images in each series. None of the individual photographs in the series is given a title, confirming the necessity of multiple images to capture the subjects and experiences.)
Geoffrey Batchen, in “Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance” (2004), asserts that “[p]hotography is privileged within modern culture because, unlike other systems of representation, the camera does more than just see the world; it is also touched by the world” (31). In a similar way, Hadidian’s photographic series allow him to explore his contemporary reality: a displaced diasporic artist making his home in multi-ethnic Los Angeles. Each series, therefore, is a process through which he engages the environment around him, uncovers the subtleties of the city, grapples with his role as an artist, and attempts to decipher the experience of living in Los Angeles.
As Hadidian explores the fast-paced experience of living in Los Angeles, in some ways he appears to capture an alternate reality. For example, we are always in motion in Los Angeles – in cars and freeways – rushing from one location to the next. But through his photographs, Hadidian slows us down long enough to draw attention to the things typically overlooked: the homeless on city streets, drivers in nearby cars, people on their bicycles. By creating engaging photographs, he draws viewers into a dialogue with realities that are often avoided. It is almost as if the work unveils the “white noise” of big city living.
In “Boulevard of (Broken) Dreams,” Hadidian captures people often disregarded on the streets: “[It] focuses on our daily lives and people who live in and among it, but somehow we have deleted their presence from it” (conversation with author Oct. 18, 2014). The subjects of this series are wide-ranging and include homeless people sitting at bus stops and curbs, pedestrians rushing across crosswalks, consumers pushing shopping carts, vendors walking with their ice cream carts, and men playing checkers on the sidewalk. By their very nature, these photographs require inclusion of more of the environment in order to place the subject in a specific context. As such, the environments become extensions of their inhabitants and a critical part of their identities. Hadidian uses well-known photographer Paul Strand’s dictum to explain his motive for this series: “It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness” (quoted on Hadidian’s Facebook page). Could it be suggested that a witness to turmoil and upheaval in another country develops a sensitivity to the plight of humanity’s suffering in his new home? Hadidian states: “Armenian struggle in the diaspora of surviving [has] made me more sensitive to human beings surviving” (conversation with author Nov. 1, 2012).
One of the key themes that emerges from this series is the human disconnect that is prevalent in our contemporary lives. In a specific photograph from this series (Figure 1), two seated men parallel one another’s folded arms and crossed legs. This visual congruency is paradoxically contrasted with the disengagement of one with the other. Instead of conversing with one another, the men are isolated in their own worlds – visually emphasized by the bars separating their spaces on the bench; engrossed only with their own thoughts, their gazes are directed outside the composition. Further, the men are in the partially-enclosed space of the bus stop, waiting for the bus, thus emphasizing the decline of public space in large car-driven metropolises such as Los Angeles.
Hadidian explicitly articulates his desire to be a witness, yet also admits to feeling like a voyeur when taking these photographs, concerned that he might be “taking something from them [or] from that moment.” In general, the boundary between voyeur and witness is thought to be indistinct; Hadidian’s images mediate between these roles. As one art commentator has observed, “There is the image as an act of witness, concerned to convey a reality we ought to know about or bring awareness of a situation that requires a response. And there is the voyeuristic image, driven by the delight in seeing, in the exhibition of suffering or the exposure of privacy. On the one side, a means subordinated to an end: on the other, the means as an end in itself: on one side, some kind of reaching out to the other, on the other, nothing but self” (“Witnesses and Voyeurs,” Art Press, Nov. 2001). Hadidian, whenever possible, engages the subjects in conversation. During these exchanges, he explains that he wants to publicize an issue – the streets and the reality of the conditions that exist. In response, subjects have asked him to “show them properly” (Hadidian, interview with author, Oct. 18, 2014). Hadidian, with raw and powerful images, empowers his subjects by giving them pictorial space – they become central subjects of the photographs’ compositions. Consequently, Hadidian and his photographs become witnesses to the absent presence in Los Angeles.
“Drive By Shootings” is comprised of photographs taken while Hadidian is driving and “spots something or mostly someone interesting in [his] view.” I believe that our lives are very product-oriented – our primary focus seems to be entirely on the end result. I suggest that our home of Los Angeles visually conveys this movement from one point to the next: the environment abounds with infinite streets and unending freeways, often with lonesome travelers headed to their destinations. Rather ironically, Hadidian is driving while he takes these photographs of interesting subjects in his view – many in their cars, others on the streets. In this way, his “still” photographs appear to stop time and motion long enough for us to witness the details.
Whereas the compositions in “Drive By Shootings” include the subjects within the larger context of the environment, “Portraits in Motion” contains up-close photographs of people in their cars (taken while Hadidian is also driving). In this example (Figure 2), it appears as though the older gentleman is totally unaware of Hadidian’s camera; his younger passenger, on the other hand, confronts the camera – and therefore, Hadidian – directly. Her calm face, with its quiet gaze and expressionless lips, conveys deep sadness. Yet she engages the camera so honestly that one might ask if she is yearning for human contact of any kind, even if it is through the lens of a camera. The photograph seems to expound on the isolation and loneliness experienced in an urban environment where human contact exists, but only superficially. The two subjects sit in the same intimate space of a car, yet are disconnected on a personal level with no conversation between them. It might then come as no surprise that the subjects in Hadidian’s photographs are anonymous. Is contemporary Los Angeles comprised of such a large population that any type of meaningful contact has become rare? Does this alienation and isolation define our contemporary lives, our relationships?
An important signifier in this photograph is the window that separates, both literally and figuratively, the photographer from his subjects. Indeed, it begs the question: Where is the boundary between private and public space? Hadidian himself is aware of this and comments, “I find it interesting to see where we might cross the line between public and private. Is a piece of glass a false sense of privacy?” (from Hadidian’s Facebook page). As the window negotiates the boundary between the public and private, the act of photographing also mediates between the roles of voyeur and witness noted above.
Hadidian’s fascination with vehicles of transport as a means of exploring our experiences in Los Angeles is also highlighted in another series, “Wind in My Face,” that includes people from all walks of life on their bicycles, as shown in this example (Figure 3). His photographs add another dimension to the viewer’s perception of Los Angeles as a city dominated by lonely cars and endless freeways; it is indeed a city that has a cycling subculture. Once again, Hadidian is photographing people with objects of movement, yet his photographs appear to stop time and their actions long enough for the viewers to notice.
In the example (Figure 4) from “Holy Shot!” Hadidian has subverted the signifier of communal activity: cups of espresso. It could be suggested that the half-full espresso cups might indicate a drink interrupted by a busy life. Further, the lone cups might come to represent the illusion of getting together with family and friends, but highlight the reality of the disconnect and isolation that is symptomatic of our contemporary lives. The aerial perspective – and therefore, distanced viewpoint – further exemplifies this notion of contemporary disconnect characteristic of our lives in Los Angeles.
In conclusion, Hadidian’s photographs assert the presence of the subjects that are often purposely deleted from our everyday experiences. Social and critical theorist Roland Barthes claims in “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” (1981) that “every photograph is a certificate of presence.” In other words, the photograph’s strength as a medium potentially also lies in its ability to serve as proof – of existence and of survival. This very facticity of photographs, I would argue, reveals the preservation impulse at play in the works of many diasporic Armenian artists: the desire to record and preserve aspects of their history, whether past or contemporary. This impulse to preserve transforms the photographer – and by extension, the viewer– into a chronicler, a witness, and even a “voice” for his subjects and their experiences. As a firm believer in art’s power to transform us, I suggest that Hadidian’s photographs acquire a certain urgency: as they reveal the modern human condition of life in Los Angeles, they simultaneously awaken our consciousness to the disconnect and isolation that is prevalent in our culture. Consequently they prod us to consider change. And possibly, our position as bystanders or voyeurs can transition to witnesses and participants . . . in one another’s daily lives.
Hadidian’s photographic series have not been exhibited anywhere but may be viewed on Flickr and Facebook. Hadidian is also a professional commercial photographer, having photographed well-known international clients in the luxury goods industry. His photographs have appeared in over 90 magazines worldwide, including “Vanity Fair,” “Vogue,” “Town & Country,” “WhiteWall,” and “Elite Traveler.” You can view his works on flickr and Facebook.
All Rights Reserved: Critics’ Forum, 2014. Exclusive to Asbarez.
Ramela Grigorian Abbamontian received her PhD in Art History from UCLA. She is currently an Associate Professor of Art History at Pierce College. You can reach her or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at [email protected] This and all other articles published in this series are available online at criticsforum.org. To sign up for electronic versions of new articles, go to criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.