On one level, the scope of Ara Oshagan’s photographic career is vast, seemingly borderless. His bodies of work include American teenagers in juvenile detention; a film crew shooting an independent movie; the Hispanic inhabitants of what was once Steinbeck’s Okie resettlement camp; Korean activists protesting Japan’s treatment of WWII “comfort women”; a day in the life of Los Angeles’s Ethiopian community. With the body of work shown here—a decade in the making and his most exploratory—Oshagan focuses on the Armenian communities in and around Beirut, on what he calls “the spaces of my childhood.” Earning Oshagan’s particular attention are the neighborhoods of Bourj Hammoud, the district north of the Lebanese capital whose swampy terrain became the first way station of waves of Armenian refugees fleeing genocide in the early decades of the twentieth century.
For all the vastness of Oshagan’s scope, these disparate bodies of work are united by an overriding theme: an effort to capture what it means to be out of place. “Out of place” can mean a great deal. For the children and teenagers in juvenile detention, it means being removed from their homes without freedom of movement. For the film crew it means being immersed in a temporary encampment. For the Hispanics in and around Arvin, California, it means being kept at a distance from opportunity. For the Korean activists, it means being ignored by civic authority. For the Ethiopians of Los Angeles, it means being culturally isolated.
For many Armenians of Bourj Hammoud, displacement means starting new lives on foreign shores, setting up habitation in improvised homes and hastily drawn neighborhoods whose very names are themselves displacements: Nor Sis, Nor Adana, and Nor Marash all combine the word nor (Armenian for “new”) with the Ottoman place names Sis, Adana, and Marash—all part of the region of Giligia from which these refugees had fled.
Over the decades, these neighborhoods have been the site of community-building but also intercommunal violence; collective defense during the Lebanese Civil War but also murderous incidents; continuity of tradition but also disruption and change. Bourj Hammoud’s Armenian population has declined since the Lebanese Civil War, and the district’s ethnic makeup has changed significantly, but the communal memory and culture of Bourj Hammoud is as enduring as it is vernacular and fragmented.
Oshagan’s photographs of Bourj Hammoud and its surrounding areas are united by their gritty earthiness, by their stark immediacy, by their forlorn vitality. Though black and white, they achieve gradation by their movement and texture, expressivity, and contrasts, but much of their power draws on another visual source entirely. A typical Oshagan image represents the intersection of multiple spatial planes, which means that for all their compositional integrity, there’s an underlying rupture. For example, of the six people depicted in the image in front of St. Vartan Church, only the two talking to each other are in the same vertical plane. In addition, the background comprises no fewer than five other vertical planes among the buildings, van, and mural. And the horizontal plane, the street on which the scene takes place, is itself fractured, literally by potholes and curbs, figuratively by sunlight and shadow.
Despite their shifting energy and displaced perspective, these
photographs carry a blackness that is more than contrast and drama. Sometimes background, sometimes foreground, and at other times in-between, the blackness suggests another presence: In the photograph of the Nor Marash street, a child seems to be running out of the picture, while a black figure is foregrounded, its eyes fixed on the same point outside the frame toward which the child is running. At times an image appears to be on the verge of some interruption or intervention or revelation, as in the gaze of the child in the Karagheusian Health Center, who appears to be anticipating the unimaginable.
These visual cues suggest absence, sometimes even loss, for sure. But they also give space and meaning to the invisible, or what is endangered. Oshagan’s photographs do not depict diaspora communities as the sum total of their ethnic details (good food, colorful clothing, cute habits, energetic dances, and exotic personages) but rather as living, changing wholes—disrupted, vulnerable to attrition, but also in a continuous state of emergence.
At the center of this becoming, of continuous consolidation and dissolution, is the Western Armenian language itself, battered and nearly annihilated by genocide but persistent as a powerful, dynamic source of collective identity. In Bourj Hammoud’s alleyways and stores, community center and apartments, shanties and factories, Western Armenian, in its many dialects and cohabitations with Arabic, Turkish, even French and English, is alive in everyday speech, and also in the literature of its most prolific practitioner, the Paris-based writer Krikor Beledian.
A native of the neighborhoods of Oshagan’s camera (albeit a generation earlier), Beledian has authored a cycle of novels set here. His material is nothing less than the entire spectrum and depth of the post-genocide life of these communities, given form in fragmented narratives, meticulously crafted scenes, and an array of personages whose Western Armenian carries the dialects of the regions of the old country. In his most recent monograph, displaced, Oshagan’s photographs come to speech, as it were, in a collaboration with Beledian’s complementary essay, “The Bridge,” which refers to the bridge that arches over a river known as Nahr Beirut, connecting but also separating Beirut from Bourj Hammoud. It is the bridge between the middle class of Beirut and the working-class neighborhoods of the cobblers, bakers, and car mechanics of the photographs, whose very existence is often an embarrassment to the bourgeoisie of the city.
And yet for all their focus and attention to the particular, Oshagan’s photographs here achieve a kind of borderless quality, as though this tiny plot of space overlooking the Mediterranean could tell the equally splintered story of refugees far removed from these shores, who carry the double burden of starting anew and at the same time being pulled by what they left behind. “From there could be seen the flooding of the river,” Beledian writes, “the panorama of the city on the other side of the shore extending to the foot of the mountains, like the fields of Giligia in front of the Taurus mountain range. It’s as if the places, like the people, had become displaced, transported elsewhere, had retained only their names that moved among people like invisible shadows, but the footing, the very foundation, was lost in its swamp.”