Armenians not only dominated the field of photography in the 19th and early 20th centuries but also have a special appreciation for its power to change hearts and minds. Had it not been for the invention of this potent visual craft, the world might not have woken up to the plight of the Armenian orphans and genocide survivors who benefitted from the massive funds raised by the Near East Foundation, American philanthropists, and grass roots donors across the U.S. Certainly, without photojournalism, we would be hard-pressed to counter Turkish genocide denial.
Here are examples of iconic images taken by Armenian photographers who chose to make this indispensable medium their life’s work.
Winston Churchill was known for being a brusque man who liked to do things his own way. In 1941, in the midst of WWII, he delivered a fiery speech in the Canadian Parliament to rally against the Nazi threat in Europe. On his way out of the Parliament chamber, Churchill was surprised to see Yusuf Karsh strategically positioned to take his picture. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, a fan of Karsh, had arranged for this chance encounter. Churchill begrudgingly acquiesced but insisted on smoking a fresh cigar while his portrait was taken. Karsh, in a display of some pluck approached to the fearsome Prime Minister and grabbed the cigar from his mouth. The resulting growl on Churchill’s face made for one of the most recognizable portraits ever taken—one that clearly reflected Churchill’s inner state at the time. In the eyes of millions of people, Britain’s “roaring lion” would forever be associated with this Karsh photograph and the story behind it.
About the photographer: Yousef Karsh
Born Hovsep Karshian in 1908 in Mardin Turkey during the Ottoman Empire, Karsh’s family was persecuted during the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, including the young Yusuf, fled on foot to Aleppo Syria. A year later his family sent him to safety in Canada. After apprenticing to several photographers, Karsh set up shop in Ottawa. Over the course of a sixty-year career until he retired in 1993, Karsh would become one of the world’s most famous and sought-after photographers. He photographed some of the most prominent people in politics, science and the arts including Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, and Queen Elizabeth. His photographs graced the cover of Life Magazine no less than 20 times. Karsh passed away in 2002.
Photojournalist Scout Tufankjian was still a young, recently-minted Yale graduate when she was offered the opportunity to cover the Obama campaign in 2008. She followed the Obamas on the campaign trail, taking over 10,000 shots of Barack, Michelle and their entourage. But it was a photo that Tufankjian took of the couple one evening in Iowa hugging each other that would resonate in the minds and hearts of people around the world. Within hours of posting the Victory Hug on social media, it had gone viral. Some twenty years later, it still ranks as the most liked photograph ever on Facebook and the most ever tweeted. It was Tufankjian’s insistence on portraying the couple as ordinary people and not as celebrities that perhaps explains the success of this now iconic “victory hug.” Other photos of the President surrounded by children and a famous “bear hug” picture are also popular, but it was the photo of Obama and his wife seemingly caught in a private moment that people most identified with. As Tufankijian told Slate Magazine: “It reflects on the way that people feel about the Obamas as people, rather than as public figures.” Viewers seemed to agree and the shot entered the annals of photographic history.
About the photographer: Scout Tufankjian
Born in 1977 to an Irish mother and an Armenian father on the outskirts of Boston, Tufankjian recounts that she grew up learning about her Armenian heritage mainly through oral and written stories. In 2008, she published her book about the Obama campaign Yes We Can: Barack Obama's History-Making Presidential Campaign (2008), which quickly became a national bestseller. To coincide with the 100th anni-versary commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, Tufankjian then set out to record the Armenian diaspora throughout the world in There Is Only the Earth: Images from the Armenian Diaspora Project. Other works include Haiti 2010: The Haitian Earthquake, and Egypt 2011-2012: A Year of Revolution. Widely considered one of the country’s leading photojournalists, Tufankjian makes her home in Brooklyn, New York.
Twentieth Century Madonna
The Armenian Earthquake on December 7, 1988, is undoubtedly one of the darkest pages in the history of Armenia. In just a few seconds, thousands of lives were destroyed. For photographers like Mkhitar Khachatryan, their cameras were capturing nothing but human tragedy and suffering. Just hours after the disaster, Khachatryan was already on the scene, and, while an experienced photographer, he was overwhelmed by what he witnessed. While he was in Gyumri (formerly called Leninakan), the epicenter of the diasaster, he heard about a woman by the name of Marine Nuroyan, who was pulled out from under the rubble with her child. Her other two daughters, who were at school during the quake, also survived. Her husband, upon learning they were all alive, was overjoyed. Khachatryan captured this image which quickly spread throughout the foreign media and appeared on the front page of the The New York Times, where it was later called “Twentieth Century Madonna.” Staying in touch with the Nuroyan family about 20 years, Khachatryan captured the best proof of survival with an image of Marine, now with her four grandchildren. They posed before the camera in the same position as the original in 1988.
About the photographer: Mkhitar Khachatryan
Mkhitar Khachatryan was born in Yerevan in 1960. He recalls how his parents won a camera at the lottery and decided to give it to their 10-year-old son. He sometimes jokes that in his case photography is a “lottery-winning profession.” Khachatryan began his career as a photojournalist in 1984. He worked for Armenpress, Photolure news agencies, as well as Komsomolets newspaper. He has been a member of the Union of Journalists of Armenia since 1985 and has participated in a number of national and international photo exhibitions.
Successful at the remarkably young age of 15 Israeli-born photographer Garo Nalbandian was offered access to some of the world’s most prominent leaders. Here in this photo, he photographed Pope Francis accepting a gilt painting from Greek Patriarch Theophilos III inside the Church of Bethphage, Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The photo is iconic not simply because of its exquisite composition, but because it shows the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox worlds in social communion—a gesture of obvious friendship set against the background of a schism of several hundred years between the leaders of the two Christian Churches.
About the photographer: Garo Nalbandian
Nalbandian was born in Jerusalem in 1943 and early on in his career he documented the various crises in Iraq and Jordan. Highly respected in his native Israel, Nalbandian has been named the official photographer for various leading world figures visiting the Holy Land including The King of Belgium and Pope Paul VI, as well as the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. His work has been included in numerous books including Jerusalem, City of Jesus (1980), Living Stones, Pilgrimage With the Christians of the Holy Land (2000) and Past and Present (1998). Nalbandian’s pictures of Israel and surrounding countries are considered one of the most important photographic archives of the area in existence.
World’s Worst Cyclone
The 1970 Bhola Cyclone that struck East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) and India’s West Bengal remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world’s most catastrophic natural disasters, killing at least 300,000 people and igniting a period of political up-heaval. International photographer Harry Koundakjian was on the scene in the immediate aftermath, where he captured numerous images depicting the plight of the survivors. Many, like this iconic photo that appeared in the Washington Post, are shown eating rice after relief supplies reached them. This and many more such images found their way to the front pages of the international media.
About the photographer: Harry Koundakjian
Born in Aleppo, the prolific Harry Koundakjian was affiliated with the Associated Press from the 1960s to his retirement in 2006. Over his storied career, he documented major world events. His vast portfolio includes the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Lebanese Civil War, the coronation of the Shah of Iran, the 1978 wedding of King Hussein of Jordan to Queen Noor and the aftermath of 9/11 in his adopted home of New York City. Among the prominent twentieth century figures he photographed were Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Hafez al-Assad, Barbara Walters, Louis Armstrong, Peter O’Toole and countless more. The ever proud Armenian was the only professional Armenian photographer at the raising of the newly independent Armenia’s tri-color at the United Nations in 1992.
Known as Egypt’s premiere portrait photographer, Van Leo’s work is so powerful that he has regularly been compared to western icons such as Richard Avedon and has even dubbed “Egypt’s Man Ray” by The Economist magazine. Especially iconic are his impossibly glamorous shots of entertainers and leaders of the Arab world. Taha Hussein was one of the most influential 20th-century Egyptian intellectuals who spearheaded the Egyptian Renaissance. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize no less than fourteen times, so the popularity of this picture in Egypt must be placed in this perspective: natives venerated these shots because they placed Hussein within a more enviable global context. The bespoke suit, black sunglasses and lighting suggest a movie star rather than a writer, someone equally worthy of adulation and respect. Over the years, Leo’s shots of singers such as Dalida and actors like Omar Sharif made his work—with its signature flair and dramatic touch—iconic throughout the Middle East.
About the photographer: Van Leo
Van Leo was born Levon Alexander Boyadjian in 1921 to a family that escaped the Armenian Genocide due to his father’s privileged position in the Baghdad Railway Company. The family fled Turkey in 1925 and emigrated to Egypt. After attending English schools, Van Leo became fascinated by Hollywood stars and the glamorous world that they seemed to inhabit—he soon became sought out by famous actors, singers and politicians. The photographer also recorded Egyptian monuments such as the Great Pyramids and became a trailblazer of what he termed “auto-portraits.” Van Leo passed away in 2002, leaving his entire collection of work to the American University of Cairo. So prolific and important was his work that it is considered almost a historical record of 20th century Egyptian high society.
In a sense, ever since he made a 1993 deathbed pledge to photograph every Armenian church on Earth, this photo by Hawk Khatcherian is an icon of icons—Mount Ararat as a timeless symbol of the Armenian and Khor Virap, the site of the founding of the Armenian Apostolic Church. “The shots of Khor Virap and Mount Ararat were taken from a helicopter especially for books I worked on: Flying High and Armenia, Heaven on Earth.” At a time when Armenia is experiencing unparalleled challenges to its independence, this reminder of its history and beauty are precious indeed, so perfectly shot from their unique aerial vantage point.
About the photographer: Hrair “Hawk” Khatcherian
Born in Lebanon in 1951, Hawk Khatcherian has made a career out of shooting Armenian monuments and cultural icons around the world. In a story that Khatcherian likes to tell, the photographer developed cancer in 1993. From what he feared was his deathbed, he swore that should he survive, he would photograph every Armenian church in the world. He has kept his promise travelling the Armenian Diaspora, the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh: many of these photographs are documented in his beautiful 2003 volume “One Nation, One Church.” Though he made his home in Montreal, Canada after leaving Lebanon, Hawk now travels the world most of the year, documenting Armenian culture for contemporary viewers and posterity both.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair! The picture of the unknown girl with the big brown eyes and impossibly long thick flowing hair both charms and startles everyone at first glance. Both uncanny and highly likeable, she could also be the girl next door. Armenian filmmaker Anahit Ghazaryan spent some five years researching the photographer Mariam Shahinyan, the first female photographer in Turkey. Ghazaryan sifted through the thousands of images she could find and was particularly taken by this enchanting young girl with folded hands and inscrutable gaze. Ghazaryan went on to recreate a room in Yerevan that she imagined might have been Shahinyan’s in an exhibition titled “Living Room of Images.” A CivilNet report on Ghazaryan’s film about Shahinyan has made the social media rounds and is making the prolific pioneer in portraiture an Armenian national treasure.
About the photographer: Mariam Shahinyan
Known as Turkey’s first female portrait photographer, Mariam Shahinyan was born in 1911 in Sivas to a wealthy and well-connected family. While Sivas was all but emptied of its native Armenian population during the Armenian Genocide, Shahinyan’s family managed to escape to the capital of Constantinople. She and her five sisters never married or had families of their own. Shahinyan instead devoted her life to portrait photography. In the course of her lifetime, she shot several million portraits, an almost unbelievable figure. Known for her uncanny ability to get people from all walks of life to relax and show their true personalities. Shahinyan passed away in 1996.
Head of State
Davit Hakobyan, the official photog-rapher of the President of Armenia, was part of the press entourage at the summit for The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) held in Sochi, Russia in 2017. For Hakobyan, it was just another day’s work. Little did he know that it would mark a turning point in his career. When the leaders of the CSTO member states concluded their meeting and were headed to a press conference with journalists, Hakobyan was waiting to take photos of the president of Armenia. “I had already set the camera lens to the selected point where the lighting would create the best shot of the Armenian president. However, it turned out that President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev was the first to enter the room. So I took the picture of him first. At the end of the day, I posted the photo on social media. Overnight, the photo had gone viral, especially in Kazakhstan. Suddenly, I had become a well known photographer and the rest is history.” Since then, Hakobyan is included in various photo festivals and events in Kazakhstan, where, Davit jokes how he is treated like a Hollywood star. Today, the famous image of Nursultan Nazarbayev in that iconic pose, surrounded by CSTO members including Vladimir Putin (to his left) shrouded in darkness is on public display at the Museum of the First President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
About the photographer: Davit Hakobyan
Davit Hakobyan began his career at 21 years old at Armenpress News Agency. From there, he joined Pan Armenian Media. One year later, he was the official photographer for the president of Armenia and has been a member of the presidential press corps since. During his more than 15 years in that position, Hakobyan has photographed many high-profile heads of state including Joseph Biden, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis and others. Always looking for creative outlets for his visual talents, Hakobyan’s fine art and editorial photos have appeared in solo and group exhibitions around the world, including Yerevan, New York, Stockholm, Warsaw, Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. He is the author of several hard cover art books focused on human interest stories, landscapes, portraits and other subjects of special interest to him.
And then there is the world-renowned artist whose paintings look so much like photographs that he fools even experienced art lovers. In fact, you may have walked by Times Square, looked up and been startled by one of Tsitoghdzyan’s almost instantly iconic “Mirror” portraits: large, fantastic black and white paintings that have been compared to the photographic negatives. The paintings are so real they seem unreal: a woman’s hands cover her face which somehow also reveal her face beneath. Portraits so fantastic that when many people see them they have a type of “aha” moment—recalling that they saw the image somewhere—in a magazine, in real life or on social media. How does her face come through in front of her hands? This visual conundrum seems to have enthralled everyone that sees this young Armenian-born painter’s work. The Armenian predilection for the photo-graphic seems to find a presence in the work of painters as well.
About the photographer: Tigran Tsitoghdzyan
Tigran Tsitoghdzyan was born in Yerevan in 1976. He has exhibited his paintings since he was a child. In 1986, he was given a solo show by noted curator Henrik Igitian: the young Tsitoghdzyan’s paintings then traveled to the US, Russia, Japan and Spain. The artist moved to the USA in 2009: his bold intriguing mixed media works have graced billboards and appeared in the nation’s top fashion magazines. Tsitoghdzyan and his work were featured in a 2018 documentary directed by Arthur Balder, Intimations of Immortality, that also starred actress Susan Sarandon. He currently lives in New York City and is represented by some of the nation’s leading galleries.