Irish photographer traces Armenians in Anatolia

- Helen Sheehan visits Anatolia and unearths diaspora stories through haunting photography.

ISTANBUL (AA) – A new photo exhibition launched this week in Istanbul follows traces of Armenian families who once lived in Anatolia through a series of haunting images.

Helen Sheehan’s “Armenian Family Stories and Lost Landscapes,” will be open at Istanbul’s Depo Art Gallery until Feb. 8 and consists of both photographs and audio materials.

Irish-born Sheehan’s interest in Armenia and its diaspora began when she was working as a teacher in an Armenian school in Venice during the 1990s.

Sheehan found the family stories with the help of an Armenian friend who worked in a Paris library.

“He introduced me to Armenian families and they trusted me,” she says. “They became like new families for me in a way.”

When asked how she chose the families to study, she says: “I didn’t choose stories; stories chose me.”

Eastern Turkey was home to Armenian minorities and they lived together with Turks until the beginning of the 20th century but their numbers fell during relocations in 1915, which the Armenian diaspora and government describe as ‘genocide,’ and Turkey refutes.

The project started in 2009 when Sheehan was in eastern Turkey for another photography assignment.

As a photographer Sheehan worked in the former Yugoslavia and witnessed the break-up of multiculturalism in the country. She also worked on projects in Morocco for Amnesty International and in Algeria for an asylum seeker.

“My work is always about the marginalized because in my own history Irish people had been marginalized by the big pages of the history in their existence. So I particularly identified with the Armenians,” she says.

According to Sheehan, the family memory is resurfacing: “If you try to wipe away the memory it is still there because there are still traces of memory in the people, in the buildings and in the landscapes. I wanted to explore it photographically.”

“What is it to be the ‘other’ and not to be part of mainstream is something I understand,” she adds.

Sheehan projected photographs of the families onto the original houses as a way to bring back the people who disappeared.

“It was like an experiment,” she says. “When I did that in Turkey’s far east province of Van, in the village of Arshile Gorky – a prominent Armenian artist who died in the U.S. – it was like a theater set.”

People were gathering around and watching Sheehan while she was working.

“They were amazed and they asked me: ‘Who is this man?’” she says, adding that it was touching that local people didn’t know an internationally well-known artist who had lived in the region.

The exhibition is Sheehan’s fourth display of her Armenian material after Venice, London, and Diyarbakir exhibitions.

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