Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr David Low (Webster University, Geneva)
Chair: Mr Raphael Gregorian (Programme of Armenian Studies)
Dr David Low, who recently completed his PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, specialises in the photography during the Armenian Genocide and the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. He opened the lecture with a number of images of Armenian ruins in Eastern Anatolia during the period leading up to the commemorative year of the genocide, 1915, and he expounded on how and why photography was put to use in order to preserve, perpetuate, and contemplate on these ruined cultural monuments.
During the late nineteenth century photography was spreading throughout the world and it resulted in a consequent ‘shrinking’ of the world with images of distant lands, peoples and architecture being ‘eternalised’ in photographs and being sent to audiences primarily in the West. Photography at that time was principally used as a lens through which the ‘West’ could see the ‘East’. British photographer, H.F.B. Lynch, had a particular interest in the ruins of Armenia in Eastern Anatolia to where they travelled and photographed what was left of Armenian architecture. He aimed to show the relationship between the Armenian people and the ruins that they had left behind. Sir Martin Conway, a writer, collector and art historian, used some of Lynch’s photography in order to demonstrate the link between the architecture and people and the earth from which they originate. Lynch saw his work, as a means of perpetuating Armenian culture, which he lauded with extravagant language and which he used to juxtapose it with the ‘barbaric’ nature of Turkish culture. Lynch regarded the Armenians as a ‘genius’ and ‘creative’ people with sublime architecture and culture, as opposed to the ‘destructive’ nature of the Turkish character. These comments linking the photographs of Armenian ruins, Armenian culture and the Turkish personality provides us with material that demonstrates certain political and ideological motivations that underlie the ‘Western’ use of photography in the ‘East’. The stereotyping Orientalist discourse used by British imperialists at the time latched onto photography in order to ‘set in stone’ the ruined Christian civilisation that had been destroyed by ‘barbaric’ Muslims. Photography was in a sense used to glorify one’s own nation or empire. This is the ideological context within which Lynch made his comments on the Christian Armenians.
It is for this reason that the camera was considered to be a political tool in the late nineteenth century in the Ottoman Empire with this onset of Western interest in the Armenian peoples. It was seen as an instrument of espionage used by Westerners and also that of sedition by Armenians. Photography was also used by Western organisations and Dr Low gave the example of the American charity specifically organised in response to the Armenian genocide, the Near East Relief. It used photography of the ruins to symbolise the human ruin that the Armenians experienced and the promise of Western powers to resurrect these ‘oppressed Christians of the East’.
The political use of the camera shows just how powerful a tool photography of ruins is in affecting the cognitive sensibilities of the human mind. Images of ruins provoke contemplation not only of the past but also of one’s own present and future. These ruins represent the cycles of birth and death. In such cases as the ancient ruined city of Ani they represent past glories and a melancholic scene of a destroyed past of a nation. Nevertheless, these images of ruins also represent a baseline from which one can measure future progress. Dr Low showed us an old image of the ruined Surp Giragos Church of Diyarbakir in its former dilapidated state and next to it he had an image of its new, renovated and refurbished version. A symbol of hope for the future. The rejuvenation of a cultural monument represents the resurrection of a former life or even lives of those who had their experiences in and around that site.
The point that Dr Low wished to emphasise throughout the lecture is that the idea of ruins being fixed with unambiguous meaning is not true in reality. Every time we look at photographs of ruins, we interpret and re-interpret them in different ways. Just as the identities of humans are in a constant flux, our perspective and lens through which we perceive these ruins change perpetually. The meaning of the ruins that we see experience constant change as does our outlook upon them. We never cease to negotiate and re-negotiate our own identities and the objective lens through which we observe the ruins and the way in which we interpret their meaning. The example of the Western imperialists’ interest in taking images of Armenian ruins is a case in point. They saw the ruins as a terrible past that should be overturned by the ‘benign’ imperialist power. These ruins, for them, represent a hope for the future and a reason for Western intervention. In the case of Armenians, the ruins, such as those at Ani, are seen as a standing, melancholic and nostalgic memory of a past that will not be re-lived again in the future, but one that may nevertheless be preserved through photographs and, perhaps, be a motivation for future endeavours in seeking to rebuild whatever remnants of the destroyed past that remain.