Max Sivaslian has his eye on the world
A photojournalist’s journey from India to war-torn Karabakh and beyond
Published: Friday December 18, 2009
Yerevan - "Even though I grew up in a mostly Armenian neighborhood in Marseille, I was far from most things Armenian," says Max Sivaslian. "For some reason, my generation wasn't very close to its roots." He recalls that there were many Armenian families in his neighborhood, and while he identified himself as Armenian and was taught Armenian, he was mostly French.
And then the Karabakh War began. While the Armenian people were embroiled in one of the fiercest battles of their recent history, Max Sivaslian journeyed to the homeland.
After having traveled the world several times over, he arrived in Yerevan in 1992. "There were no direct flights from France to Armenia at the time. I had to travel quite a bit to reach Armenia," he says.
In one of the coldest winters on record, Max travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh soon after arriving in Yerevan in 1992 and stayed on the battlefield, photographing and creating a visual story of the bloodshed, the horror, and finally the victory of Armenian forces in 1994.
Before going to Karabakh, Max had been in India for a number of years, traveling and taking pictures. His life changed when he met Svetlana Paskaleva. The Bulgarian journalist had come to Marseille to meet with the French-Armenian community and show her film, Karabakh's Wounds. Max struggles at first to say how it affected him. "I got sensitive," he says. "I saw that the Armenians, once again, had ‘troubles' with the Turks." Since he had experience in war reporting, he decided to come to Karabakh "to be a witness and to show others what I had seen."
Shooting the battle
His photographs, shot over the course of two years on the battle front, comprise one of the most comprehensive collections documenting the war in Karabakh. His book, Le Jardin Noir, however, is more than a collection of photographs. It includes a journal of memories that Max kept while there.
His images are riveting, moving, and painful, and can bring tears to your eyes. He has managed to capture the simplicity and complexity of all the moments that take place when a people are fighting to protect their homes and their patrimony. There is determination in the eyes of Armenian soldiers in the trenches, on the vast open battlefield, and while receiving the blessings of a priest before they go to fight. But there is also pain and heartache in their eyes when they lose a fellow combatant or when they are forced to retreat.
Being a "witness" to war must be a heavy burden with chilling memories; surely these must continue to haunt him. "I have no trauma, I do not suffer from trauma," he says plaintively. "Of course, war is the worst thing that can happen but it didn't impact me so much afterward because we were victorious. Perhaps if we had lost, I would have felt differently." The lives of all those young men and women who died in the war were not in vain. "They died for something and we won," he explains. "That gives us hope, even today. We have begun to understand what that victory means."
He becomes reflective and says that perhaps he can say all these things because he continues to live in Armenia. He explains that he maintains ties with his friends from the war and when he goes to Karabakh now, the victory is tangible. "If we hadn't won, there would be no Karabakh and Armenia would be a different country," Max says. "I don't know if diaspora Armenians have a real understanding of what this means, of what Armenia is, never mind the reality of Karabakh."
Today Max works for the French-Armenian magazine Nouvelles d'Armenie and collaborates with many other agencies. Aside from Le Jardin Noir, he also shot all the contemporary images for a comprehensive book called My Yerevan, a collection of black-and-white photos of the capital city. He has a collection of photographs of prisoners in Armenia's prison system also contained in a book. The images of prisoners with their heads shaved are jarring.
He reflects on the development of photojournalism today in Armenia. He sees a lot of progress and the fact that the country has a photo agency like Photolure is a big advancement in this sphere.
Max was witness to another tragic moment in the life of Armenia - March 1, 2008 when protestors clashed with police following the presidential election. The clashes resulted in the death of 10 people. Nouvelles d'Armenie, thanks to Max's extensive experience photographing conflicts, had some of the most extensive series of photos from those protests.
After a state of emergency was declared in the capital, Max was probably the only photojournalist in the center of the melee that continued into March 2. "I saw one other photographer, a foreigner. Others were at a distance or shooting from balconies and rooftops during the day; I was the only one on the ground after the declaration of a state of emergency," Max recounts. "I asked my colleagues why they weren't there and they explained that they were concerned about their equipment, cameras, and lenses."
Indeed, in such circumstances, when events are progressing quickly, the work of a photographer can be treacherous. "When the protestors were in front of the French Embassy during the day, two men came at me with the intention of grabbing the camera from my hands. They were successful in breaking my lens." Max smiles and says that's part of the profession.
"Both sides were in danger; people screaming at me to take photos, others were trying to push me away. When darkness fell, I came across a lot of trouble," Max says. "My colleagues stayed away for this reason." Anticipating the danger, Max had taken his oldest and least expensive camera with him when he decided to document the riots that day in pictures.
With all that he has experienced and documented, this venerable photojournalist can't imagine his life without a camera. Taking pictures had always been a passion, and by the time he was 21 he knew his path in life. "I have been around the world and if I don't have my camera with me, it's pointless," he explains. "Photographers need to see things differently. When I walk, my eyes are constantly wandering."
The art of photojournalism
Capturing a moment in time, which evokes a particular feeling that can highlight beauty or destitution, joy or pain, is an art form. Max, however, doesn't consider himself an artist. "There are photographers who shoot and are artists and then there are photojournalists, I am the latter. I sometimes consider myself to be a technician, but of course you have to have an eye that sees things in a way others don't," he says.
While he would love to pursue his artistic side, Max admits that at the moment he doesn't have the time. "Of course I have the desire to do so; once in a while I do it purely for art. I don't have that luck as yet," he smiles.
These days Max is working on a project very close to his heart. He is taking photographs in Western Armenia of those Armenians who have converted to Islam. "My wife is a journalist/sociologist and she is preparing the texts and I am taking the photos," he tells me. "We have already been to Turkey many times but I have to go once more alone to complete the project."
He has been all over Turkey...Sassoun, Malatya, Adiyaman...
There are very few Armenians who have maintained their faith in the historic lands of the Armenian nation. The overriding majority have converted or have grandmothers or grandfathers who were Armenian. In some places, these converted Armenians were more than happy to have their picture taken and tell their story. In other places like Malatya, people were more reserved and often didn't want their photos taken by Max. "Their fear disconcerted me," he says almost sadly.
There is something different about this endeavor. While Max insists he is more of a technician than an artist, he admits that these pictures require something different from him. "I still need to take more photos, I have to be more artistic," he says. "That is why I need to go back one more time."
He hopes the book will be published sometime in the fall of 2010.
Max Sivaslian from Marseille, who once considered himself more French than Armenian, came to Armenia to document a war and stayed. He met and married his wife in Armenia. She is French, by the way. And they have a three year old named Marie Zabel, who bears the names of both their mothers.
"I lived in India for many years. I traveled to Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan," his voice trails. "I wanted to see something different from Europe. I wanted to see how other people lived. I stayed there, I liked it."
And is Armenia his final destination?
He admits that after 18 years of life in Armenia, he is tired. "I have lost some of my hope. At first, I had a lot of hope. You know it's a new country and it's not easy to build a new country, I understood that," he says. "When I think about the early 90s and how horrific the times were...but we created a country that has turned out to be ‘egoist.' Today we have oligarchs."
As a witness to the Karabakh war and its victory, Max volunteers his opinion about the political situation. "They want to resolve serious issues we have with Turkey," he says. "I don't think they have the right." He remembers those men who died for homeland. He wants to honor their heroism and their memory. He did his part by documenting their lives and for that reason perhaps, he stays on. "I want to stay here, but let's see what happens," he says.