The French-Armenian’s latest project, Black Garden, sees a nation in a perpetual state of conflict, striving for autonomy, no matter how long it might take
Nagorno-Karabakh, officially renamed the Republic of Artsakh in 2017, is a disputed, landlocked region in the South Caucasus that has witnessed almost 30 years of conflict between Armenia – of which Nagorno-Karabakh was an ancient province – and Azerbaijan. The region was annexed to the latter by Stalin in 1923, despite being home to a largely ethnic Armenian population. But in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh claimed independence. The claim was rejected by Azerbaijan and a violent war broke out the following year, lasting until May 1994. Subsequent conflicts between Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan took place in 2016, and again recently in September 2020. As of 10 November, a ceasefire has been called, but fighting along the border continues with no end in sight.
What does everyday life look like for a population perpetually on the brink of war? How does an existence such as this affect culture and tradition? These are the questions posed by French-Armenian photographer Alexis Pazoumian in his series Black Garden (a translation of the Turkic-Persian name ‘Karabakh’). This ongoing project seeks to understand the people of this region, their fight for independence, and why, despite years of turmoil, they remain committed to the cause.
It is often said that Nagorno-Karabakh’s population of approximately 150,000, is made up entirely of soldiers. It’s an exaggerated rumour, but with the real figure close to 25,000 – nearly one fifth – it is no surprise that the art of soldiery is an integral part of the region’s culture. Children begin combat training at the age of 15 and military service lasts for two years. Joining the army is an attractive proposition for younger generations and is supported by a narrative of patriotism and heroism that has long been at the heart of Nagorno-Karabakh’s history.
This caught Pazoumian’s attention. “What interested me at the beginning was the strong presence of military culture in this region,” he says. “But I also became interested in the notion of resistance, the attachment to one’s territory, to one’s land. For the majority of the Armenians there, living in the region is really an act of resistance.” In Pazoumian’s photographs, soldiers are the face of Nagorno-Karabakh, but for those unable or unfit to bear arms day-to-day life is itself a defiant statement. Burnt earth, bullet holes and destroyed cars are a regular feature of the towns and villages that are scattered throughout the mountainous landscape. They serve as constant reminders of past conflict and future struggles.
As well as the faces of its inhabitants, Black Garden looks at Nagorno-Karabakh’s post-Soviet heritage through its architecture and its monuments. A shot of a two-headed sculpture facing out over the land shows the symbol of the Republic of Artsakh. Titled We Are Our Mountains, the artwork represents a union between the people and the land. In another, we see a monument to the soldiers who died during the war in 1992. Fresh flowers sit below engraved portraits, testament to their enduring place in collective memory. Elsewhere, a tank rests outside the city of Shouchi, the region’s former capital, where it was used against Azerbaijani forces almost 30 years ago.
Together, Pazoumian’s photographs present the strange reality of life in Nagorno-Karabakh. Everywhere you look you see the traces left behind by the war. It is visible both in the landscape and in the faces of its people. The uncertain peace in the region hangs by a thread, and from his time spent with the soldiers, Pazoumian learned that they anticipate this ceasefire to break. “They told me that they were not afraid to be so close to the front and that if war broke out again, they would defend their families and their land at the cost of their lives,” he says. “The current situation is catastrophic for this region and the ceasefire does not mean peace.”
As such, Black Garden remains a constantly evolving portrait of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is both a documentation of its past and present, and an attempt to understand its future. In photographing the region over the past two years, Pazoumian captures a land in limbo, caught between its legacy of conflict and the promise of independence. The events of its founding are still taking place and the stories that will shape the identity of its people are still being written.
Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.