The photographer retraces the migration routes of her family, from Georgia to Armenia to Russia
Images of splits and fissures recur throughout Lilith Matevosyan’s series I had left my home early in the morning – the cracked facade of a church, the shadows scoring lines through faces in old pictures, a double bed split in two. “I just always seemed to come across them,” she says. “And I’m sure they will keep finding me until the end of this project.”
Matevosyan was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1989, just two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The period of unrest that spread all around the Caucasus in the wake of the historic event prompted her family to move to Armenia soon after. However, this was a place still devastated by the 1988 earthquake, and “electricity, food and hope” were scarce, she recalls. Finally, some years later, the family settled in Sakhalin, an island in Russia. “We still had to face a dangerous 90s there though,” she says. “That decade is considered a fraught period for everyone living in the post-Soviet realm.”
With a life so rife with twists and turns, it is no wonder Matevosyan began seeking a way to chronicle how her personal history unfolded against this backdrop of major events. She had always wanted to make a book about her family, and photography became crucial to the process. “I started to recreate a map of the migration of my relatives, and the most obvious place to begin collecting information was Tbilisi, because our old house, archives and letters remained undisturbed there,” she explains. And so it was that on her 25th birthday in 2014, Matevosyan set off for Georgia’s capital to excavate her past. She took a camera along to get to know long-lost relatives, and while not many of these early images appear in the final edit, they inspired a lot of later work.
The photographer has since taken a number of trips across the region. She usually travels alone, but one time, her father asked if he could accompany her to Armenia. “It became one of the most crucial moments in the creation of this work,” she says. We see her father in some of the scenes, resting in a sleeper train, and tracing parts of a map with his old hands.
Elsewhere, the pictures include vast, empty landscapes in grainy black-and-white, and intimate colour portraits of her relatives in domestic settings. The decision to mix different types of pictures came to her when sifting through archive photos from her family album, she explains. The nostalgic assortment of old pictures inspired her “to search for a similar sense of time passing in modern Georgia”. Alongside her stills, she records film footage, keeps a diary, and creates collages too; it’s about getting tactile with the material.
Matevosyan is now preparing to embark on another round of trips in order to create the third and final chapter of this project. “I’ve been thinking about the idea of migration and losing one’s home a lot, and I like that I cannot answer a question as simple as ‘Where’s your home?’ right away.” Perhaps the most powerful thing about mining her family history, she says, has been witnessing how it has shaped her identity.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London