Diana Markosian reenacts her childhood to understand the choices that shaped it

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Markosian transforms her autobiographical photobook, Santa Barbara, into her first American solo exhibition opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This article is an updated version of a feature originally published in October 2020.

“You want to believe that your parents are heroes,” says Diana Markosian. It is a sentiment held by many; the urge to excuse those tasked with protecting us from the shortcomings afflicting the rest of society. Whether out of naivety or necessity, we brush over their weaknesses, accept their decisions, respect them, often unconditionally, until we grow up, and our age affords us some perspective: we realise that they, like us, are human.

Markosian takes this further. She does not just reflect upon her childhood through broken, hazy memories. Instead, she re-enacts it. Through film, photographs and a script, written in collaboration with a scriptwriter who inadvertently influenced her life by writing a soap opera that shaped it, she restages its beginnings to understand them. Santa Barbara published as a photobook by Aperture, and now opening as an exhibition of photographs, sets, objects, and a single-channel video at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the outcome. It tells the story of her mother, Svetlana, who, betrayed by her husband and disenchanted by her home amid the chaos of post-Soviet Russia, found solace in the dream of America. First, through the screen of her television and the 1980s TV series Santa Barbara, the first American soap opera broadcast in post-Soviet Russia and which millions of Russians watched religiously. And then via Eli: an older man from Santa Barbara, California, who replied to a classified ad she placed through a local agency, translated for newspapers in the US. “I am a young woman from Moscow, and would like to meet a kind man who can show me America,” it read.

Mom Alone. From Santa Barbara, 2019 © Diana Markosian.
From Santa Barbara © Diana Markosian.
My mother received dozens of letters from men in America — one was from a man in Santa Barbara, California. Eli, 65, promised my mom a new life in America. From Santa Barbara © Diana Markosian.

Eli provided a means of escape, and, in October 1996, waking her children in the night, Svetlana, Markosian, and her brother David boarded a flight to Los Angeles where he awaited. The man at the airport was not the handsome 50-year-old pictured in his photo, but an overweight retiree wearing a windbreaker, jeans and New Balance. Regardless, this was the family’s new life: a spacious Santa Barbara home, California’s golden glow, and the endless possibilities that America seemed to offer.

In Santa Barbara, which borrows its name from the soap opera that influenced Markosian’s life and the US coastal city to where her family immigrated, Markosian attempts to make sense of that history. The work comprises staged scenes from Markosian’s youth enacted by a carefully cast group of strangers alongside archival family pictures and ephemera. Film stills from the original Santa Barbara soap opera weave through the photobook’s pages, as does a script, written in collaboration with one of the show’s writers: Lynda Myles. Fact and fiction blend, as they do for anyone recalling that early period of life – hazy but so central to shaping who we become.

From Santa Barbara © Diana Markosian.

The script that runs through Santa Barbara, and which gives it structure and shape, begins as Markosian’s tumultuous childhood also began. The year is 1996, and the Soviet Union is over. Mikhail Gorbachev resigns, replaced by the democratically elected President Boris Yeltsin. The economy, already on the verge of disintegration, faces collapse, and despite the desire for economic reform, there is only chaos: widespread privatisation, inflation and poverty. In Moscow, where Markosian was born after her parents emigrated from Armenia, the family’s lives are in freefall. Her PhD-educated mother, Svetlana, an economist, supports her father, Arsen, an engineer with a PhD too, as he flogs homemade Barbie doll dresses on the black market and matryoshka dolls in Red Square. The marriage disintegrates and Arsen leaves for another woman. As the script describes: “The father leaves the family; the mother feels betrayed in every way; the children are confused and lonely. These events set the stage for the radical story that unfolds.”

And the story is a radical one; one that the Santa Barbara soap opera helped to shape as the golden Californian light seeped from the television set into Markosian’s mother’s Moscow apartment. Laden with lush palms, brilliant sea, and the lives of wealthy Californians, the 80s soap opera signified the American Dream for millions of impoverished Russian viewers, Svetlana included. “I want to be one of those people,” reads Svetlana’s lines as the script describes her children shouting to their mother before an episode of the soap begins. Later, we see a reconstructed photograph of Svetlana, Markosian and David, played by actors, nestled in the darkness, fixated on the television’s screen.

Moscow Breadline. From Santa Barbara, 2019 © Diana Markosian.
My Parents Together. From Santa Barbara, 2019 © Diana Markosian.
Mum and David after School’ from Santa Barbara, 2019 © Diana Markosian.

“The starting point was the script and the cast,” explains Markosian, reflecting on the book’s production. “Once those two things were established, I could start reimagining. I say reimagining because it feels like a time machine that I’ve created, which goes back to 1996 to that tiny apartment in Moscow, and the three of us watching Santa Barbara, and then boarding a plane and heading for California.”

However, for Markosian, casting and scriptwriting were a struggle. Finding the actors to play her family took almost a year; she auditioned 384 women for the role of her mother. Then she discovered Ana Imnadze. “I say that casting is like meeting a soulmate,” continues Markosian. “Once I met Ana, I knew I had a project; I knew I could tell my mum’s story.” Despite looking nothing like Svetlana, Imnadze embodied her mother’s background and spirit, hailing from the same part of the world, and also having a daughter, Maro Imnadze, who Markosian cast as herself. “I trusted the actress who played my mother more than I trusted myself to convey her essence, personality and courage,” she says. “I needed to find a person who would love my mum, who would love her character, and who would be able to fully convey the layers of her personality because it’s not an easy story.” Imnadze took complete control, refusing to act a certain way, or wear a particular outfit, if she thought the real Svetlana would not. Collaborating with her enabled Markosian to recreate her mother in a way a daughter could not alone.

From Santa Barbara © Diana Markosian.
From Santa Barbara © Diana Markosian.
From Santa Barbara © Diana Markosian.
A New Life. From Santa Barbara, 2019 © Diana Markosian.
Eli’s House. From Santa Barbara, 2019 © Diana Markosian.

Myles, who the photographer collaborated with on the script, also helped Markosian recreate her past from her mother’s perspective. Markosian believed Eli was a family friend until 20 years after the family first arrived in the US, when, aged 27, her mother finally revealed what had happened (Eli had left 12 years earlier, dropping the family at a motel, unable to “do this anymore”). Markosian struggled to accept this reality despite the sacrifices Svetlana had made for her children: “I didn’t want to believe that was the trade. I didn’t want to confront that as a daughter.” Myles brought a degree of distance, allowing her to tease out the darker, more painful, sides of what had happened.

The result is a complex and honest project: painful and beautiful at once. Markosian’s commitment to mining the deepest parts of herself to reconcile a history that shaped the course of her life gives the book its power. But so too does the story of her mother, and indeed the story of many other mothers, which sits at its heart: a story that is far from the Santa Barbara soap opera’s glossy world but instead shaped by necessity, pain and courage. “I chose to go back in time to see my story not through my point of view but through the point of view of my mother,” says Markosian. “Approaching that as a director, a photographer, and an artist, as a daughter, and a woman. That is what made it even more painful. Because suddenly it resonated with me in a different way.”

Santa Barbara is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 03 July to 12 December. Santa Barbara is published by Aperture.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.