Hrair Sarkissian

Photographing warfare’s invisible toll

Hrair Sarkissian, Background (detail), 2012, series of six Duratrans, C-prints (blacklit paper), 79 x 90 1/2".

Hrair Sarkissian documents the conflict zones of memory. I first encountered the Syrian-Armenian photographer’s work in 2017 at Beirut’s Sursock museum, where he was showing the video Homesick, 2014, featuring himself demolishing a replica of his childhood home in Damascus. In 2019, I met Sarkissian in person at Videobrasil, which displayed an early series, 2008’s “Execution Squares”: eerie shots of vacant public hanging sites in Aleppo, Latakia, and Damascus. Sarkissian’s first mid-career survey, titled “The Other Side of Silence” and on view at the Sharjah Art Foundation until January 30, 2022, encompasses his most significant work from 2006 to 2021—including two new commissions—and finds the image-maker moving into the more elusive world of sound.

I DON’T KNOW if I would have become a photographer if it wasn’t for my father’s photo studio. As a child, I dreamt of dropping out of school and working with him. The studio would develop 2,000 films a day. It was the first color lab in Syria established in 1979. My Father & I, 2010, includes my dad’s own self-portraits from when he was fourteen to adulthood. That year, he decided to close the Sarkissian Photo Center because none of my siblings wanted to take over. So I flew to Damascus to document its every corner and asked my father to take pictures of me too, as a last client. It was the most intense, silent conversation I’ve had with my dad. We both knew we were closing a significant chapter of our lives and didn’t say a word. There’s blood in one of the images—before getting there, I had cut myself shaving.

“Execution Squares,” 2008, is perhaps my most well-known series. It was then that I began working with subjects that float between visibility and invisibility. “Unfinished,” 2006, one of my earliest, is presented here in full for the first time. It marks the transition from taking pictures just as a hobby to working on specific concepts such as sites of collective memory, absence, and erasure. I was under so much pressure in my life, and I wanted to liberate myself. I started to look for spaces in the Middle East that could be anywhere, without signs of traditions, places where I could be alone. Visually, I applied a religious kind of light that reminds me of old Armenian churches.

Hrair Sarkissian, Homesick, 2014, two-channel video, sound, color, 11 minutes 7 seconds.

The process of capturing an image varies from one subject to another. “Last Seen,” 2018–2021, for example, commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, took years of travel and research to meet individuals whose family members disappeared in times of conflict. While it took about five minutes to photograph the setting where the missing were last seen, it took much more to process the pain embedded in these stories. For me the image itself wasn’t important. I wouldn’t even try different angles, as the pain was visible from anywhere.

Why do I put myself in these kinds of situations? It is very hard. But rather than building walls and not doing anything, I think that this is a human pain we need to share so there will be more relief for the families who suffer, who are still trying to find out if their loved ones are dead or alive. I also wanted to learn about the history of how these mass kidnappings happened. I started in Lebanon, where I met ten families in Beirut. Most of them are women who lost their sons. After Beirut, I went to Brazil, Argentina, Kosovo, Bosnia. I wanted to go to Chile and Johannesburg, but I couldn’t because of the lockdown.

I have a very strong memory from 1997. I was with my mother at Deir ez-Zor, a pilgrimage site for Armenians and the endpoint of the death marches during the 1915–23 genocide, where their bodies were dumped, forming a natural hill in Markadeh. When you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll find pieces of bone. In recent years, ISIS has destroyed this genocide memorial. During my research, I came across the mass graves in Spain, the remnants of Franco’s fascist regime. People were organizing collectively with forensic archaeologists to excavate the bodies of missing relatives. I contacted a local organization [the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory] to attend one of the digs with a sound engineer. I didn’t want to incorporate imagery because I knew people would look away. I always work in large-format analog photography, but the installation Deathscape, 2020, is my first purely sound piece. Sound is a powerful way to recreate a space that is under the earth, where you can wander underground. People have the freedom to enter the piece, and to leave it.