Image making popped up during her graduate studies in Journalism at Columbia University. Since graduating in 2010, she has embedded herself in some of the world’s most remote regions, to create visual narratives that explore the relationship between memory and place.
Often driven by her own uncertainties and fears, Markosian is always on the hunt for new ways of seeing and thinking. “I am constantly searching for a moment of silence between myself and [my subjects]. It is an emotional process — all of my feelings revealed in a moment — in an image.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Diana Markosian: Four years.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
DM: Nearly one year.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
DM: I’m not sure if it’s so much a specialty as it is a connection I have with the work I create. If I don’t feel it, I don’t photograph it.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
DM: I’m not a very technical person so I can’t say much about my equipment, except that I travel with one camera and a fixed lens.
ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
DM: My work comes from within. I need to be emotionally connected and see some things beyond what everyone else is seeing. I don’t want my work to be good… I want it to be better. I am constantly pushing myself to think differently, to work with new mediums and collaborate with other artists to make work that is more dimensional.
ASMP: You grew up in California but are Armenian by birth and spent your early years in Russia. How, when and why did you come to the US? Please talk about your early experiences after making this move.
DM: I was born in Moscow just a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed. My family became desperate overnight. My mother eventually made the decision to move to America, where we spent the first few years learning to adjust. We didn’t speak English nor did we have much money. We shared a room in a shelter, while my mom worked at a department store, selling men’s ties. At this point, I lost all contact with my father.
ASMP: Your undergraduate studies were in history and international studies at the University of Oregon, and you only picked up a camera after you were well into a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. How have your studies in these other subjects informed your photography and storytelling?
DM: I studied history because I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be aware of the world and my role in it. I went on to Columbia to study journalism, and that is where I found photography. For so many years, I had pushed for something that never quite came naturally, but when I started shooting, I forgot about everything else. Photography became my past, present and future.
ASMP: As a photographer you’ve traveled widely, often to remote and unsettled places. What was your first trip as a photographer and how long was it for? In what ways has your work and your vision evolved since then?
DM: My first trip was to Russia. I had just graduated with my master’s degree and didn’t know where to begin. I decided to move to Moscow because I spoke Russian. I slowly started to find my way. I took a trip to Chechnya, which changed the course of my photography. I felt something there beyond the visual. It felt like home. It’s what brought me back again and again. I eventually based myself in Grozny, where I started working on Goodbye My Chechnya, a personal project on young girls coming of age in the aftermath of war. This piece established me as a photographer, but when I look at the images now, I don’t see myself in them. They are beautiful, but I want to go beyond beauty. I want my images to say something.
ASMP: What were your initial goals in starting your series Inventing my Father? Did those goals change over time?
DM: I didn’t approach this as a formal project. I had no intention of taking any images. When I met my father, I was numb to the entire experience. A part of me didn’t need a father, I told myself. I wanted to disappear so I wouldn’t have to confront it all. Photography allowed me to slow down and examine this part of my life that I had avoided for so long. I eventually moved in with him and started to get to know him. We began to take images of each other as a way of being together without the past intruding. The collaboration became a turning point in the way I approach my photography.
ASMP: What effect has the work from Inventing my Father had on your relationships with other family members? Did you get any pushback from others while doing this work or did this work help to bridge the divide?
DM: My family was very much against the idea, even though my brother made the initial trip to find my father. I think both my mother and brother noticed how much I had changed during the project. The experience broke something in me. On one hand, I had found my father, but I had also found a man who never quite existed for me. It all felt hurtful. And it is something I am slowly starting to understand for myself.
ASMP: In your series on the Beslan school siege, some of your photographs are collaged with survivor’s drawings of the past events. How did you get the idea to incorporate the drawings with your photographs? Had you ever used this kind of approach previously or did you have existing references for this kind of treatment?
DM: I wanted to move beyond a traditional form of storytelling, but I felt like I had hit a plateau with my work. I was not growing as a storyteller. When I began to work on School No. 1, I didn’t intend for the piece to be such a diverse set of images, but once I started learning about the event, I realized I couldn’t approach this story in the same way I had approached my past work. Early on, I spoke to psychologists who shared drawings made by the children in the tragedy’s aftermath. A brutal, simple drawing made by one of the survivors depicted the men killed. I used these drawings to create collages with my images, which allowed me to bridge the gap between subject and photographer. It was one way for me to illustrate something I couldn’t necessarily capture in my images.
ASMP: Were these drawings made immediately following the siege or more recently? How did the survivors react to seeing their drawings used in this context? Did it offer them any further closure from this experience?
DM: The drawings were made directly after the siege, as part of an art therapy session that every student underwent. I collaborated with the subjects in making the collages, which allowed them to express themselves in this piece. I think they felt grateful about the experience. Yet I am not sure if these students will ever have closure. The siege has defined the town, and there’s not one person who has not been affected on some level.
ASMP: In a past interview you noted, “Most of my work is driven by the things I think I cannot do. I like to push myself to be more dimensional as a photographer.” Can you describe a situation when you’ve pushed yourself in this manner and the resulting effect on your work?
DM: Every year I have a crisis. I want to sell my equipment, reformat all my hard drives and change my career to be a dancer. It is this sort of neurotic behavior that has allowed me to push myself beyond traditional photography to a method more reflective of me.
ASMP: Most of your work has a deeply personal expression to it. Please talk about the emotional impact your stories have had on you. What particular moments or subjects have affected you the most?
DM: It is not something I can describe. I am constantly searching for a moment of silence between myself and whatever it is I am photographing. It’s an emotional process, which transcends anything else I’ve experienced. It is ultimately an expression of myself: all of my feelings revealed in a moment, in an image.
ASMP: You recently spent six months living and working in Myanmar (Burma). What initially attracted to you to this region and led you to travel there?
DM: I had spent a year living in Armenia, getting to know my father, which left me emotionally exposed. I applied for a fellowship to Burma and when I got it, I decided to pursue this project. It was a breather. I worked on a piece, Burmese Nights for the New Yorker, which was picked up by a handful of other outlets.
ASMP: What, if any, preparations or negotiations were needed in order to photograph the military in Burma?
DM: I reached out to the PR department of the rebel army I wanted to profile. It was all a bit dodgy. I had e-mailed a few reporters beforehand, and when they gave me the green light, I was like, “All right, let’s roll.” A few days before my flight, I canceled the trip. I was scared shitless. I am not a conflict photographer. I have no interest in war, and there I was volunteering to go to a part of the world that is under an insurgency. I am still not quite sure what attracted me to go, but I wanted to take a chance on myself. I eventually re-booked the ticket and flew to China, where the rebels met me, and smuggled me into a part of the country that is otherwise inaccessible to outsiders. I was under house arrest for security for about a month, while working on the story.
ASMP: During past assignments, you’ve been detained by militia in Chechnya and deported from Azerbaijan. Based on these experiences, have you learned any strategies or do you have tips for others who might find themselves in a similar circumstance?
DM: Nobody can prepare you for this sort of work. It is something you learn as you go. I try to be as respectful as I can. I dress the way locals dress and I always carry a dummy card so I can swap it out if I’m stopped by officials. Perhaps I’m not as naïve as I used to be about my approach.
ASMP: How often do you confront language barriers during your travels and what steps do you take to build rapport when you don’t share a common language? Please describe any strategies you use to gain enough trust with subjects to make pictures.
DM: Most of my personal work takes place in Russia and the former Soviet Union. I speak fluent Russian, which helps me tremendously. Lately, I’ve been traveling to other parts of the world, where I need to hire fixers to help me. It is not something I’m used to, as it takes much longer for me to connect to the people I am photographing.
ASMP: What is your process for finding and securing trusted local contacts such as fixers, translators, drivers or security staff in remote, troubled or dangerous locations?
DM: I use Facebook as a Q&A. I usually post a status a month or so before my trip, asking if anyone has a fixer or translator they could recommend.
ASMP: You’re currently represented by Reportage by Getty Images. How and when did this relationship develop? Are there specific pros (or cons) to being represented by such a known photo industry entity?
DM: I’ve been with Reportage since 2011, when I joined their roster as an Emerging Talent. They’ve become my family. Jay Davies is my editor and has been one of my strongest supporters. I think with any agency, it is what you put in. There’s something quite comforting in knowing I have a team of professionals who support what I’m doing and are there to help me grow.
ASMP: Have you experienced any equipment malfunctions or complications due to issues such as insufficient power supply, moisture or other elements during remote assignments? If so, how did you resolve them?
DM: No. I’ve been particularly lucky with my equipment.
ASMP: What story or situation (either commissioned or self-assigned) has been your most challenging to date, and why?
DM: I’ve been working on a piece for National Geographic for the past year. When they approached me about the piece, I was a bit surprised. The magazine was not on my radar, and the topic was not one I had ever explored. I am now traveling across the world to photograph something that’s visually not there, and that is a challenge in itself. I have a week or so in each country, which means I have to be on from the moment I arrive. Unlike my personal projects, I don’t have as much time to feel, and for me that connection is a necessity, and doesn’t necessarily come overnight.
ASMP: What’s the favorite story or assignment you’ve covered to date?
DM: I am working on a piece about the Armenian genocide, which for me was nothing more than a vague historical narrative. I had no idea about the personal connection I would find in the process of creating this series. Once I started working on this piece it became so much more for me than a story about the genocide. I’ve traveled cross-country to find survivors who shared with me their memories before they escaped Ottoman Turkey. I traveled back to their homes, photographed those memories and brought them back to Armenia. This piece allowed me to have a conversation, which helped me to connect with a culture that once felt so distant.
ASMP: During a 2013 interview with the Photographic Museum of Humanity you say, “I have had to learn how to diversify my income, never relying on just photography to cover my expenses.” Please describe the income streams you’ve established to fund your work in addition to photography and how you’ve connected with these sources.
DM: When I was starting out, I never relied on photography as my only source of income. This has changed since four years ago, but I continue to juggle work. I speak at events, teach workshops and write stories to supplement my images.
ASMP: In today’s world, do you feel that being a woman is more of an advantage or a hindrance to working as a photojournalist?
DM: I personally think it’s an advantage, but it’s something I don’t want to focus on. It shouldn’t matter whether I am a woman or not.
ASMP: What’s been your most valuable business decision to date?
DM: Investing in my personal work.
ASMP: What’s the most important advice that you’d give a young photographer just starting out?
DM: You have to want it more than you are scared of it.
ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in ten years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?
DM: Four years ago I was a wannabe, and now I’m a photographer. I want to continue to grow and to go beyond what others expect of me. I guess that’s where I want to be in ten years — creating.