By James Estrin
John Stanmeyer crouched under a rock on the border between Armenia and Turkey to avoid a rainstorm in April 2015. From his vantage point, he could make out the remains of a decaying, centuries-old bridge that once linked the two countries. “I was deeply saddened on a more profound level then I’ve ever been” he said. “I looked at the bridge that used to link two beautiful people and I thought that there had to be something more to do.” His ambitions were large: nothing less than fostering understanding, ending mistrust and “building peace between two beautiful nations,” he said. But from decades of photographing, he knew that there was “too much madness, indifference and pain” for a single images rarely to bring about significant change. His goals were well beyond what he could accomplish alone. . . .
Instead, Mr. Stanmeyer recruited Anush Babajanyan, an Armenian photographer, and together they created Bridging Stories, a program that trains young Turks and Armenians to photograph their daily life with cellphones and share them on an Instagram in order to further understanding between their people. They enlisted Serra Akcan, a Turkish photographer, to help implement the project.
“We are neighboring countries, but because of our history we don’t know much about each other,” said Ms. Babajanyan, a founder of 4 Plus, an Armenian women’s photo collective. “What we learned in history classes and through government propaganda can affect our attitudes towards our neighbors without us knowing one individual from the other country.”
Bridging Stories recruited two dozen Armenians and Turks between 18 to 23 years old and brought them together in Dilijan, Armenia, for a weeklong training session and discussions. By photographing what they saw in their hometowns and sharing on social media they realized they had much in common, Ms. Akcan said. In time, some of the young participants also realized they had their own prejudices, she aid.
“When we’re talking about the long-lasting aftermath of a conflict, these kind of projects are very important because they connect us to what is most human,” Ms. Babajanyan said. “This comes from within ourselves, not from above or from any government, and that’s the truest, purest way to change.”
Their photographs from the past five months are being exhibited in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. To emphasize the similarities between the countries, the captions are covered so you see the images first, before lifting a lid to read where they were taken. A similar exhibit was to be held in Istanbul this month but was canceled because of security concerns after the assassination of the Russian ambassador. Instead, a book of photos will be published in Armenian, Turkish and English later in the year. The project was funded by the United States Embassy in Yerevan.
Ms. Babajanyan and Ms. Akcan have participated in collaborative projects between Armenian and Turkish professional photographers before. Mr. Stanmeyer, a founding member of the photo collectiveVII, had worked on a similar program with Israeli and Palestinian youth. They are planning to expand Bridging Stories and make it more than a one-time event, Mr. Stanmeyer said, in order to reach a larger audience and have real effect. He said that “Monumental change” has to come from the people of Turkey and Armenia. “Who else to tell the story of human indifference and human weakness, than those who are affected by it?”
Sonia Katchian Denver/Chapel Hill February 5, 2017
Thank you, John Stanmeyer for your insight and generosity of vision and spirit. In the case of working to heal the rift between Armenians and Turks, every small and big effort helps. Yours was a brilliant idea, and I'd love to see the exhibit tour the world to cities where there are populations of Turks and /or Armenians. It would offer a fresh syntax to both nationalities, who are stuck in their respective emotional ruts 100 years and counting. photoshuttle.com
Jack Kalpakian Ifrane, Morocco January 25, 2017
Mr. Stanmeyer should have funded his project out of private funds. It is being supported by US taxpayer money, and herein lies my objection. The project seeks to equate the victims of a genocide whose effects are still very real and ongoing with the the descendants of the perpetrators. In short, this is, as far as I am concerned, propaganda that further disadvantages Armenian people. It is not welcome, especially because it is being funded by US taxpayer money, which should have been spent on some more tangible and useful things in Armenia.
Karni Karasarkissian Beirut January 25, 2017
The problem isn't with the Armenian Government or the people of Armenia....the problem is with the Diaspora...after all we lost family members and cities....to start a bridge between us and them first they should take some positive steps towards recognition after that step they can talk about bridges
R Karamanli January 26, 2017
It takes two to tango. But I agree with your comment on the diaspora. The people in Armenia want only peace and good relations with their neighbors. It's the diaspora who is creating, cultivating and funding the animosity between the two communities and countries.
John Izmirlian Bradenton, Florida January 24, 2017
Stanmeyer's project will accomplish nothing unless the government of Turkey admits it's culpability for the genocides of 1896 and 1915 and offers some types of reparations to the Armenian community.
R Karamanli January 26, 2017
Yeah, the Turks are waiting for some type of reparations as well. Let me know when the payment is done.
Spencer Petersen Pittsburgh, PA January 24, 2017
This project is a great example of grassroots activism, though I think it's really something more organic. I love the idea that citizens can work on change from below, hopefully affecting political relations for the better.