This week’s episode of Overheard at National Geographic us a profile on National Geographic photographer Diana Markosian. Hosted by Peter Gwin, “When Family Secrets (and Soap Operas) Fuel Creativity” not only highlights some of her incredible work, but also her personal story.
Raised in Moscow, at age 7 Diana remembers being woken up in the middle of the night by her mother and taken to the airport with her older brother. She wasn’t told where she was going and they ended up landing in Santa Barbara, a location familiar to her family from a 1980’s soap opera that aired in Russia. Waiting for her mother at the airport was a man named Eli, who was older than the photographs he had sent her.
What Diana’s mom hadn’t told her is that after the collapse of the Societ Union, she was looking for a way out of Russia and began correspondence with American men to get her and her kids out. Over the years, Diana grew up, went to school for writing, and discovered her love of photography.
“When I finished my master’s, I remember meeting with a young photographer who said that I should move back to Russia,” Diana shares in the episode. “And I just remember saying, I don't really know anyone in Russia. And he said, Well, you'll meet someone. That was on a Monday. And on a Friday I had a one-way ticket to Moscow.”
Following a terrorist attack in 2011, Diana traveled to Chechnya in an effort to photograph the bomber’s family. Another photographer had already been detained trying to take the same photo, but she was able to get through, meet with the family and capture an image of the bomber’s mother praying over his empty bed, apologizing for what her son had done. She sent the photo off before her return flight and by the time she reached Moscow, it was the photo of the month at Reuters.
While living in Moscow, Diana had considered trying to find her father. She had even found her old childhood home and went to see it, but the memories were too painful. It turns out her father didn’t live there anymore anyway, but her brother knew where to find him. Together, they went to the door and knocked and an old man answered, who Diana realized was her grandfather. She was soon reunited with her father.
“Hearing my dad’s story, I think, helped quite a lot, because my dad had a suitcase of all these items he had collected when we disappeared,” Diana recalled. “That suitcase of things that my dad collected for us was kind of the opening that allowed me to understand that I mattered to my dad, that he loved me, that those 15 years weren’t just, you know, spent forgetting me—but he was searching.”
Her family whole again, Diana recalled a particularly meaningful assignment from her time in Russia. She was commissioned by a foundation to find the remaining survivors of the 1915 Ottoman Empire genocide who fled from Turkey to Armenia. There wasn’t a list, so she used voter registration and birth records as her starting point. “I found 10 survivors. And by the time that I had created their portraits and gone back, only three of them were still alive. So this is about nine months later. And when I started interviewing the survivors, they felt like grandparents. And, you know, I was separated from my history in a way, because we didn't grow up feeling Armenian, Russian. I grew up feeling American.”
Diana sympathized with the survivors’ longing to go back and see what the homes and villages of their youth looked like. Photography provided her a way to bring their place of birth back to them in the form of 3-meters-tall billboards she created from her photographs. Through this project, she summed up what makes her work so important: “It's this feeling of this ability to go back in time, to understand something for yourself and bring it back to the present. I think that has been the biggest gift photography has given me, is a second chance to really understand my place in the world and how I relate to it—and how I can do that for those that I photograph as well.”
You can learn more about Diana Markosian by visiting her personal website. Her film, Santa Barbara, is now playing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography in New York.
Click here to listen to Overheard at National Geographic.
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).