A photographer challenges bias and hate in Yerevan
I didn’t know much about Yerevan’s LGBT community when in, in 2010, I decided to start documenting their everyday lives.
But like everyone else in the city, I knew that there was a park called Komaygi in front of the mayor’s office where cross-dressers and transgender people — many of them sex workers — gathered at night. I wanted to find out who these people were. Once in a while, their stories would catch the attention of the media, but only when some fervent defender of public morality physically attacked a cross-dresser, or a politician issued a call to cleanse the park of so-called immoral people. Otherwise, we knew nothing about them.
The first night I arrived in the park, I was immediately surrounded by people. They asked me why I was there and what I wanted. I told them that I simply wanted to photograph. Many wanted to know how much would I pay them. I said that I didn’t pay the people I photographed. One of them, Lorena, said that she didn’t mind.
We met at an apartment. It belonged to Layma and Lorena, and four other people lived there too. At first I was terrified. I didn’t know what sort of people I was dealing with. All I knew was that they were sex workers, who received several clients a day there.
I was not free from prejudice myself. When I first met them, the encounter made me feel dirty. We just talked about their work – the clients, how it worked. Going back to my family home afterwards, I found myself wanting to shower.
But months went by and I carried on, going deeper and deeper into their world. I was with them not just at the park and in their homes, but in nightclubs and parties and strip bars. As I got to know them better, I began to feel cleansed of that dirty feeling.
Lorena and I became particularly close. I was taken aback by her femininity. She was so skilled at applying make-up, much more skilled than I am. She did it slowly, sometimes for several hours at a time. At first, it seemed to me that carefree Lorena was happy in her life. At night she would open up like a flower. But the better I got to know her, the more I noticed her sudden drops in mood.
Lorena grew up in an orphanage. She loved to act in children’s plays, pretending to be sly or ruthless, funny or sad. She took part in all the performances. In third grade at the orphanage, she was raped.
She made it through high school and passed the entry exams for the Theater Institute in Yerevan, but during her second year, she dropped out of drama school. She could not afford the tuition fees, and she felt she was different from everyone else. She was 20 years old when a friend introduced her to the park, where someone approached her and told her that she would make “a beautiful trans person.”
There were many visitors at Lorena and Layma’s apartment. One day I met Kara. She was the newcomer to the group and the youngest, with beautiful eyes.
When I was photographing Kara, Lorena came in the room; she seemed jealous that I was showing interest in the newcomer, but only for a moment — then the jealousy passed. Lorena sat down and began to watch me work with the camera. We took a break and Kara sat down on her knees and put her head on Lorena’s lap — I snapped a photo. It’s my favorite picture. What is this other than warmth between different generations? In this world they only have each other; can they only get warmth from, and console each other?
For the first six months of this project, Lorena’s flatmate Layma didn’t want to be photographed. Then one day she asked me to come and take her picture, opening up to me in a way that I never expected.
As I got closer to this community, I wondered more and more about how would I display their photographs. I knew Armenian society was not ready for them. I knew it because friends had turned away from me even while I was undertaking the project, warning me not to destroy my reputation.
When I felt the project was ready, I started approaching galleries, but not a single one would exhibit it, even ones who had previously shown my works. In the end, I rented an apartment and held a one-day exhibition. It was by invitation only, and even then I didn’t feel it was safe to invite Lorena, Layma, Kara.
I did find another way of displaying the photographs, however. In December 2013, with the help of a small grant from the Open Society Foundations, I self-published a book of photographs, The Stamp of Loneliness.
Only one bookstore in Yerevan agreed to carry the book. Despite this limited distribution, a local politician denounced it on Armenian public television as Western propaganda. A storm of hate messages followed on Facebook. On social networks I was called a foreign agent, one who spread “gay propaganda.” I received messages saying that I should be burned alive together with the people I photographed. I was called a traitor.
Perhaps the worst aspect of these threats and accusations was that so many came from artists and people that I used to respect, and this filled me with doubt. I’d never wanted to be an activist. There was a moment when I thought I shouldn’t have done the project, a moment of fear for my reputation as a photographer. I felt afraid, and anxious about the effect it would have on my family. I sunk into a deep depression. I closed my Facebook account, refused interviews and stopped talking about the subject altogether.
But in the end, I took comfort in the fact that a negative discussion is better than no discussion at all. And I believe the project made me a better photographer — more tolerant, and more compassionate. I realized that I could work anywhere, with anyone.
The book also brought another tangible result. Layma and Lorena moved to Europe, and used the book during their visa interviews. I still talk to Lorena often. I think she is happier. She got residency, and is looking for a job. However, nothing has changed for Kara and the others who stayed behind.