The Yeramishyans: Father and Son Chroniclers of War
It was 1992. Stepanakert, the Artsakh capital, was being shelled.
Electricity was provided for only a few hours a day, or not at all.
Photographer Ashot Yeramishyan would take his large generator to the communications unit for recharging. At first, he would pay a soldier ten rubles. He then refused to pay, saying that the generator wasn’t to light the house but for the laboratory. The soldier didn’t argue.
The laboratory was the bathroom, where the photographer would develop hundreds of photos. Daily, a minimum of twenty people would come to get photos. Yeramishyan would give them away for free.
During those years, people would affix the photos of soldiers who died in Karabakh on their chests, as a display of respect. Ashot’s son Armen says that he would develop the photos since his dad was always on the frontline.
1993 – Stepanakert Memorial Complex (Brothers’ Cemetery)
I met up with the Yeramishyans in a neighborhood of Stepanakert full of holes. Heavy rain would turn the holes into small lakes.
66-year-old Ashot Yeramishyan is a quiet man. His photos do the talking for him, recounting the story of his life. His eldest son 37-year-old Armen requests that we don’t write about him. A few days later, he telephones with the same request.
Armen, then twelve, says he doesn’t remember much from the 1990s Artsakh War. His father was taking the photographs. During the recent round of fighting this past April, it was Armen.
Camera film in the hands of a Moldovan: From Aghdam and Kirovabad
“When they ask what positions I visited during the war, I respond, “From the Mrav Mountains to the banks of the Araks River.” He adds that there would be snow on the Mt. Mrav one day and hot along the Araks the same day.
Prior to the Karabakh Movement of 1988, Ashot worked at a factory in Stepanakert. He dabbled in photography and later opened a shop in Stepanakert. After fighting broke out, he and other guys from Stepanakert load weapons in cars, and take them to defense units throughout Karabakh. But, he kept busy with photography.
In December 1992, he became an army photographer and was stationed in Stepanakert. Starting in March 1993, he became the staff photographer for the army’s newspaper Martik (Combatant).
When I ask how many photos he took during those years he says there were many, adding that he’s lost count.
Back then, he used a Zenit camera. None of the fancy equipment used today. He’d print the photos using a hand scan. When those scans were taken quickly, people’s faces would get lengthened. Laughing, Ashot recalls that the guys on the front would ask why their heads and faces came out elongated.
1993 – Alashan (Martakert region)
They would buy blocks of camera film from the stores. Initially, during the fighting, Karabakh was blockaded. Ashot would buy his equipment and accessories from Aghdam and Kirovabad via a Moldovan officer in Stepanakert. He’d have to buy for it all.
January 1993 – Combatants of the Central Defense Region at the approach to Mehman (Martakert region)
These war chroniclers show no emotion when talking about their craft.
“But you’re human, no? All those dead and wounded. What do you feel?” I ask father and son.
Ashot lights a cigarette but doesn’t respond. Armen confesses that he experienced some internal turmoil while covering the fighting in April of this year. One the one hand, he felt bad photographing those young men with weapons doing the fighting.
“At the time, what I was doing felt sort of like a game. It got to a point that I wanted to toss my camera aside and pick up a gun,” Armen says.
In war, the danger is everywhere
Noting this truism, Ashot Yeramishyan remembers calmly going up to the frontline positions only to suddenly to find himself caught in a barrage of shells.
February 1993 – Lyulasaz (Martakert region)
“We were in Lyulasaz village (presently Varnakatagh-MM). We were told that there was an injured guy. The ambulance driver said we should go and fetch him. I said, let’s go. It was a machine gunner. His arms were hit. I used a telescopic lens to capture a natural photo. We put the guy in the vehicle when I saw an armored vehicle that had just been hit. I told the driver to wait a second so I could grab a shot. Just as I was removing my equipment from the bag, it was hit again. Luckily, there was soft dirt all around. If the site was rocky, we’d have gotten hit with the debris. The shell sent a shock wave that engulfed us. I somehow took a photo,” recounts Ashot.
“When a war starts, it doesn’t matter if you are a photographer or a chauffeur…You are in real danger,” Armen notes.
Spring 1993 – Monte Melkonian (Avo) at Drmbon (Martakert region)
“It was three in the morning, just before the push to liberate Karvatchar. I told Avo that I wanted to photograph him next to the map. He said, “What should I say?” Then he pointed to the map and said that they would take it all. I saw Avo twice during the war,” Ashot recounts.
February 20, 1995 – General Ivanyan turns 75. Metzshen village (Martakert region)
Ashot says he photographed General Kristapor Ivanyan on his birthday. (Ashot was born on the same day).
April 1994 – Armenian soldiers at Martakert TV antenna
Ashot was at the post near Martakert TV antenna when Azerbaijani aircraft started to bomb. He remembers quickly trying to take some shots. One of the guys told him to wait, that he could get hit with flying shrapnel.
April 1994 – Shelling of Martakert
Back in the day, it was difficult to quickly capture images. “Isn’t it a pity now? You can snap a photo in a second,” Armen observes.
Ashot says that during the fighting he would often run out of film. He had made a contraption that let him change film without exposing it.
1994 – Maghavouz (Martakert region)
Even though they issued Ashot a gun during the war, the photographer never carried it. He said he kept it under a blanket in his house. His son corrects him, saying that he took it to the front once and forgot it there.
Many of the guys, both during the 1990s war and the April fighting, would come to have their picture taken. Ashot remembers that his editor had told him to take photos of all those who requested one.
“You take photos and don’t know if it will be their last one,” Armen says. He recounts that he took a photo of a soldier before this past New Year’s and that person was the first to be killed this year. Armen says he cannot describe how he feels when this type of thing happens.
Here are links to Armen’s photo collections:
20th Anniversary of Artsakh Tank Unit
Photography as inheritance
Ashot Yeramishyan retired as a photographer with the NKR Defense Army in 2006. His son Armen replaced him. Armen remembers being asked at the interview by Minister of Defense Seyran Ohanyan if photography was as inherited profession.
Armen says he’s always been interested in photography and says that the profession has its principles, one being never cause harm to anyone.
December 1993 – Armenian doctors operate on captured Azerbaijani soldier
“Prior to war erupting, no one can say what they will do during battle. This recent fighting taught me this,” says Armen.
He still works for the Martik newspaper. Armen’s father still takes photos. During the April 4-day war, they traveled to Talish (NKR) with the photographer Max Sivaslian. (Max is called Arshak in Karabakh)
Top photo: August 1993 –British journalist Philip is terrified when an Armenian tank launches an attack on an Azerbaijani tank. (Marzilu, Aghdam region)
Below are Ashot Yeramishyan’s photos