Spotlight on Diana Markosian

Oringinally Published 08/20/2012

 
TID:
 
What a nice image. Please tell us a little of the backstory of the image.
 
DIANA:
 
I took this image at a high school gym in a tiny village where I profiled a group of young Muslim girls. The image is part of a larger body of work about youth in post-war Chechnya. This image shows a group of students stretching during gym class.  In today's Chechnya, it is unusual to see both boys and girls together during fitness class. The region is becoming much more gender- segregated with separate salons, ice skating rinks and fitness centres for men and women. The girls at this high school rarely attend gym class. They usually find ways of ditching, claiming they feel uncomfortable wearing gym uniforms in front of the boys.
 
This image for me illustrated current situation in Chechnya. The region is undergoing change. Much of it is happening overnight. It is becoming more conservative with the revival of Islam and strengthening of traditions. 
 
TID:
 
How did you end up in Chechnya? 
 
DIANA:
 
I was based out of Moscow and had been working in Russia for about six months before I took my first trip to the North Caucasus. I didn't have a specific assignment - I wanted an adventure. The news agency I worked for refused to send me. They told me I didn't have enough experience to work in a region as volatile and unpredictable as the North Caucasus. It is always hard to accept rejection. Yet it is important to recognize that there will always be people telling you what you can't do. You can't always listen to them. You have to follow your heart. I did. The story didn't get published for two years, yet the experience is something I will never forget. I felt something, it is the same feeling that brought me back to the region over and over again in the coming years. 
 
TID:
 
Since this is part of a larger project, can you talk about why you wanted to do this and what you hope to achieve by working on it?
 
 
(A couple on a date in the small village of Serzhen-Yurt, Chechnya. Couples must meet in public and sit a distance from one another. All physical contact is forbidden prior to marriage.)
 
 
DIANA:
 
My goal with this piece was to show a more intimate perspective on the lives and decisions of young Muslim girls who lost their childhood to war. I worked in the North Caucasus for about a year before I started this piece. It took me a while to find a story I wanted to pursue long-term.  I think the narrative eventually found me after I moved to the region.
 
I slowly started to recognize that being a woman in Chechnya often meant not having any rights. It's heartbreaking when you realize that society - because of its conservative traditions and religion - has often determined your future. Most of the girls I met in Chechnya never finished school. More often they used marriage as a gateway to independence and societal respect. The Chechen president himself has publicly stated that women are the property of their husband and their main role in society is to bear children.  
 
In the process of documenting this story, I also discovered an increasing amount of girls who are challenging the current social norms. They are activists in their own way as they tell a more forbidden tale, one that is behind closed doors. 
 
 
(Jamila Idalova, 15, on her wedding day. The teen bride was kidnapped by her boyfriend and his friends. Idalova's parents eventually gave their consent and she was married the next week.  Under strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, bride kidnapping is outlawed and captors are liable, in theory, to receive a fine up to 1 million rubles.)
 
TID:
 
What challenges did you encounter while working to make this project?
 
DIANA:
 
Working in the North Caucasus is unpredictable. There's a lot of suspicion on behalf of the authorities when it comes to journalists and human rights workers. It makes it challenging to operate in the region when you know you are being closely monitored or your phone is tapped, and at any point, for often no reason, you can be detained.
 
 
TID:
 
How did you handle and overcome these problems?
 
DIANA:
 
I don't think I ever learned to overcome any of it. I was detained about a dozen times and at no point did it get easier.  These experiences are intense, and undoubtedly take a toll on you.  I noticed myself becoming much more paranoid to the point that I was not able to trust anyone around me.  I didn't realize how much it all affected me until I came back to the States.  I was mentally screwed up for a while.  I didn't talk to anyone for months. All I wanted was to go back to Chechnya. I still often do.
 
TID:
 
That's very stressful. What was it like being detained, and how did you handle this?
 
DIANA:
 
It is terrifying. I try to be as cautious as I can - yet the region is complex and difficult to navigate on your own. Nobody can really prepare you for it.  I remember one of the first times I was detained. It happened at a check point on the Ingush-Chechen border. Authorities took my mugshot and asked me to go through a lie detector test. I sat in their "office" for about three hours before I could negotiate my way out. 
 
One of the officers asked me to take off my shirt and also pay a fee of 150 dollars. I felt so alone and terrified at this moment.  I took my passport out of his hand and walked out. It can be difficult working as a female in a male-dominated region especially when authorities are constantly trying to prove themselves. It is frustrating, naturally, but I try not to dwell on it. 
 
TID:
 
Now, onto the moment. Can you talk about the time leading up to the featured image?
 
DIANA:
 
I spent a few months photographing at this high school. The girls described gym class as being the worst part of their day. I was surprised by how casual and nonchalant all the students were about exercising in heels and skirts. It was pretty funny, actually. I had formed a pretty close friendship with just about everyone in this class, and it made this moment so much more natural.
 
 
TID:
 
What has surprised you about the project?
 
DIANA:
 
I never expected to find something so personal in a place like Chechnya. This piece became much more than a project. The region became my home. And the people became my friends. It's hard to explain to someone what made Chechnya so wonderful - it felt like a gift to be there. At a certain point, I realized it didn't matter whether I had a commissioned assignment, I had to be in Chechnya, and used every excuse to travel there before eventually moving to Grozny. 

 
(Chechen dancers backstage at a concert hall in the Chechen capital, Grozny. A suicide bomb attack at the concert hall killed at least five people and wounded several more.)
 
TID:
 
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making images like this? What have you learned about others?
 
DIANA:
 
It is challenging to move to a war-torn region and understand what people have experienced.  It took me a long time before I started to empathize with the stories I would hear.  I remember being extremely upset with myself for not being able to relate. I started writing things down, my feelings, their experiences and how they contrast. There came a certain point when I started to allow myself to be vulnerable. I wanted so badly to experience their struggle.  It is almost as though I allowed myself to be human. It is a strange thing to say, but I think for a long time I used my camera as a shield. I am not interested in doing this anymore. I want my work to come from the heart.
 
TID:
 
This is an interesting choice of words. Why did you say this and what do you mean by it?
 
DIANA:
 
You have to be a person before you are a photographer. My commitment and passion for this profession doesn't come from creating images. It comes from building relationships and doing justice to the story through the people who allow me into their lives. 
 
 
(At sunset in the outskirts of Grozny, Kazbek Mutsaev, 29, fires celebratory gun shots as part of an age-old wedding tradition in Chechnya.)
 
TID:
 
In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers?
 
DIANA:
 
Pursue stories you care about. Allow yourself to be in the moment. Photography is not about the images. It is about the people, and the journey you take to create them.
 
 
:::BIO:::
 
Diana Markosian is a documentary photographer working in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Her reporting has taken her from the remote mountains of Dagestan, to the ancient Silk Road in Tajikistan and overland to the perilous landscape of Afghanistan. Markosian's work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Foto 8, Time.com, The London Times, Boston Globe, MSNBC, Human Rights Watch, amongst others.
 
She hold a masters from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
 
You can view more of her work here: www.dianamarkosian.com
 

 

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