For the past 11 years I have lived in Stepanakert, the capital of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, with my wife and two children. On April 2nd, 2016, the military conflict that brought the republic to life started again. On that same day, I was drafted as a private into the Karabakh Defense Army and placed at the most distant border outpost.

On that day, I “died”: died as a person, as a photographer, as a citizen…I accepted the thought that I wouldn’t exist in this world anymore. I turned into a tiny spot…next to nothing.

I hardly thought about home in the beginning; I almost forgot about it. It was the only way not to go insane. I had to defend this outpost and survive. Period. And then I found the way out of this inhuman situation, maybe the only way: I started to live for the sake of my younger brothers-in-arms, the 18-year-old conscripts. This is the point where I regained myself…the small spot that I had become started to grow.

I had no choice between the rifle and my camera—it was my duty to hold the Kalashnikov. Yet still I took photos. These images tell the tale of my journey, from photographer to combatant and back to photographer again.

—Areg Balayan

Editor’s Note: After Balayan’s project won 2nd place, series in the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic contacted him and offered to stage an exhibition. He is currently working out the details, so stay tuned…!

Balayan’s project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2017—don’t miss the work from all 44 of the outstanding, international talents!

If you’re interested in seeing more work on this and similar topics, we’d recommend the following articles: Fragments of Engagement, a series by a US Army soldier that is composed of manipulated video stills drawn from footage shot by soldiers in the Middle East; Only the Sky Remains Untouched, striking black-and-white portraits of Dutch soldiers suffering from PTSD; and Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s Sparks, portraits of the ordinary (and extraordinary) people who have been fighting the war in Ukraine.