Diana Markosian is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker who creates work exploring her Armenian heritage and concepts of memory. In June 2016, she was announced as one of the newest Magnum Nominees. Below, she speaks with LensCulture Managing Editor Alexander Strecker about the development of her photo projects, her experience with Magnum thus far, and her breakthrough series, “Inventing My Father.”
LC: Your introduction to photography came in journalism graduate school. What resonated with you about the camera—about image-making rather than telling stories through words?
DM: Photography allowed me to be myself: I didn’t have to force things. I could take the time to learn things about the people and place I was in and then transmit my feelings in a way I couldn’t with words. My relationship to writing was always a bit different—it never came naturally to me.
LC: You could say you caught a “lucky” break when your work attracted the eye of a Reuters editor while you were in Russia. But I also think we make our own luck. Can you talk about the role chance plays in photography (and in life) and also how we can learn to take advantage of opportunities that are presented to us?
DM: I am not sure if it was luck. I’ve been fortunate, for sure, but I’ve also put myself in situations that most photographers wouldn’t want to find themselves in. I lived in the North Caucasus, away from everyone, for several years at a time when the region was experiencing an insurgency. It was unsafe as a woman. In retrospect, I am not sure what compelled me to be there. And yet, this is where I honed my aesthetic and had a chance to create my first body of work.
I was never commissioned to make any of it, especially the early stuff. I just went and did it. I didn’t have money, but somehow I made it happen. Not much has changed in that regard.
LC: A lot of people commend your work by speaking about the vulnerability it shows. Is that a conscious decision? Can you say more about how you get into a vulnerable space with yourself and your subjects?
DM: Being present is being vulnerable to me. I don’t need to be in pain, but I do need to care about what I am photographing. That’s the basic requirement. This goes for both assignment and personal work.
I need to have a connection with my subject that goes beyond the goal of simply making an image.
LC: To that point: your breakthrough series, “Inventing My Father,” was an incredibly personal work about your connection with a man you hardly knew. What did making such an intensely intimate series teach you? Did you have trouble following such a unique body of work with other photographs that were inherently less personal?
DM: I tried to shake it off, to move on from it, but I couldn’t. It felt like a movie clip. All I wanted was to turn it off, to do something else, but I found myself coming back to it. I think the experience broke something very deep in me, which has changed the way I see myself and my role as an artist. But it’s one of those things that has become a gift, you know?
Everything I’ve done since has touched upon the subject of memory through routes of the aesthetic, the ideological and the personal.
LC: What is it about Magnum that compelled you to go through the nomination process? What have you learned so far?
DM: Most of my time is spent on the road, away from everyone. I’ve found myself without a real home, or community, and I wanted to change that. It’s still so new, so I am not sure I have perspective on it yet.
LC: Finally, a lot of great photographers say that to pursue photography, it must be the most important thing in your life. Meanwhile, you’re more open-minded. I loved your quote, “I understand that this is what I’m interested in right now and that could change in five years.” I think many creative people feel that way about what they’re doing. Do you still find yourself so open to change, or are you beginning to narrow your focus?
DM: To me, the medium is irrelevant, especially when it limits you, your vision, and your growth as an artist.
I guess from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to create. That was the motivation for me. I’ve been fortunate with the projects I’ve taken on. They’ve allowed me to see the world, to understand myself a bit better, and to give back in a real way.
I am now on to something completely different: filmmaking. It’s terrifying. I know nothing about it, and yet here I am, directing. It’s this sort of feeling of not knowing that excites me. I guess that’s what I am most interested in. If I get too comfortable, if things start to become routine, that’s when I know things are off. I need to change it up, rethink a few things, or just do something else with my life.
—Diana Markosian, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: The 2nd annual Magnum Photography Awards are now open for entries! Alec Soth, David Hurn and Susan Meiselas—all Magnum photographers—will be judging entries alongside experts from National Geographic, Aperture and more. There are also a number of great awards. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.