It was a photograph of a man and a woman that prompted French photographer Rebecca Topakian’s first journey to her ancestral home of Armenia. A formal family portrait, the man standing on the right is Topakian’s great-grandfather, Garabad. The woman on the left is his wife, and namesake of the project: Gulizar. Behind the photo lies an illicit love story: one of the only things that has endured from the photographer’s family history on her Armenian side. Emigrating to France from Turkey as a result of the Armenian genocide, little else is known about her family’s former life. For Topakian, the near-mythic love story of her great-grandparents—that of a meat merchant who, forbidden to marry Gulizar the princess, captured his future wife on a horse during the dead of night—shaped much of her relationship to her fatherland as a distant and mysterious place.
Interested in the relationship between the individuals and their wider community, Topakian’s previous projects have ranged from stalking nightclubs—capturing both individual moments of euphoria as well as the heaving crowd—to tracing the link between the past and present in Palestine and following the punk scene in Cuba. Dame Gulizerand and Other Love Stories marked a return to her own roots which, up until now, belonged more to her imagination than to her reality. “There were so many things that I don’t know. I’m still wondering how part of my family, like my great grandparents, stayed in Istanbul at that time,” she says. “How and why did they survive? I know that my grandfather went to see his parents, but he never talked about it. What did he experience in Istanbul?”
But how to forge a personal relationship with the story of your past, particularly when discovering it for the first time? How do you navigate this unknown terrain and find a way to tap into the past from your position in the present? For Topakian, the guiding thread emerged out of a parallel love story of her own. During her first trip, where she aimlessly photographed the landscape in search of a connection to her ancestor’s homeland, the photographer had a romantic experience with a man she met there. Far from the fairytale of her grandparents, the encounter exposed the underlying current of misogyny and patriarchy at play in Armenian society. “I realized then that it was really important, because my relationship to Armenian identity is also my relationship to the men in my family,” explains Topakian. “It was my father and my grandfather. And so everything started to link together.”
In a bid to reassert some sort of control over the situation and subvert the gender dynamic, Topakian photographed her lover in a state of vulnerability and intimacy. Told from Topakian’s perspective, the crux of Dame Gulizer and Other Love Stories soon became a powerful ode to the woman of the family, in some ways dedicated to the hazy figure of her great-grandmother in her family’s history. “We don’t talk much about her, and it’s been very hard for me to find out what her last name was before she got married. Nobody knew it,” she says. “I was thinking of this woman who was just an image we know very little about.” In boldly examining masculinity through her lens, Topakian builds a portrait of contemporary Armenia from her position as a woman.
The result is an intimate combination of vast landscapes and tender portraits of men in the private, personal space of Topakian’s bedroom. Working from her first romantic encounter, the photographer began to create fictional love stories, calling out for male models on Tinder. The brutal reality of military conscription that plays into the construction of masculinity is suggested both in the portraits, but also in the landscapes which nod to Armenia’s turbulent past as well as its ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan. “When they’re 18, all the guys go to the army for two years. It’s very, very hard because they’re malnourished and treated terribly. A lot of them die. It’s usually during those moments when they really build this masculinity—they go there as kids and when they leave it’s like they’re 10 years older,” she says.
Aside from the current context that Topakian encountered, traces of Armenia’s past also feed into her understanding of her family history and speak to their displacement in Europe. “For me, I really want these images to act like symbols, a bit like how we use words in poetry instead of prose. I think these images of the army talk about Armenian conscription as a community,” she explains. “But they also talk about the violence that shaped the past history of Armenia; the genocide and the reason why my grandfather arrived in France. So sometimes, some images are used to give a feeling of something, but not in a precise way. To incite the idea of violence or tension.”
Mainly based in the capital city of Yerevan, the photographer also spent a lot of time travelling to the countryside to make images that evoked the importance of land—for her personal family history, but also to speak to the loss of land experienced by Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Sourcing native stones and rocks from the landscape, Topakian used liquid emulsion to print archival photographs onto the natural material. In combination with images of her journey and encounters, her family’s story is embalmed into these hybrid-objects.
Currently working on a book of the project, Topakian has exhibited the project in Armenia, following a residency in Yerevan and a grant from the Armenian Art Foundation. Looking in on the country from the perspective of a member of the diaspora, the photographer gives a different view on some of the burning issues facing Armenian society today. “It was really interesting. Some young photographers that were around 20 years old told me, ‘It’s so cool you’re changing all the symbols that are Armenian, because usually it’s very conservative. You’re helping to build a new imagery.’” And that’s exactly the point.