Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova
Nazik Armenakian has been working as a photojournalist since 2002: three years with Armenpress news agency, then with Yerevan magazine and Forum magazine where she served as a photojournalist and photo editor. She did freelance work for Agency France-Press (AFP) and Reuters agencies. Currently she works as a photojournalist with ArmeniaNow.com.
From 2004-05, Nazik attended one-year course for photojournalism organized by the Caucasus Institute and World Press Photo. Since 2007 she became interested in long-term documentary projects. Her first long-term photo project, called "Survivors” includes portraits of survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey. In April 2009, her first solo exhibit in Yerevan featured the Survivors project. The same year she won the Grand Prix award and first place in the "People and Faces" category in the Karl Bulla International Photo Contest in Russia, and third place in the Portraits/Stories category in the Photojournalism Development Fund competition. In 2011 Nazik received scholarship in NYC from Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship in photojournalism and received the Productive Grant for photographers from OSI.
In Armenia – a post-soviet country with non-democratic heritage, the human rights issue is always under her attention. Currently she works on her second long term project about LGBT community in Armenia.
SB. How did you get interested in the project "Transgenders in Armenia" and why did you decide to dedicate yourself to it?
NA. I have been working on this project since 2010. First and foremost, it was interesting to me to explore my personal attitudes, as to how I treat them, since in society and in the mass media they are mainly portrayed in a negative light. People rule out the phenomenon, they say there should be no such thing.
Transgenders are a big part of my project about LGBT people in Armenia. Photographing transgender sex workers was a shock at first— unreal or, more accurately, surreal. I was shaken: they weren’t just a found object in photographic terms. It was a phenomenon that contradicted and negated all my previously held notions of man and woman.
SB. Your photographs are very intimate. How did you gain access and earn their confidence to be allowed to photograph even in their bedrooms?
NA. The most important thing was that I spent a lot of time with them. It seems as though a huge curtain opened in front of me. I began to feel good, to make contact, to take photos.
It was never easy, though. One of the transgenders, Layma, did not want to be photographed for six months. Then one day she asked me to come and photograph her in her bedroom.
The attachment among them surprised me. It seems they have some things in common: they all do one thing, they're all disavowed by the public, they all have grounds to work in the sex trade. Collecting their personal stories and long contact with them gave me more insight and trust, and I began to see the person inside them. I accepted them as people and moved away from the fact that they're sex workers. It was all about a third gender, becoming a woman from a man.
SB. Were some of the people you photographed afraid to reveal their sexuality through your photographs?
NA. Most of the LGBT individuals I photographed were not afraid. Usually, in the beginning they are not afraid to show who they are. But, often, later on they would ask me not to use their photos. My photos show and expose their personalities and sexual orientation. And sometimes these people are not ready to come out and be open. But, for example, when I photographed several young gay men I decided not to show their faces even when they agreed.
The transgendered I photographed were not afraid. They are worried about something else; about being seen without makeup. For them, being photographed is a way of establishing themselves among society.
SB. Homosexuality has been legal in Armenia since 2003. Do LGBT people have protected rights in your country now? How does this affect their lives?
NA. Since 2008, the Republic of Armenia has signed a number of international documents on sexual orientation and gender identity, in which elimination of all types of discrimination against LGBT people is outlined. However, sexual minorities continue to be under continuous threat. Those who are considered members of the LGBT community are constantly ridiculed and insulted by society and discriminated against. Unlike gay men, lesbians are less oppressed by society. Gay men are subject to physical violence in many cases.
Discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people begins in the family. Their parents, finding out that their child has another sexual orientation, begin to persecute him or her. For a long time, they attempt to "cure" their children, believing them to have a psychological disorder. They remove them from home or completely disown them. Then, discrimination continues in other stages of life, in other situations, in education, during military service, in seeking healthcare, in entertainment and, of course, in the mass media.
Compared to the last 5 years, the general public opinion has changed; more is said and raised about the LGBT condition. PINK Armenia (Public Information and Need of Knowledge) is an NGO that deals with LGBT rights. I have been working closely with PINK Armenia, which, for me, is very important in terms of being able to receive accurate information and approach the issue more comprehensively.
SB. What did the women you photographed tell you about the difficulty of life as a transgender?
NA. As they work very publicly it's hard for them to hide, wearing women's clothing they are often likened to non-trans female sex workers. However, unlike biologically female sex workers, transgender sex workers are always in danger and are frequently assaulted.
For example, 25-year-old Lorena grew up in an orphanage. She is very talented; she has good on-stage experience. She dropped out of the Yerevan Theatrical Institute; she took part in plays and in TV series. However, when they found out that she, who was then still a man, was gay, they stopped giving him roles. As a result, she has been engaged in sex work for 5 years.
SB. This year there were attacks in one of the gay bars in Yerevan. Is it known who did it and why?
NA. The bar that was attacked was a gay friendly pub called DIY. It was attacked by neo Nazi nationalists who threw a gasoline container into the pub, which caused an explosion. The pub burnt down as a result of the explosion and was finally shut down. One of its owners, who was lesbian, left the country after these events.
The reason of these attacks is obvious. Nationalists felt that this pub and friendliness towards the gay community should not be tolerated, so they felt it was their duty to destroy the pub.
SB. What has been the reaction the government and the public when a hate crime towards gay people happened?
NA. This attack on the bar caused a loud outcry in social media. People were separated into two groups: those who supported the nationalists and those who were against attacks on the DIY pub and gay discrimination in general.
The wave of discrimination continued during the diversity march organized by PINK Armenia, which happened on May 21, the World Day for Cultural Diversity. The participants were threatened by a group of nationalists who even outnumbered those who were marching.
The government did not support the LGBT community. Parliamentarians from two political parties publically condoned the crime [firebombing of DIY pub] because it was against LGBT Armenians, saying it was in line with "the context of societal and national ideology”. Many civic groups remained silent, afraid of supporting members of the LGBT community who had constantly been by their side during their own struggles.
SB. Do you believe that by documenting the conditions in which transgenders live you will contribute to the promotion of LGBT rights in Armenia?
NA. First of all, with my photos I wanted to show that LGBT people exist in Armenia, that they are around us. Photos are met with less aggression than people. I believe and hope that the display and continuous dissemination of photos of LGBT people will result in people becoming better acquainted with the faces and lifestyle of LGBT people in Armenia and, in the future, they will be more tolerant and accepting of the people depicted in the photographs.
Maga,19, in the club during a private party.