If young photographers want to succeed, they would do well to heed this word of advice from acclaimed photographer Diana Markosian: Get as far away from the photo herd as possible. Go your own way.
“Part of what helps is not being in New York,” says Markosian, 24. “When you surround yourself with people doing the same thing as you, you’ll get trapped in the headspace of gossip, of being competitive, and of cliques. It’s kind of like high school, and I’m not interested in any of that.”
This epiphany came to her while working for a wire service covering the aftermath of a January, 2011, terrorist bombing in Moscow. Surrounded by seasoned wire photographers with the latest gear, she knew she couldn’t compete. She worked out that hard news wasn’t her thing. “I realized I sucked at news photography,” Markosian says with a laugh. “I needed to do what I was good at. I went to Chechnya two weeks later.”
The move paid off. When the name of the bombing suspect, Magomed Yevloyev, came to light, Russian authorities closed his village to outsiders and journalists. Markosian was undeterred, even after a photographer was arrested attempting to photograph the bomber’s family. At 6 a.m. one morning, as security guards prayed at the mosque, she slipped in, located the bomber’s mother Roza Yevloyev, made a portrait that became a Reuters photo of the year, and slipped away.
“The portrait got some recognition but more than that I realized this is what I had to do,” says Markosian. “I couldn’t be where everyone else was. I can’t be where everyone else is.”
She soon began her project Goodbye, My Chechnya about Muslim girls coming of age in Chechnya. It established her reputation.
Markosian’s work of emotional and political significance appears in news outlets across the globe. For all her talk of being an outsider, her resumé reads like that of someone annointed by the phototocracy. She’s picked up a Burn 2013 Emerging Photographer Grant, attended in the prestigious invite-only World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass, and recently got a nod at the Aftermath Project Grant.
She’s traveled to Armenia, followed the ancient Silk Road, and trekked overland into northeastern Afghanistan. In recent months, in her adopted home Burma, she has been making portraits of the energetic and diverse youth shaping the future of a nation in the early throes of democracy. Editors she once begged to take her calls now root for her success. She cites James Estrin of The New York Times as particularly supportive.
“They want to see you grow. They’re taking there time to look at your work and they want you to succeed,” says Markosian, who appreciates the straight feedback photo editors deliver. Estrin once told her he could publish a series of 10 photos that would work for him, but not for her. In other words, it wasn’t her best. So she returned to the field to flesh out the project, making it stronger. Another editor’s intervention brought her out of a post-break-up depression and inspired her to confront her most difficult assignment: Finding her estranged father. At the age of seven, Markosian’s mother brought her and her older brother to the United States from Armenia, an effort to end the pain caused by her absent husband.
Markosian flew with her older brother David to Yerevan, Armenia. When they knocked on her father’s door Markosian’s grandfather opened it. His son wasn’t home. They spent the longest hour of their lives sitting on the couch. When he finally returned, they spent another half hour convincing him they actually are his children. Once convinced, Markosian’s father, a writer, asked why they had not come sooner. That was in January, 2012. By June, Markosian moved to Armenia to rebuild her relationship. It was two months before she picked up her camera. Not just because she was sorting out her own head but because she was negotiating her mother and father’s feelings too.
“I didn’t want my father to feel I had betrayed him, but he saw how difficult it was for me. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I want you to feel comfortable doing what you feel comfortable doing. Do not worry about what I or your mother is going to think,’” says Markosian. “That allowed me to create from the heart.”
And so began a year of learning and self-examination that would result in My Father, the Stranger.
“I didn’t go in there thinking I’d do a project, I went in there to find my father,” she says. “I noticed myself slow down. Not shooting images every day. Not even caring about shooting. I’d lost my father and didn’t know anything about him. It was a gift to be next to him. There’s no image for that.”
Through her lens, Markosian came to terms with her loss; a loss that welled deep. The project resonated far and wide. Fathers wrote to Markosian describing their relationships with their daughters. Her father cried upon seeing the final edit. The photo industry responded as well, with the New York Times and Photo District News picking up the work. Markosian says it’s changed the way she operated.
“I don’t care about producing as quick; it could take a year or two to make something that matters to me.”
A willingness to embrace the unknown persists. Relocating to Burma was, at first glance, a strange choice — Markosian couldn’t relate to the people around her, couldn’t speak their language and didn’t relate to their history. It took a friendly English speaker her own age to ease her into the culture and drag her out of depression and self-doubt. Her new friend introduced her subjects ranging from political prisoners to the Lady Gaga of Burma.
“I’m meeting people my age who are actually doing things to change their country,” she smiles. “I care a lot more about people than I do about my images. I look at my images from Chechnya and they don’t even reflect how much joy that went into the work.”
Markosian’s short career has been one of stalking a subject and then ceding some control. She’s lucky that natural beginnings and ends for each of her projects have presented themselves. She’s allowing her life to dictate the images, rather than images dictate her life. As a youngster Markosian was a talented ballet dancer but a serious injury forced her out of the art. After that she decided she wouldn’t let one thing define her. Hedging her bets, she writes and teaches too.
“I don’t have the calling that I must just be a photographer,” she says. “I understand that this is what I’m interested in right now and that could change in five years and I’d be fine with that. Maybe I’m sounding like I have my shit together. Maybe I don’t? Maybe these portraits in Burma are no good? I’m actually excited about what’s happening. There’s so much opportunity to define photography. You do it first for yourself and then for a broader audience. Honestly, I don’t care where the industry is going. I care much more about where I am going.”
Brook, Pete. 2014. “Fantastic Photos of Chechen Culture From a Young Phenom”. Wired. Posted: February 17, 2014. Available online: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2014/02/diana-markosian/