French photographer Nicolas Blandin's first memory of the Armenian town of Spitak was from childhood. “I was 7 years old when I first heard Pour toi Arménie, the charity song written by Charles Aznavour to raise funds for the Armenians who experienced the 1988 Spitak earthquake. We had the 7-inch record playing at home,” he remembers. He couldn’t have known back then but over two decades later he would visit Spitak himself, led by a passion for using photography as a way of exploring complex human stories.
“In 2013 my girlfriend and I received a postcard depicting Mount Ararat, a snow-capped volcano considered a national symbol in Armenia,” Blandin recalls. “That postcard sparked my first hitchhiking trip through Armenia in September 2013, during which we connected strongly with the people. My curiosity was piqued by the architectural patchwork of Spitak’s neighborhoods, built by different countries donating money in the aftermath of the quake. I also heard a few personal stories and really wanted to learn more about the place and the people. And so I seized a volunteering opportunity at Spitak’s YMCA and came back in February to March 2014 to make the images that compose Shift.”
Spitak has around 15,000 inhabitants and is located in the Lori province in northern Armenia, on the road and railway that connect the capital Yerevan with Georgia. Spitak was the closest city to the epicentre of the 1988 Armenian earthquake which devastated the north of the country. The earthquake resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of many towns and cities. Over a quarter of a century later the traces of the earthquake in Spitak are still visible.
“The scars left by the earthquake are still palpable on a physical, economical and emotional level. To begin with, the city never recovered economically from the disaster and its reconstruction is still very much in progress, mainly with the financial support of the Armenian diaspora”, Blandin says. “The prefabricated shelters donated by Italy and meant to function as a temporary housing solution in the earthquake aftermath continue to serve as homes for many families. The wasteland that surrounds the ruins of a former sugar factory is also a good reminder of the devastating power of the earthquake. Most of the industries that existed prior to the earthquake have disappeared, creating a dearth of local job opportunities. And given that virtually every family has lost at least one relative, besides their former homes and jobs, the wounds still haven’t healed.”
Blandin’s visual account of the town is very intimate: tracing the aftermath of the earthquake, he captured serene mountain landscapes and personal details in flats and houses alongside portraits of Spitak’s inhabitants spanning several generations. “One of the reasons why the older generation often looks back is that before the earthquake, Spitak was one of the main industrial hubs of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic,” Blandin says. “The then prosperous city had for instance the only sugar refinery in the whole Caucasus, which exported sugar to the USSR, Mongolia and Iran, and the only lift construction factory in the country. Nowadays there are only a few small and medium-sized factories left. Given the economic situation, many men (young and older) emigrate to Russia for seasonal work and reunite with their families during the winter months. Some choose to leave Spitak after getting married or finding a job in Yerevan. But there are quite a lot of young people in the town. Despite an uncertain future, I was amazed by the strong sense of family, community, belonging and intergenerational support I witnessed. Family is a key value in Armenia.”
Shift tells the story of inescapable change — and the way it’s reflected in the landscape and people’s lives. Despite the scale of the tragedy, it’s not just about the earthquake but also about the major change brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The earthquake happened at a pivotal juncture in the history of the country,” Blandin says. Cutting through the layers of history, he tried to combine personal stories into a visual narrative of aftermath, healing and memory.
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