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Two decades after independence, Armenia is still caught between past and future

Armenia declared independence from the USSR in 1990. Two decades on, the young country is still finding itself, not helped by an ongoing sporadic war with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. French photographer Julien Lombardi first travelled to Armenia in 2012 in order to explore the enigmatic country of his mother’s origin. His dreamlike and fragmentary photo project, The Unfinished, reveals a nation reluctant to address its past and facing an uncertain future.

My mother was born in France of Armenian parents but she’s never been to Armenia and most likely never will. She prefers for the family history to remain intact in her mind rather than to alter it by seeing how the country has changed since her parents left. My connection is more distant, but I understood how she felt during my first trip there in 2012.

There are next to no photographs in the Armenian archives that depict the changes and major events that have marked the recent history of the republic. I felt very inspired by this lack of images and began to think about how my artistic work could help fill that void.

On a second visit in 2014 I embarked on a series of interviews and discussions, aided by a translator, with people from different backgrounds, including an historian, a manual worker, a civil servant, a politician, an artist and a farmer. The interviews transformed my personal approach into a more collective project. We spoke openly about the history, memory and future of the country, which has only been independent for two decades. I delved into their memories, the towns and villages where they grew up and the places where they work — subjective perspectives and fragments from which I freely drew inspiration for my photos.

Armenia experienced a very difficult first decade of independence mainly due to power and food shortages as well as the war with Azerbaijan. That turn of events and a lack of capital left the country unable to develop a new political model. The transition has practically become a state in its own right; the present gives way to the uncertain promise of a better future.

My journey took me to very diverse environments. I tried to paint a broad picture of the country and show places with very different histories and functions side by side. In addition to subjects in plain sight — landscapes and cities — I discovered locations that were absolutely fascinating, like a nuclear physics centre, film studios and a theatre. There were also many working and abandoned factories and unfinished buildings. Guided by a series of increasingly imprecise maps, I crisscrossed the entire country collecting elements that bear witness to history in the making.

I was experiencing a place that was evolving on the fringes, according to its own rules and notion of time

I had the impression that I was experiencing a place that was evolving on the fringes, according to its own rules and notion of time. Armenians are an ancient people in a young country marked by the remnants of a bygone Soviet civilization. You come across timeless scenes in a setting that is occasionally reminiscent of science fiction: shepherds with their flock in abandoned factories, children playing in a fountain in a deserted town, train stations no longer expecting the next train. The atmosphere is very peculiar.

Instead of documenting the current situation, the photographs focus on the story yet to be written and the outlook for a brighter future. The project emphasises the theatrical dimension of reality in order to explore the potential for revival in this young republic that is inexorably losing its citizens.

I often come back to a quote from Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier: “You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you — or unmaking you.” 

Interview: Liza Premiyak
Text/Image: Julien Lombardi

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