Diàna Markosian, a 29-year-old Armenian-American photographer, has a firm grasp on what displacement can entail. At the age of seven, she moved from Moscow to America. She describes the impact of migration on her life as a combination of “adventure, trauma, and joy.” The process of migration has played an important role in her life, similar to many Armenians throughout time.
Markosian integrates her own experiences of migration in her work, and deems it important to understand what migration means for her as an adult. In fact, most of her work within the genre of documentary photography revolves around the theme of migration, particularly addressing the connection between memory and place.
With the Armenian Genocide still at the core of many migratory movements throughout the diaspora, Markosian’s project “1915” is one of many others of her photographic series dedicated to themes of memory and home. The “1915” series focuses on the old aged survivors of the Armenian Genocide carried out by the Ottoman government. The exhibit took place in Istanbul, Turkey in 2015 to mark the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
In 2017, Markosian also documented the plight of Mexican migrants in the United States who face deportation and family separation (Losing Gloria). Her most recent photography series “The Big Sea” (2018) is about refugee children learning to swim as a way of overcoming their fear of water and the treacherous passage they made across the Mediterranean Sea. According to a UN report from Nov. 2017, the Mediterranean Sea remains the world’s deadliest crossing for migrants.
The photos for “The Big Sea” series were taken at a swimming pool in Germany, over the course of one year (from Jan. 2017 to Jan. 2018) where swimming lessons were given to the children who had sought refuge in the country. Markosian’s photographs are powerful in their simplicity and haunting in their symbolism, as the images evoke the complexities of trauma, healing, and self-empowerment brought on by forced migration.
But how did she come to dedicate an entire photographic series on this topic? “I was given a grant from the Pulitzer Center to document a refugee family’s first year in Germany,” she explained, “During my time with the family, I learned that the boy who I had been photographing had a fear of water. This led me to do further research on this topic in order to try to understand whether this was a common experience for other refugees. What I found was a program in Wolfsburg, Germany, which is dedicated to providing classes for children who had just arrived as refugees.”
With the most recent spikes of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, a number of mainstream media outlets continue to diffuse images of nameless people in overcrowded boats who are desperate to survive the journey to Europe. These images on our screens often leave us indifferent, as we are mostly desensitized to seeing humans in misery and are too geographically removed to feel the urgency.
To help counter this desensitization, Markosian documents the faces, bodies, the narratives, and the lives of refugee children who survived the harrowing journeys with great sensitivity. Most importantly, she humanizes these refugee children, by granting them agency and a voice during the process of overcoming trauma. During our interview, Markosian confessed that her project had little to do with photography and creating images. Instead, she explained that her approach was about trying to build a genuine connection with the children she photographed, by being present in the space with them, and reflecting what her real experience was like at the swimming pool.
Indeed, the artful images created by Markosian contain an unmistakable realism, as she documents the attempts of the children to overcome their phobia of large bodies of water. The viewer is present as an encouraging observer, rather than a voyeur. Markosian’s photographs draw the viewer into the aquatic space in that moment in time, immersed in translucent light and the children’s trepidations.
Besides creating captivating images of the children learning to swim, Markosian also collected their narratives. Hanan’s narrative is paraphrased below.
“I was scared—all I saw was water.” These are the words of 15-year old Hanan fleeing from Iraq. She embarked with her family on a small rubber boat in 2015. Hanan had never seen the sea before. With 50 other migrants aboard, their main objective was to flee to safety and survive the daunting journey.
The small boat was overcrowded, as is usually the case, posing an additional danger to an already perilous crossing. Human bodies were crammed in a confined space with the hopes of a new life, clinging to life, as a hole in the rubber boat caused water to flow in.
“I didn’t know how to swim,” Hanan recalls, “I thought we would drown.”
During the journey, Hanan found herself on the edge of the boat, her knees pressed against her chest. Everyone on board was weeping in distress. At dawn, the boat touched land, a small island in Greece, where the family stayed before continuing their journey.
In Germany, one year later, Hanan prepares to jump in the water for the first time, standing at the edge of a swimming pool. With a handful of other refugees, she confronts her fear, as she learns to swim.
“When I am in the water, I still think about the boat,” says Hanan, “I want to swim in the big sea. That’s when I’ll be free.”
In my conversation with Markosian, I asked if she could relate to the children’s experiences in any way, she replied that you couldn’t help but see yourself in every child. “They are excited about being in a new place.” However, she also contends how difficult it is to witness the innocence and childhood taken away from them and wonders what long-term repercussions they may face, which she states are “very real, and you feel for them.”
Markosian’s photographs have a large canvas feel to them. They are composed of clean lines and immaculate light. We witness the solemn, apprehensive, yet determined faces of refugee children ready to confront their fear of the water, amid hues of sanitized blue and white tiles flooded by light.
The pristine indoor swimming pools in Germany stand in stark contrast with the murky Mediterranean Sea, where unforgiving waves drag dreams, dead bodies, and destinies.
Markosian describes the artistic process involved in creating “The Big Sea” series; namely what inspired her photographic vision and aesthetic choices. “I wanted the portraits to be simple. There’s a sort of tenderness to the children as they learn to swim, and I wanted to make the images feel as quiet and true to what I witnessed.”
I wanted the portraits to be simple. There’s a sort of tenderness to the children as they learn to swim, and I wanted to make the images feel as quiet and true to what I witnessed.
When I asked why she is drawn to the theme of migration in her photographic creations, and particularly what her artistic approach is in capturing the everyday realities of migrant lives, her response revealed a connection to her own experiences with migration, “So much of it is personal. I am an immigrant and came to America with my mother who risked her own life to be here. I think seeing this first hand gave me the sort of perspective that has allowed me to approach this topic with the same sort of sensitivity as I would with my own family’s story.”
Markosian’s path towards photography was not planned. While pursuing a degree in graduate school, she stumbled into photography by chance. She explains how it spoke to her more than anything at the time. She decided to pursue it and today her work stands out on the international photography scene. Markosian’s work has been published in National Geographic Magazine, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Born in the former Soviet Union, Markosian immigrated to the United States at a young age, without her father. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her photographic creations have been exhibited in Los Angeles, Portland, New York, Hannover (Germany), and Istanbul (Turkey). She is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards including the Elliott Irwitt Foundation Award (2018), Magnum Foundation Grant (2018), Forbes 30 Under 30 (2017), The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (2016), Ted Talk, ‘Inventing My Father’ (2015), British Journal of Photography’s ‘Ones to Watch’ (2015), Reuters’ Best 100 Photos of the Year, (2011), DuPont Fellowship at Columbia University (2010), and Columbia University’s Annual Photojournalism Award (2010).
 There are exceptions, of course. The image of the three-year-old Syrian-Kurdish refugee Aylan Kurdi’s corpse lying on a Turkish beach comes to mind, which created a reaction of collective shock, but little concrete action (2015). In the process, the toddler’s dignity and agency were robbed, as the image of Kurdi’s immobile body was repeatedly banalized in the name of creating sensationalistic media.