An Armenian archive – 4 (image warning)



This have taken a turn with the latest batch of photographs from the archive. However this is one of the first pictures that caught my eye; I was reminded of the hippopotamus photograph that the TV group analysed, there seemed to be echoes. Here we have a human on display, rather than an enigmatically smiling mammal, clearly though on a stage, perhaps a wrestling ring and the people are also staged around the central figure; the men to the front, the women at a discrete distance. We have almost entered the ring with the warrior but, unlike the hippo, the subject seems to be ‘eyeing’ us, perhaps inviting us to a contest. Or is the dark shape at the bottom of the image his fellow contestant waiting to join the fray? We feel that something is about to happen, there is a level of expectation coming from the crowd.

There has been a little text on some of the photographs, some in English and some in, I suppose, Persian.



I suppose we make suppositions. That the ‘me’ above the central figure at the back, an ‘Other” to the foreground figures makes the suggestion of the cameraman entering the frame. This supposition is quite important, especially in relation to the images that follow. If, by this act of association, the cameraman positions himself shoulder to shoulder with these militiamen then this is a very bold statement. It maybe that I have got this wrong, but I sense, because I know what is to come that the image is a political statement as much as it is a vernacular shot, in what has previously been holiday snaps, formal portraits (with a hint of the presence of military – uniformed officers and so on) and country folk. The use of the word ‘me’ suggests that he is identifying himself with not only the men themselves but perhaps the ‘side they were on’. Persia at this time – more suggestions of the actual dates appear in later photographs – was in turmoil. The Shah had been manoeuvred by various nation states – particularly British, Russian (not always on the same side) and to a lesser extent the USA into disbanding the rule of the absolute monarchy in favour of a constitution; the Shah who agreed and signed this then promptly died and his son decided to rebel against it and reinstate the monarchy.

There will be blood. This saying is often associated with the finding and exploitation of oil, and in 1908 the British explorer/oil worker George Reynolds discovered a huge oil field in Iran – so the British, Russian and American interests were being served by self interest as opposed to, say, the interests of the Persians. Was it ever thus.

This next photograph stopped me short, because of the text, the use of the words ‘in disguise’.

in disguise

in disguise

Why did this person need to use a disguise? I looked and wondered if it was the photographer, but I don’t think so. But a piece of text is important to the left of the image comes the name Khan. A common enough name in the region you would think; the name Khan comes up again and again in the photographs and not only Khan but Rahim Khan.

Some more text:

Rahim Khan

Rahim Khan

His is Rahim Khan, dated 1909 – though which month is not registered (the actual month, if not day, is quite important in Persian history as there was a civil war underway). Three men are indexed. 1 – A Russian military officer. 2- Rahim Khan, 3 another Persian officer. That Rahim Khan is holding hands with the Russian officer is a very strong signal to any witness to both the event of the joining of hands and, especially, any viewers of the document. It allies the two military forces to one purpose.

Then the most disturbing pictures then started to appear:

Truly disturbing pictures by today’s standards. The identity of the men isn’t hidden, it is almost as if these pictures are to be used as a testament of the end of life of specific people rather than as numbers integrated into a death toll. One is reminded that the news media these days are prevented, as much as possible, from displaying the dead – in whatever form of disguise, body bags or anonymous coffins because the politicians know that their electorate will rebel against what they see. These are the victims of war, parading in front of the still hanging bodies are soldiers, military men. The vanquished foregrounded by their vanquishers. In two of the shots someone is holding the bodies, perhaps in a determined effort to hold them still against a wind that might blur the effect and suggest to the viewer that it isn’t a body but something rigged to be a body. In two of the photographs there are Persian lettering (again text is important) assigned to the bodies – what does it say? Why did the owner of these photographs feel the need to annotate, to exemplify these images, these dead people?

And then this:

I’m not sure what I would have made of this image without the context of the other photographs. It might have been a butcher, though perhaps a sloppy one! It looks like blood, it looks like blood coming from his head, it looks like the sword he carries with warrior like pride is the one that has caused the bloodshed, my connotation. But what of the other character to his right (our left). Does that look like a man who is proud? It does to me. The man with the sword has, what I presume to be blood all over him, one of his shoes is seemingly covered with it. Not that far away is Abu Ghraib, another country and almost exactly a century later, another war for the need to control raw materials in a corporate owned consumer led materialistic world. The Burmah Oil Company (now BP) in 1908 struck oil. There was blood.


3 thoughts on “An Armenian archive – 4 (image warning)

    • I’m not sure what the purpose of the ‘hanging’ photographs were for. Maybe as you say as a record, though my inclination would be to think that they taken either as a curious bystander, which I think is less likely; but maybe as some kind of trophy, which is why I made the Abu Ghraib reference. Either way they are very disturbing and i wonder what will be in the next consignment (which won’t be for three weeks)!

  1. Pingback: Armenian archive – 5 | John Umney - Documentary

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