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Recovering Hidden History Along the Armenian-Turkish Border...

Recovering Hidden History Along the Armenian-Turkish Border

Two female photographers — one Armenian, one Turkish — worked together to document life on both sides of the border, focusing on Armenians living in hiding.

In a handful of villages along the Turkish side of the border with Armenia, neighbors reported a strange occurrence in 2015. Like an apparition, an unlikely pair of women — Anahit Hayrapetyan an Armenian Christian, and Serra Akcan a Muslim from Turkey, traveled through the region without men but with cameras, dredging up uncomfortable century-old secrets.

The women were searching for “hidden Armenians,” whose Christian ancestors survived what historians consider to be a genocide by the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1915, in which nearly 1.5 million Armenians died. The Turkish government rejects the term genocide.

These hidden Armenians whom the photographers sought are descendants of survivors, who were mostly women and children taken in by local Kurdish, Turkish and Arab families, and converted to Islam. In some of the more remote villages in Turkey that Ms. Hayrapetyan and Ms. Akcan visited, the ethnic and religious background of these Armenians were concealed out of fear of reprisal from their neighbors. Parents rarely informed children of their Armenian heritage, with many even avoiding the spoken language so children would not pick it up and discover their ancestry.

Ms. Akcan and Ms. Hayrapetyan met in 2006 when they participated in a project between Armenian and Turkish photographers and found that they had much in common. As two female photographers trying to work in patriarchal societies, they became close friends and often leaned on each other for emotional support in their careers.

In 2009, they decided to work together to document Armenian and Turkish life on both sides of the border, and over the next eight years photographed in the villages and towns along it. At times, Ms. Hayrapetyan carried the youngest of her three children with her.

Though the presence of an Armenian woman on the Turkish side of the border, or a Turkish woman on the Armenian side created difficulties for the photographers, Ms. Akcan said, it was important that they work together.

“We are doing this project because we want to change the single most accepted thing in Armenia and Turkey — that the Armenian and Turkish people are enemies,” she said. “So by working together, people start to see that we can be friends — that we can be sisters.”

Ms. Hayrapetyan, a co-founder of 4Plus, a collective of Armenian women photographers, said that they “never hid that Serra is Turkish or that I’m Armenian” while working.

“It made things more difficult, but much more honest, or deep,” she said, “because families knew what the story we were working on was about.”

When they started the project about life on both sides of the border they did not know much about the Armenians living in hiding in the Kurdish and Arab villages on the Turkish side, but as they worked they began to hear more about them. So in 2015, Ms. Akcan and Ms. Hayrapetyan turned to finding, interviewing and photographing them.

Their experiences varied, often village by village. In Kurdish areas it was often easier for the Armenians to talk, Ms. Hayrapetyan said, because the Kurdish people “are going through their own difficult times with the government,” and “facing the past, saying that they had a role in the genocide too, and apologizing.”

Many of the hidden Armenians said they did not know of their background until recently. One man described to them secretly following his grandmother after she said she was going to pick herbs in nearby hills. He discovered her praying in the ruins of an Armenian Christian church in a language he did not understand.

It was a story with particular resonance for Ms. Akcan, because when she was 30 she learned she had a secret connection to the genocide, which her father never told her. Her father’s grandmother was an Armenian, and was discovered hiding in a family garden in eastern Turkey in 1915 or 1916 when she was a teenager. She was taken in by the family and converted to Islam, later falling in love and marrying the oldest son. A few years later, Ms. Akcan’s grandfather was born.

Once history is forgotten it is difficult to recover again, Ms. Hayrapetyan noted, and many people in Turkey, including in the government, deny that the events that led to the deaths of over a million Armenians between 1915 and 1921 ever happened.

“Maybe 100 years from now some people will insist that there was no Syrian war,” she said. “And many will write that there was no Armenian genocide. It’s a game of big countries, and Armenia is a small country with no power. This is how the world is. That’s why we find it important to gather these stories of these people.”

@nytimesphoto on Twitter. Anahit Hayrapetyan and Serra Akcan are on Instagram. You can also find Lens on Facebook and Instagram.

James Estrin, the co-editor of Lens, joined The Times as a photographer in 1992 after years of freelancing for the newspaper and hundreds of other publications. @JamesEstrin

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